48-hour whirlwind East Coast weekend: the Boston Book Festival and the Boston Filipino-American Book Club

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 – Robert Frost, American poet, from “The Road Not Taken”

Waiting for my red-eye flight to Boston at Oakland International Airport.

In mid-September, Grace Talusan, Fulbright Scholar, English professor at Tufts University in Boston, and winner of the 2017 New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction by Restless Books, contacted me to let me know that the Boston Filipino-American Club (BFAB) was going to be reading my novel, A Village in the Fields, for the month of October. Grace, whose memoir, The Body Papers, will be published in the Fall of 2018, asked if I would be willing to Skype with the members at their October 29th meeting following their traditional brunch. Absolutely, I let her and book club founder and artist Bren Bataclan know.

At some point in October, my husband, David, suggested that I use up points and fly to Boston the weekend of the book club meeting. At first, I dismissed the idea. I’m not spontaneous, I pointed out, echoing a famous line of mine from my college days. But as the days went by, I started to warm up to the idea. However, I didn’t want to burden anyone with my visit. When I finally reached out to Grace and Bren, they were enthusiastic and welcoming of the visit. So I booked my flight and was looking forward to the trip. My job has been very stressful these past few months and I pulled two near-all-nighters the week before my planned visit. In fact, that Thursday evening, I worked until the early morning. I wasn’t sure then if it was a good idea to be going away. But David noted that I needed to get out, that being around book lovers would be a welcome change and just the community that I needed to be in the midst of.
So I took the red-eye from Oakland to JFK in New York and caught the next leg to Boston. (An aside: It turned out that the woman sitting across the aisle from me was headed for the Boston Book Festival. Her publishing company, New York-based Other Press, was hosting a tent, which is where she brought up recognizing me on her flight. She noticed that I was reading Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.) Grace and a good friend of hers picked me up at the airport, and we had a nice breakfast at the Eastern Standard, an elegant French-period appointed restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of Kenmore Square, which is on the other side of the highway from Fenway Park. Afterwards, Grace dropped me off at Copley Square, site of the Boston Book Festival, a one-day event of talks and panels, tents filled with myriad publishers, and book signings! I was in heaven and the weather was perfect – fall chill in the air, changing colors of the trees. There were multiple sessions that overlapped, so I had to make some difficult decisions.

Fall at the entrance of the Eastern Standard restaurant.

Of course, I had to get a picture of me near Fenway Park (courtesy of Grace Talusan).

Rapping with Shakespeare.

My introduction to the festival was listening to The Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy. During 2016-2017, Shakespeare to Hiphop (literary performers and TEDx Boston alumni Regie Gibson and Marlon Carey) partnered with the Boston Public Library to celebrate the great bard. The result is The Shakespeare Time-Traveling Speakeasy: “an all-new presentation combining American jazz-funk-country-pop and hip-hop with poetry, song, storytelling, rap, and Shakespeare’s own words.” Their performance was entertaining and crowd-pleasing.

Checking out the different tents and publishers.

Food truck at Copley Square.

I walked around the tents, checking out the various local presses, and then I walked over to the Church of the Covenant to hear the fiction keynote featuring Claire Messud and Jacqueline Woodson discuss their recently released coming-of-age novels, The Burning Girl, and Another Brooklyn, respectively. Both read excerpts from their novels. According to the book festival program: “The mutability of memory, the swift passage of time, the use of stories to make sense of experience, the treacherous landscape of female adolescence, and the simultaneous vitality and volatility of teenage girls’ friendships – these are common threads that run through these narratives, as both writers draw perceptive, unsentimental portraits of young women growing up and growing apart.”

Church of the Covenant.

What a thrill to hear Claire Messud and Jacqueline Woodson read from their new works, and in such a beautiful setting as this old church.

I couldn’t stay for any book signings afterwards. I would have had to stand in a long line, considering how packed the church was for their keynote. I dashed back to Trinity Forum to catch the “Voices of American: The Immigrant Experience Through a Writer’s Eyes” session, which featured Ha Jin, Marjan Kamali, and Grace. I have read Ha Jin’s books, including Waiting, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1999. I picked up Marjan’s novel, Together Tea, which is about the matchmaking exploits of an Iranian woman’s parents. And I look forward to Grace’s memoir to come out next year. Grace read an excerpt about her father’s childhood in the Philippines that was gripping, heartbreaking, and beautifully written. My heart was literally in my throat as she read, which is how I define meaningful storytelling – the kind that stays with you, that you turn over and over in your head at night and for days. The three panelists talked about being immigrant writers, and while Marjan wished to be thought of as a writer and not “labeled” as an Iranian-American writer, I applauded Grace’s response: There are few Asian-American writers; she is more than happy to take on that mantle to draw more attention to the stories of Asian Americans, of Filipino Americans.

A very packed room for Ha Jin, Marjan Kamali, and Grace Talusan.

Marjan Kamali signing books after the session. I forgot to take Ha Jin’s up-close photo!

Once I briefly met Ha Jin and Marjan, I dashed to the Boston Public Library. I wasn’t able to catch the session “Fiction: Missed Connections,” with Eshkol Novo, Celeste Ng, and Lily Tuck, but I decided that getting their books signed was more important. I ended up reading a good chunk of Celeste’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, on my long plane ride back home the following evening. It’s a beautiful novel, both in character revelation and insight and in her writing. I wasn’t familiar with Lily Tuck, but I picked up her latest novel, the slim Sisters, which I read in one sitting that night. I appreciated the structure of what I consider a novella, and I learned a lot about crafting intense short scenes/chapters. Another writer to read more of her previous works!

The front of the Boston Public Library.

Courtyard in the Boston Public Library – a building we didn’t go into when my family and I vacationed in Boston in 2010.

Lily Tuck signing her slim novel, Sisters, for me.

Celeste Ng signing her new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, for me.

I completely missed “Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing.” John Freeman, literary critic, poet, and former Granta editor, is a childhood classmate of one of my favorite local proprietors, Jen Komaromi of Jenny K. I wished I could have attended, but it was time for me to head on over to Bren’s place in Cambridge. I caught a Lyft and met my gracious hosts, Bren and Bob, in their beautiful turn-of-the-century flat. The trees had already changed colors and it was cold. Perfect fall weather. Bren grew up in the Bay Area and is now a successful painter and muralist. He and Brian share the distinction of being one of the first couples to be married in Massachusetts when same-sex marriage was legal. While they had a dance performance to attend that evening, I was perfectly happy to cozy up on the couch and read Sisters in one sitting. And then cat-nap and catch the World Series.

Thinking of my daughter, Isabella, as I took a picture of the hare statue in Copley Square minus the tortoise.

Old South Church across from the Boston Public Library.

In the morning, after my error of telling Bren and Bob that the weekend before Halloween was Daylight Savings time was discovered, we had enough time to right the ship, get ready, and head on over to hosts Rory and Jane’s home to enjoy a Sunday brunch and discuss my novel. I was in awe of all the great food that was on the table. What a wonderful tradition of a having a potluck brunch with Filipino food such as puto and a rice dish that was supposed to feature Spam (Anna, who brought the dish apologized for not being able to find the tin of Spam in her kitchen). I met some wonderful people and new friends. I felt so welcomed. Rather than drain me, my short whirlwind weekend energized me. I was surrounded by books, book lovers, writers, my Filipino American community, warm hospitality. What more could a writer ask for? Maraming salamat, dear new friends!

Meeting host Rory Dela Paz and Anna (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Enjoying Filipino food and conversation (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

New and long-standing members of the Boston Filipino American Book Club (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Talking about my book (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Members of the Boston Filipino-American Book Club and their tasty spread hosted by Jane and Rory Dela Paz.

Saying goodbye to this artistic couple, photographer Alonso Nichols and memoirist and fiction writer Grace Talusan (courtesy of Bren Bataclan).

Celebrating Cesar Chavez Day, University of CA, Office of the President

On Wednesday, March 29th, I was the guest speaker at a lunchtime event sponsored by the Latino Staff Association/Asian Pacific Islander Association affinity groups at the University of California, Office of the President (UCOP). The event, entitled, “When Mexicans and Filipinos Join Together: The Farmworker Movement and Unity in the Making,” was in celebration of Cesar Chavez Day. After reading an excerpt from my novel, A Village in the Fields, I sat down with Belinda Vea, Policy and Program Analyst in Student Affairs for UCOP who did her graduate work on Filipino literature, in an “in conversation” question-and-answer session. Belinda is also co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Association.

Among other topics, Belinda asked me about the research process and my family’s story within the novel. The floor was opened up to questions from the audience, which numbered between 45 and 50, which was really nice to see. It was gratifying not only to respond to such thoughtful questions, but to see the interest in people’s faces. In addition to UCOP employees, the event was also advertised to employees from Kaiser Permanente, whose building was across the street in downtown Oakland.

I’m posting photos taken of the event, with gratitude to the photographers, Juliann Martinez, Employee Relations Specialist and chair of the Latino Staff Association, who kindly extended the invitation to speak, Alina Tejera, Pamela Palpallatoc, and Ben Tsai, co-chair with Belinda of the APIA.

The flyer advertising the event.

A wonderful poster welcoming the audience.

A nice spread of Filipino and Mexican cuisine.

A very nice slide show of Filipino and Mexican farm workers was shown before the event.

Reading an excerpt from my novel.

A close-up of my reading.

Belinda Vea “in conversation” with me after my reading.

Belinda at the ready with her questions.

One of the things I talked about was the value taking Asian American Studies classes at UC Davis both in my personal life and in my writing.

An animated me answering a questions while the audience leans in.

A beautiful basket of vegetables and two of my books were raffle prizes at the end of the event.

Me with Pamela Palpallatoc, who works for UCOP and is a UC Davis alumna.

Talking beyond the lunch hour about Filipino American history.

My hosts – Belinda Vea, Ben Tsai, and Juliann Martinez.

LUNAFEST East Bay – 10 years, by the numbers

I think the best role models for women are people who are fruitfully and confidently themselves, who bring light into the world.
– Meryl Streep, American actress

As LUNAFEST East Bay wraps up its LUNAFEST season, it’s worthwhile to look at the committee’s impressive 10-year run.

Our VIP event.

Nineteen filmmakers have attended our film festival since its inception in 2008.

In 2015, Emily Fraser and Katherine Gorringe, were our guest filmmakers.

LUNAFEST screened a total of 89 short films “by, for, about women.”

The Lunafest filmmakers for the 2014-2015 season, at the San Francisco premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts.

Two hundred attendees came in 2008. Last year, 377 filled the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. The final numbers haven’t come out yet for this year, but we’re looking at approximately 325 people.

A full house once again!

LUNAFEST East Bay has raised $32,053 in its 10 years for the Breast Cancer Fund, now called the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.

Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, spoke at our 2015 event. She is amazing, energetic, and inspiring!

The committee raised $13,984 for El Cerrito High School’s Information Technology Academy (ITA), which has purchased, among other things, a 3D printer for the ITA students. LUNAFEST East Bay began funding the ITA in 2012.

The ITA students served food and greeted guests at the VIP event. They sold raffle tickets, checked in ticket holders, helped with the raffle prizes, and did so many other tasks during the evening that made for a smooth event. Thank you, ITA and committee members Melody Shah and Crystal Ngo, who oversaw the students.

At least 151 attendees filled out our 2017 survey. While many attendees hailed from El Cerrito (62), Berkeley (20), Richmond (17), Albany (14), and Oakland (13) were well represented at our event. For 31 people, it was their first LUNAFEST. Four people have attended all 10 screenings. Twenty people have gone five times, while 24 have gone three times, and 26 have gone twice.

Happy campers anticipate the 2017 screening.

How did our attendees find out about LUNAFEST? For 74, word of mouth made a difference. Emails drew 31 attendees, while the infamous “other” lured 47 attendees. One-hundred forty-four affirmed that they enjoyed the films, with 150 saying that they would tell a friend about next year’s LUNAFEST. So if you came this year or came in previous years but had a conflict this year, be sure to come next year and tell a friend. We’ll see you next year!

LUNAFEST in review – oh what a night!

Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try.
– John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Ten years ago, LUNAFEST East Bay was created, chaired by the indefatigable, ever resourceful, community leader Joann Steck-Bayat. This year, LUNAFEST toasted its first decade of bringing the traveling, fundraising film festival to El Cerrito. What a major accomplishment. And we are the richer for it. In the course of watching fabulous, funny, thought-provoking, moving short films “by, for, about women,” we have learned about environmental risks for breast cancer and supported research done by the Breast Cancer Fund, our main beneficiary.

As we enlarged our world view by watching films by women filmmakers all over the world, we raised money for El Cerrito High School’s Information Technology Academy (ITA) to purchase such equipment as a 3D printer and supplies. We were moved and exhilarated watching the short film that the ITA students put together to let us know how the money we raised for their program enriched them and enabled them to realize their creative dreams and carry out their technological projects.

We got to know, as one of this year’s guest filmmakers, Diane Weipert, noted, some “kick-ass” women who are making important films that speak to a woman’s point of view and are making noise to be heard. We hear!

The morning after, as I looked at all the photos that I and my behind-the-scenes LUNAFEST partner and husband took, I knew that I would let the photos tell the story of yet another successful LUNAFEST film festival. I ran into a friend as I walked our dog Sunday afternoon in the neighborhood. She called out, “Brava!” Another fine show. Thank you to my LUNAFEST committee members, our guest filmmakers – Lara Everly and Diane Weipert – to our families and the ITA students who helped us out, and to our wonderful community who welcomes us every year.

LUNAFEST filmmaker Diane Weipert and her son, Theo.

Welcome to the LUNAFEST VIP event! Our bubbly committee member Jeannine Pagan is ready to check you in.

Tanner Nevill, committee member Stephanie Nevill’s husband, is ready to hand VIP’ers their glass of champagne to toast 10 years of LUNAFEST East Bay.

Our ITA student greets our VIP guests.

Our LUNAFEST VIP event was catered this year by Joanne Bailey, owner and chef of J Gourmet Catering.

ITA servers offer vegetarian stuffed mushrooms and pulled pork sliders with coleslaw.

VIP attendees getting their raffle tickets.

LUNAFEST committee member Peggy Murphy is excited about the 10 raffle prize packages.

Our scheduled piano player didn’t show up, but one of the ITA students tickled the ivories in a pinch. Note the tip jar – a LUNAFEST East Bay VIP event staple!

Nice spread of fruit, veggies, cheese and bread and crackers, thanks to LUNAFEST committee member Stephanie Nevill.

The weather cooperated and many guests enjoyed the outdoors.

Our cheerful bartenders and runner – LUNAFEST committee member Rebecca
Boe’s son and husband and Hossein Bayat, committee chair Joann’s husband.

Our veteran raffle ticket sellers at the VIP event – Dylan and Wyatt, sons of committee members Anja Hakoshima and Peggy Murphy.

Anja’s husband, Tom, and son, Dylan, assist VIP guests on which raffle packages are the most popular – such as the $100 gift certificate to Chez Panisse.

Selfie with LUNAFEST filmmaker Lara Everly and Elease Lui Stemp, producer of Lara’s film, Free to Laugh.

Committee member Carol Seuferer and former committee member Rhoda Haberman.

Chatting it up outside where the temperature was pleasant.

Peggy, Stephanie, and Hazel Nevill – her first LUNAFEST as raffle ticket seller!

It’s time to head to the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater. ECHS alumna Anna Schumacher, who was also a LUNAFEST filmmaker last year, was our master of ceremonies, and our guest filmmakers were Lara Everly and Diane Weipert.

Time to interview Diane and Lara on stage before the film screening (photo credit: David Rossi).

Diane discusses what inspired her short film, Ninera – her experience as a new mom amid the Latina nannies who were taking care of children other than their own (photo credit: David Rossi).

Lara talks about wanting to highlight an underserved community – women who were formerly incarcerated – in her short film, Free to Laugh (photo credit: David Rossi).

I really enjoyed how passionate Diane and Lara were when talking about their film projects and why they are so relevant in today’s world (photo credit: David Rossi).

Diane listens with rapt attention as Lara talks about her next project, Patriettes, about an undocumented girl who gets kicked out of the mock government summer camp. Lots of respect for each other’s work – and deservedly so! (photo credit: David Rossi)

Lara agrees with Diane about how politics is central to what they are creating – and how important it is to be vigilant about these issues, especially in today’s political climate (photo credit: David Rossi).

During intermission, the ITA table was covered by ITA lead teacher and LUNAFEST East Bay committee member Melody Shah and English teacher and committee member Crystal Ngo, with one of the ITA students.

Last chance to view the raffle prize packages!

Attendees knew where to go to get the scrumptious Braxtons’ Boxes baked goods in the lobby.

The best baked goods ever by Pamela Braxton and her son Zachary of Braxtons’ Boxes.

The films are done and now it’s time to announce the raffle ticket winners! Peggy entertained us while the ITA kids helped out. Side note – that’s my son, Jacob, trying to be cool on stage.

Somebody went home with this gorgeous and enormous bouquet of flowers.

The Pine family – Tim and Anne Marie and daughters Charlotte and Maddie – make it a family night at LUNAFEST. Thanks for coming out and supporting our film festival!

Joanne Bailey: cooking from the heart and home

Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.
 – Isak Dinesen, Danish author, from Babette’s Feast

I first met Joanne Bailey, owner and chef of J Gourmet Catering, when my husband, David, reached out to a good friend for recommendations for a caterer for my 50th birthday celebration at our home five years ago. He and his wife had known Joanne for a decade and highly recommended her services. We wanted simple but memorable and flavorful food, and Joanne did not disappoint. Our same friend had Joanne cater his wife’s 50th birthday celebration recently, so I was able to connect with this wonderful chef, who I then recommended to cater our LUNAFEST East Bay VIP event, which precedes our LUNAFEST film festival on Saturday, March 18th.

J. Gourmet Catering catered my 50th birthday party. The food is ready to be served (photo credit: Kelly Whitney).

Family food memories
Joanne’s life has always revolved around food, which brings up wonderful memories of family and her hometown of Richmond, Va. She recalls Sunday dinners at her maternal grandmother’s home with no less than 20 people at the table for traditional Italian meals and bottles of homemade wine. When her father was ill, she and her brother would eat meals at her aunt’s house. They’d pull out the leaves to extend the dining room table and iron the linen tablecloth before setting the table with cloth napkins and silverware. Her grandfather would be picked up to join them and sit at the head of the table. As one of the youngest children of the large extended family, Joanne was often in the kitchen, washing dishes and laughing and chatting with family members. “I grew up in the kitchen,” she noted. “The food was always amazing, and food was always an event in our family.”

The food is all gone – no surprise (photo credit: Kelly Whitney).

Her father was a member of the First Families of Virginia, a designation bestowed upon those whose lineage can be traced back to Colonial Virginia. As such, her paternal grandmother was a “very proper” Southerner, and meals were no exception. For example, breakfasts were two-hour events, which included being served bacon and eggs and even ice cream and sherry glasses filled with Manishewitz Blackberry wine. Joanne remembers the sweet potato pie, greens, and leg of lamb that her paternal grandmother would serve during the holidays. She didn’t give out her recipes. “You had to be there if you wanted to learn,” Joanne said. In fact, her grandmother didn’t use cookbooks. “You learned by feel. That’s how you learned how to cook,” she explained.

After her father passed away, her mother took her brother and her and joined her best friend and her two kids on vacation. They rented a house along the Rappahannock River, a river in eastern Virginia that runs along the entire northern part of the state, from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, across the Piedmont, to the Chesapeake Bay, south of the Potomac River. The two mothers sent the four kids out on a boat with nets, freshly broken chicken necks, and bushel baskets, and tell them to come back when the baskets were full. “In the South, oysters, king crab, and fish were common fare,” she explained. Her mother continued the family tradition of instilling in Joanne the love of cooking and the importance of flavor. “My mother never heated up any food (out of a can or package,” she said.

Fast forward to the early 1980s, when she met and married her husband, who purchased and remodeled homes in San Francisco, then resold them, which now we call “flipping” homes. “Believe it or not, there were a lot of burned-out, abandoned, and reasonably priced homes in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s,” she recalled. During that time, Joanne had been involved in working in restaurants, but when her husband bought a restaurant for her, he encouraged her: “You’re a great cook. You should use your skills.” They hired a chef, whose specialty was fish, and thus began her culinary training. He taught her so much, from roasting a whole pig and making all sauces including demi-glace to mastering knife skills. The experience was exhausting and all-consuming in and of itself, so when her son was born a year into launching the restaurant, she realized that she didn’t want to miss out on raising him. So she and her husband sold the restaurant.

When her husband passed away, Joanne took her two kids and moved to Sonoma County. She started a successful housecleaning business, which enabled her to work but be home in time to be with her kids. She also turned the five acres of her land into a huge garden and for a while raised chickens. “We grew all of our food,” she said. Even when she and her kids went camping, they would make their own food. Her time in Sonoma was healing, with cooking playing an important role. “We took joy in small things,” she explained.

Joanne Bailey by her works of art – at my friend Raissa’s 50th birthday party in January (photo credit: David Rossi).

The kitchen comes calling
In the late 1990s, Joanne decided to move back to the San Francisco Bay Area and opened J Gourmet Catering, though she brought her housecleaning business with her. The husband of one of her clients, who was pregnant and on bed rest with a serious condition, hired her to cook for them, which resulted in her catering business booming simply by word of mouth. She’s been busy ever since, catering weddings, birthday parties, special occasion events, and other celebrations for more than 15 years.

Joanne is passionate about some of the work she takes on, especially with WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan, nonprofit, mission-focused organization that helps schools, districts, and states improve education through innovative research, evaluation, and consulting. One of WestEd’s missions is training pre-school teachers. Joanne caters breakfast and lunch for the teachers in the training program. “It just amazes me how much these teachers care about these children,” she marveled. “Teachers don’t get paid very much, so I try to do something amazing for them.” One menu she created for them included chicken masala sandwiches, sweet potato and red bell pepper soup with red dahl coconut milk, and tofu, carrot, and ginger cake.

Her latest obsession is flavor layering. “It’s so exciting,” she enthused, as she explained the time-consuming process for making the chicken masala for the sandwiches. The different steps involved different ingredients – first soak the chicken overnight in buttermilk or thick yogurt, then toast the seeds, fennel, ajwain, cumin, and coriander and grind them all, add ginger garlic paste, roll the chicken in paste and then in cornstarch. Yet another sauce will accompany the final dish, she explained, adding more flavor. “The different components involve different layers of flavoring,” she said.

Joanne loves to talk about food – here with Raissa’s husband, Mike (photo credit: Kelly Whitney).

I recalled how friends enjoyed the food at my birthday party, as did I and other attendees at my friend’s birthday party. “I feel so grateful that they love it,” Joanne said, of the compliments. “I do it for them. They want a wonderful meal, and I want to give it for them.” Joanne insists on getting the best ingredients that she can, no matter what the budget is. “Whatever I do, it’s going to be the best for whatever the budget,” she said. “Whatever I make for them, it’s going to be amazing.” Joanne enjoys picking out what’s in season and figuring out how to combine those ingredients for a memorable meal.

Joanne has passed on her appreciation of food and cooking to her children. Her daughter lives in England, but when they get together, she enjoys cooking with her son-in-law, who also loves to cook. Her son works with her and is a “really good cook,” according to Joanne. While she likes to move on to the next meal, he can transform leftovers from a meal into new creations.

She’s thankful that she didn’t follow through when she went back to school to earn a degree in accounting. “I love math, but you have to be practical. I didn’t want to make money for other people,” she said, of her change of heart. “Owning a business is hard. You’re always wondering about the next job, the next process. But I love challenges, and I’m really happy.” When you listen to Joanne talk about food, you hear joy in her voice – joy in life, as well. “Life is too short,” she shared. “The most important thing are your kids, your family. The rest is just the rest.” So be happy and try to do what you love best. Joanne certainly is living her motto. And her food is prepared and infused with that same love and joy.

Note: For more information about LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater, click here.

Laura Doggett: creating a space for girls to express their stories through film

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust, French novelist

Community artist and educator Laura Doggett.

“Another Kind of Girl,” directed by Khaldiya Jibawi – which is a pseudonym to protect her identity – could not have been released at a more relevant time amid media attention on the Syrian refugee crisis and the hot-button topic of immigration. In this short film, an official selection of LUNAFEST Film Festival for 2016/2017, “a 17-year-old girl meditates on how her refugee camp (in Jordan) has opened up new horizons and given her a sense of courage that she lacked in Syria (her homeland).” The film was made in a workshop for teenaged girls run by Laura Doggett, a community artist and educator on a post-graduate fellowship from Duke University in 2014.

Khaldiya taking aim with her camera.

As a Felsman Documentary Fellow, Laura was paired with a Public Policy Fellow to conduct research for two months on girls’ access to education in Jordan – in Za’atari Refugee Camp. For her part, she was tasked with making a film. There was little time to do research on the topic before her arrival, but nevertheless Laura immersed herself in her new environment by giving the girls she was working with the opportunity to teach her through their perspective. “My natural instinct is to give them cameras,” she explained, of her teaching strategy but also her introduction to a new culture through her students.

Still from Another Kind of Girl.

Another kind of workshop
In her first workshop at the refugee camp, Laura and her translator and co-facilitator, Tasneem, taught photography to 20 girls, although two of them were more interested in video. When she returned later in the year (2015) through the International Rescue Committee, she worked in her preferred medium of video with five teenaged girls in Jordan’s northern city of Irbid. The camera became a way for the girls to develop a visual language to express their inner and outer worlds, according to Laura. “Since the first round of workshops, the girls expressed a desire to acquire deeper knowledge of the technical and artistic means to tell their community’s stories, as well as have a supportive community through which they can continue to create more work,” she explained. “From this desire grew the Another Kind of Girl Collective, an arts collective with their female peers that supports further learning, artistic production and social engagement.” As their producer, Laura entered their seven films in various youth film festivals around the world.

The young women in the collective share their work with one another.

To date, international festivals, such as Sundance, Cannes, and SXSW, have screened the films. Conferences focused on the refugee crisis, including the EU Conference on Women Refugees and Asylum Seekers, have showcased their films. The New York Times and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, among other media outlets, have featured their works. The young women have also won numerous awards, which have included prizes such as a camera and computer, which the individual recipients have shared with the others in the Collective.

Laura, sharing her knowledge with the young women in the Collective.

Khaldiya fled from her hometown of Dara’a four years ago after Syria’s civil war broke out and now lives in Za’atari Refugee Camp. In a post from the Another Kind of Girl Collective website, she explained what filmmaking brought to her life: “In Syria, I didn’t even know how to hold a cell phone and film. Here I fell in love with filming. When I film I just feel at ease. It never crossed my mind that I would become a filmmaker, but when we took the course, I had it in my head that I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I film, I feel like I am someone very important.” Khaldiya wants to take become a leader in continuing the workshops – helping other girls in the camp to give voice to their stories through the arts and to drive change in her community through storytelling. In the meantime, Khaldiya is awaiting Laura’s arrival this month, so that Laura can attend her wedding. Laura keeps in touch with the young women from the workshops, and shared that a few of them have married “amazing” husbands who have supported their wives’ artistic endeavors. Khalidiya’s husband-to-be, too, supports her dreams.

Still from Another Kind of Girl.

Laura and Tasneem began the second round of workshops in November and December 2016, and will return this month to work with them on editing skills. “The workshop gives them a space where they continually create and and speak about being aware that they are providing something really valuable for their community – a collective of passionate, creative, vocal, compassionate, civic-minded young women – and to the world – a new perspective on the lives of refugees,” she said, of the young women. “They are looking for ways to make their day-to-day lives meaningful.”

Sharing and bonding time.

The power of storytelling
Laura has been helping young people – mostly young women – tell their stories and thus become empowered through creative expression for more than two decades. “I’ve always loved stories,” she noted, citing her father as “the first master storyteller in my life.” Laura, who earned her BA in English, Creative Writing, from Wesleyan University, was also inspired by Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American short story writer and novelist. In a 2013 profile, Laura said of Welty, who wrote about the American South, “She made me want to write characters and stories just like hers, but before she even made me want to write, she made me want to observe.” The power of observation serves the artist well, but it also can inspire greater understanding of and compassion for communities outside of our own.

Capturing one of her students, Stacie, in Appalachia.

As an intern for the public radio documentary show, This American Life, Laura worked on a piece about Mexican-American teenagers and cruising. When she returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., she ran a youth radio program. Laura spent many years in Appalachia, first directing a program in Kentucky called the Appalachian Media Institute, which trained young people to create documentaries about their own communities, and then later doing the same at High Rocks, a girls’ leadership organization in West Virginia. Laura worked with them to express themselves through media, particularly photography, video, and creative writing.

Filming her student Lauren in a program that she led while in her MFA program.

After her experiences in these various experiences, she decided to go back to school and earned her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University. “It was an opportunity to continue to do storytelling with girls and young women, but to develop a more personal style of collaborating with them in ways that responded to individually their artistic voice and strengths, and the multitude of ways they chose to articulate their visions for themselves,” she said. In between the workshops in Jordan, as a Lewis Hine Fellow, Laura worked with young women aging out of the foster care system in the Bronx.

One of Laura’s students, Etta, imagines nature in the Bronx.

Nurturing Another Kind of Girl Collective
Laura’s visit to Jordan this month won’t be her last. She’s hoping to secure more funding to continue conducting workshops in Jordan, as well as to find the next community to share her passion for storytelling and to create more opportunities for young women to be heard and become empowered through film. Thus far, she’s been “running to keep up with the project,” but at some point she wants to take time out to strategize with the members of the Another Kind of Girl Collective. “The next step is to move towards making it self-sustainable, where they can continue to create media on their own, learn the various platforms and venues to share their stories and create dialogue, and then ideally also earn income for their media pieces,” she explained. She’s hoping that the women can build on their skills, get their own media out into the market, and create a successful business.

A lighthearted moment between Laura and her Syrian student.

“My desire for the films is what the girls’ desires are for their films as they’re being shown around the world,” Laura said, speaking as the Collective’s creative director. “They are smart, creative young women who have a unique perspective and a lot to say They are not passive or tragic beings, as mainstream media often present them. They are very vocal about wanting to be understood and heard as hard-working, motivated, creative visionaries. They also want their stories to encourage other girls and young women in difficult circumstances to express their most important stories.” Laura shared the sentiments of one young woman in the Collective, Walaa: “It’s important for girls to bring things from inside to the outside. Writing and filmmaking helped me not be afraid to tell my story. I hope that each young woman is able to express her inner-self directly and indirectly, and that she can just break the world. It doesn’t matter, just break it all over the place.…” Such passion and conviction are testaments to the value of artistic expression Laura has brought to these young women and our communities.

Note: You can see Laura’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.