Monday, November 17, 2014

Update on my South Asian Literature Course

My plan for the South Asian Literature course this semester has undergone some changes. After teaching Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, we moved on to Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi. However, hardly had we gone beyond the half-way point than my health, which has been uncertain for many months, deteriorated, and I had to be hospitalized again, at the Abbot Northwest Hospital in Minneapolis.

Fortunately, after slightly over a week, I was released. During my absence, an English Department colleague graciously stepped in and taught Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost. When I heard that she was teaching this novel, I was delighted, having taught it myself several years ago, as part of the South Asian Literature course.

Upon resuming my teaching of the course, a week ago, we started reading Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters. When I was choosing texts to use this semester, I made a point of including Sidhwa, largely because I wanted some example of writing from a Pakistani writer. Having taught The Crow Eaters before, as well as Sidhwa's other novel, Cracking India, I knew that Sidhwa's writing is accessible to undergraduate students.

We are approaching the midway point of this novel now. Then, we will read Romesh Gunesekera's Reef, another novel I have taught before. Like Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Reef affords memorable insights, from a fictional point of view, into the Sri Lankan experience.

Time seems to have gone by very fast, and I know we will not be able to read Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown. What a pity. In the future, I plan to change my strategy: I will use Rushdie's novel early in the semester, to ensure that my students have some experience of reading and reflecting on this very gifted, albeit controversial writer. I also doubt if I will be able to introduce any poetry, although I prepared myself to teach some poems from that part of the world, such as Michael Ondaatje's.

Though I have some regrets, I take solace from the fact that by the end of the semester, my students will have a fairly good idea of South Asian Literature, a tradition that, rich and vibrant as it is, appears rather remote to many people.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reverend Al Sharpton Speaks at St. Olaf College

The Reverent Al Sharpton spoke at St. Olaf College this evening. The event drew a large crowd from far and near. After being introduced, Al Sharpton went on stage. Having offered his thanks, he declared, at the outset, that though Americans tend to shy away from talking openly about race, he was going to talk about it.

He did, offering a memorable account of how the racial situation has evolved in America during his lifetime. When he was a young man, he said, nobody, in their wildest dreams, had the idea that a black person would ever become president of the USA. The election of Barack Obama, he said,  and particularly his re-election, is a sign of progress. He also gave the example of BeyoncĂ©, an artist who  is embraced by Americans of all races, whereas in his youth, the situation was very different.

While acknowledging progress, he dwelt at length on enduring problem, giving incisive accounts of events such as the recent police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and several such cases from the east to the west coasts.

Reverend Al Sharpton urged the young generation to believe in their ability to effect positive change. Instead of taking on many issues, each one should strive to define specific goals and work diligently to achieve those goals.

He offered a unique perspective on various issues, saying, for example, that when he tells Black people that they are sometimes accountable for the problems they face, he gets some negative reactions. He also said that his idea of civil rights embraces the rights of all groups of people who are in any way discriminated against or disenfranchised--blacks, Latinos, women, gay and lesbian people, Muslims, and so forth. He brought into his talk references to places beyond the USA, such as Palestine and South Africa.

Al Sharpton spoke about the issue of race without alienating anybody. Instead, he won applause and standing ovations with his insights, fairness, eloquence, and sense of humour. He charmed the audience with his jokes. He noted, for example, that people think he just pops up wherever there are problems around the USA. The truth, he said, is that people call him to those places.

After his talk, he was taken to a reception room where he interacted with people informally. He gracefully took photos with anybody who wanted to take a photo with him. My two daughters and I stepped forward to take a photo, and then my eldest daughter brought out Al Sharpton's book, Al On America. Reverend Al Sharpton right away offered to sign it, while reaching for a pen. It was a most touching, unforgettable experience.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Afrifest Foundation Board Meeting, September 13

This afternoon, I went to the Center for Families in Minneapolis to attend the Afrifest Foundation Board meeting. Four Board members participated in the meeting: Nathan White, Pablo Whaley, David Wilson, and Joseph Mbele.

We heard a report about Afrifest 2014 from Nathan White, Board Executive Secretary, noting that publicity for the event was perhaps better this year than in all previous years. The event itself went well, except that around 6pm it started to rain, prompting vendors to wrap up their activities. Even though many attendees left because of the rain, some remained for almost three hours more.

Nathan also noted that Kenyans, perhaps more than any other nationality, played a key role in the festival this year. The DJ was Kenyan, the Kenyans had a table displaying various artifacts and many festival attendees were Kenyans. They also made up the soccer team. The City of Brooklyn Park lent its support, and we noted that even the mayor came to the festival.

Nathan asserted that in terms of event planning and production, the Afrifest Foundation now has much experience and expertise. Other organizations are already seeking out the Foundation for advice on how to produce their own events. We are excited to be in a position to assume this new role.

The Afrifest Foundation has been in contact with Liberation Clothing and Gifts, a regular vendor at Afrifest, exploring the idea of the Foundation's participation in the Black History Expo, Liberation Clothing and Gift's signature annual event, which is scheduled for February 2015. The Afrifest Foundation is thinking about hosting a "Taste of Africa" event at the Expo.

Nathan shared the view that in the future, we should make sure to invite a major performing artistic group, recalling that at the first Festival we had the late Lucky Dube performing, and, naturally, he drew a large crowd. His show was reported in the Twin Cities Daily Planet and Mshale.

We noted that there are other organizations we can work with, including religious groups which share our vision and mission to bring about greater connections within the African and African Diaspora communities and between them and people of non-African descent, by fostering social, cultural and other programs.

We will also collaborate with groups which work in the field of global health. There is, for example, an event in December, on the ebola epidemic.

We will continue to keep in mind the other dimensions of the Foundation's mission, notably, cultural and educational programming. Although these are to some extent, a part of what we have been doing during the Festival, we want to be more active in creating or exploiting opportunities focused on programs such as cultural education.

We will focus, as well, on grant writing, to enhance our activities. Also, since we have 501(c)3 status, we look forward to being the fiscal agent for other organizations. Finally, people can now donate to the Afrifest Foundation directly, with a credit card, online.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Teaching South Asian Literature Again

The St. Olaf College Fall semester started a week ago, on September 4. I am teaching two courses: Writing and South Asian Literature. I wish to say a few things about the South Asian Literature course, which I taught for the first time in the Spring of 2011, as I reported on this blog.

I am using Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi, Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters, and Romesh Gunesekera's Reef. For the first time, I am using Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, a work I had not read before but am reading now, in preparation for teaching it later in the semester.

I was eager to include a Rushdie work after teaching his Midnight's Children and finding it both intriguing and interesting, on account of its narrative techniques--which are somewhat complex and confusing--its historical, cultural and religious references and allusions, as well as its style of presenting characters.

I wanted to teach this novel, prompted by, and regretting, the fact that I had not read it. I felt ashamed of myself for not having read this famous literary work, even though I know there are dozens of other famous works I will not be able to read. Sadly, one can only do so much in a lifetime.

One thing I would really like to do is include some poetry, as I told my students today. I hope we will have a few days at the end of the semester to read some poems. Currently, I am reading The Cinnamon Peeler, a collection of poems by Michael Ondaatje, both for my own education and also in order to prepare a selection of poems I can use when or if the opportunity arises. I plan to complement any poems I might choose from this collection with poems from other sources.

Overall, the semester has started well, and I am looking forward to a rich learning experience for my students and me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

More Reflections on the International Faribault Festival

Although the International Faribault Festival took place more than a week ago, memories of it are still fresh in my mind. I have been thinking about it, and have dwelt, in particular, on two or three aspects that I wish to share here.

Though taking place in a small town in south eastern Minnesota, the Festival bore the label "International," which signifies something on a world scale. Yet, the label was not far-fetched.

The Festival did attract people from different countries who live in Faribault and surrounding areas. There were not millions of them, but they represented many countries. I met with individuals from Ireland, Nigeria, Peru, Somalia, Sudan, and, of course, the U.S.A. If every participant were to tell us the people they met, we would surely discover that many other countries were represented. There were, for example, many people originally  from Central or Latin American countries. That was obvious from the language they were speaking--Spanish--and from their appearance. Among the entertainers was an Aztec dance group.

That, for me, is the clearest proof of the "International" nature of the Festival. However, I like to think of other dimensions of that label. I think of the fact that all of us who attended the Festival have family members and friends, some of whom live in different parts of the world. It is fair to assume that we involved them in the Festival through messages, photos, phone conversations, and other ways. We shared, and continue to share, stories with the rest of the world.

The Festival was featured in Facebook messages sent out, especially, by Peter Van Sluis, chair of the Festival organizing committee. It was mentioned in the Faribault Daily News, which is available online and accessible to people around the world. I wrote blog posts, in English and in Swahili, which are read around the world.

Several years ago, during the Faribault International Market Day--the precursor of the International Faribault Festival--I told my friend Milo Larson, who was chairman of the Faribault Diversity Coalition and main organizer of the Market Day, that I saw the Faribault International Market Day not as a small town event, but as a truly global one, because the people who attended it were sure to tell other people--far and near-- about it, and the story might spread around the world. What appears to be a local, small town event, works like a pebble that you throw into a pond, or a lake, sending ever-widening ripples far and wide.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The International Faribault Festival, August 23

The International Faribault Festival took place on August 23, as planned, and I was there. As soon as I arrived at the festival venue, the city of Faribault's Central Park, I was moved by the display of flags on the main stage. Festival participants from various nations were on hand to say a few words about their national flags and their countries.

Afterwards, these people walked down from the stage, in single file, bearing their flags. They placed these flags in the middle of the open space, where they stood for the duration of the festival.

As they fluttered in the wind, displaying their many colors, these flags were a veritable feast for the eyes.

There were many booths and tables, where vendors sold food, soft drinks, jewelry, perfumes, clothes and other items.

There were music and dance groups from different cultures offering entertainment.

As always happens on these occasions, I saw people I know, but I also met  and had conversations with people I did not know before, such as the ones in the photo on the left. The lady on the right is originally from Ireland, the gentleman in a white shirt is from Somalia, and the lady on the left is from the U.S.A. You can imagine the diversity of experiences and perspectives we brought into our conversation. We took this photo after all three had bought the books they wanted.
I have noted, over the years, that a table or a booth  at events such as the International Faribault Festival is a kind of magnet which attracts people, creating opportunities for conversations. People gather at my table and have discussions with me or among themselves. Since the focus of my work is education and issues concerning the impact and implications of cultural differences, most of the conversations around my table deal with these issues. In the photo on the left, we see the two ladies that featured in the photo above, with a gentleman from Nigeria.

One of the touching moments during these encounters is the signing of books. It is, for me, both an honour and a humbling experience when a customer asks to have her or his book signed.

Equally touching is the moment when a customer poses for a photo with me, proudly displaying the book or books she or he has just bought. Like any writer, I am happy and gratified that my ideas reach an ever growing audience.

I wish to conclude with a word of gratitude to the organizers of the International Faribault Festival, as well as the volunteers, for all the work they did to make this valuable and memorable event possible.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Memories of Afrifest, Minnesota, 2014

Afrifest 2014 took place on August 2, in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, as planned, and I was there. As has been the case in the past, this was an occasion to interact with different people. There was a steady stream of people coming and going. They talked with vendors, saw products on display, and learned about various services.

One of these people was Jeffrey Lunde, the mayor of Brooklyn Park. I was happy to chat with him for a few minutes. I told him I was quite sure I had heard him speak, some years back, at an African event.

Mayor Lunde has a particular interest in Liberia, a country he has visited. It is interesting that he is mayor of a city which hosts the largest number of Liberians in the U.S.A.

As a vendor, I displayed my books and got to interact with different people who came to my table. They asked questions, shared their perspectives, and picked up copies of free publications. Some bought books.

I enjoyed the questions people asked. One question that stands out in my mind was whether
African Americans are Americans. I have been asked this question again and again by African Americans, when they looked at the title of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. My answer has always been that African Americans are Americans, and this is the position I take in my book. I plan to deal with this issue in a future blog post.

As is the case year after year, I met old acquaintances as well as new people. I shared my knowledge, experience, and vision with them and at the same time learned a great deal from them. This alone makes my participation in Afrifest worth all the time and effort.

In the late afternoon, around 5 p.m., the stream of visitors grew noticeably, attracted by an impending soccer match between East Africans and West Africans. I did not stay to watch the match. Still recovering from a long illness, I felt tired and embarked on the journey back to Northfield.