I taught my first creative writing workshop five years ago at Kearny Street Workshop, a wonderful Asian American arts non-profit in San Francisco. There was a rare thunderstorm the night of the workshop and as the participants made their way up to the third floor from Capp Street, a somewhat nefarious alley in the Mission District, I felt like I was teaching in the room Sebastien escaped to in The Neverending Story. It was a good start.

Since then I have taught several more creative writing workshops at KSW, at an experimental reform school in Colorado, to kids at a continuation high school in San Francisco, and inside the SF juvenile hall. Besides the KSW workshops, most of my experience teaching writing and storytelling has been with disenfranchised young people in the United States–meaning mostly young people of color who have had institutional experience or are at very high-risk of being touched by “the system” — meaning foster care, group homes, juvenile justice, etc. It also means that they have very little access to wealth, and very high chances of becoming incarcerated as adults. In India, I have met several people doing amazing work with different kinds of young people, almost all of whom are extremely poor. I’ve had several long conversations about how doing work with young people in India/South Asia is so entirely different from the work in America, mostly because in India these young people are tremendously open to change and grateful for the opportunities they are given through these programs. This obviously isn’t always the case — people drop out or take the wrong path regardless of what they’ve been given, but the sense of hopelessness is different. I’ve gotten sympathetic looks from several people who I think are doing incredibly difficult work with orphans and slum children when I tell them about my work with juvenile hall kids in America. It has really made me about the multi-tiered, hierarchical systems that are in place in America that create such a subdued rage, resentment, misunderstanding and violence amongst our young people. It has also made me itch to get back to work.

I recently had the opportunity to teach a tandem writing-music-video workshop at the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School, founded by Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, in Boudnath – a city just outside of Kathmandu. The boarding school serves 600 Himalayan children who travel long distances to gain their education here — (like really, really, really long distances, one former student told me it is a three-hour bus ride and seven days of walking to get to his home village!) We worked with eight 15 and 16-year-olds in the VidKids media program started a few years ago by California Institute of the Arts Integrated Media Program professor Tom Leeser, who is one of Robin’s mentors and good friends.


Robin and I got to Nepal a few days early and relaxed for a few days in the quiet of Nagarakot’s tiered hillsides. I spent most of my time reading the incredible Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? — a book about the University of Michigan Community Prison Arts Project, written by PCAP’s founder Buzz Alexander. It is one of the inspiring and educational books I have ever read. Though Buzz is writing about doing work in prisons with America’s most oppressed populations, when we finally met with Tom the night before our first day with the VidKids from poor Nepal—there was scynchronisity. Tom was quoting Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which figures as a major text in the class that PCAP students take as prep to their volunteer work. Tom, Robin and I decided that we would make the week with the Nepali kids all about playing and experimentation, which is different from the hierarchical, rote-memorization, exam-heavy education system South Asian kids usually have. We were also pushing the idea of collaboration. We wanted to create a classroom space where we weren’t telling the young people what to do and where we would be creating as equals. Of course, this is much harder than it seems, but the kids were very open to the play.

I started off as I often did in my summer media programs with kids at Youth Outlook, with the life map project, which I learned initially from either Ian Kim or Jeremiah Jeffries — friends in San Francisco who gathered together a solidarity group back in the Bay Area several years ago. Basically, students draw a quick, symbolic life map of their life. By map, I mean more like treasure map with one event leading to another, or it can also be a portrait. The main thing is to notice the symbols each person uses to characterize life events. In media workshops, we use this life map to generate story ideas for commentaries like these amazing and harrowing tales. In Nepal, we used the maps to come up with common themes and then try to compose group poems. When one group’s maps yielded only sports and activities like football, volleyball, music, dancing and swimming, I had the kids free write on how these activities make them feel, and a poem filled with beautiful words (like: ‘magical mystery, tired, fulfilled, sky’) arose. Other days, we wrote metaphors and similes about our hearts, eyes and minds, or wrote a group book based on nine elements of a story. The final writing project was to complete metaphor or simile poems about their past, their present and what they think of Nepal (I was …, I am …, Nepal is …) —inspired by this video by local spoken word poets/hip hop group Lyrics Independent. Later, Robin and I got to share the stage with these poet/rappers and a whole crew of slam poets at an amazing poetry event organized by Pranab Singh and Suvani Singh, who run Quixote’s Cove, a dope bookstore.

The eight young people we worked with all came of age in the decade of Nepal’s government turmoil. I was surprised to learn that Nepal is actually the poorest South Asian state, and definitely could tell this by lack of infrastructure. The roads were terrible, but the most telling sign was the 14 hour power cuts that the city suffered. The time rolled every day so that sometimes the power went out at 1 pm and at other times I was woken up by the lights in our hotel room coming on at 3 in the morning. Since we are addicted to our laptops and the internet and were trying to get ready for a digital storytelling workshop most days and only had one power outlet in our room, Robin and I discovered we are not good with scarce resources and some days felt very much like ugly Americans. It was a good lesson.


In our final performance, we took samples from the poem sentences that the VidKids wrote about themselves and about Nepal and used the MPC1000 to do live cut up poems (with beats and collected sounds) to a looped video that the young people had shot around the school, projected on screen made of handmade Nepali paper, while another video of their poetry showed on another screen. The kids had also graffitied their words on some of the other paper. All in all, we certainly achieved our goals of not doing anything too linear and filled up the computer room with sound, words and images.


On returning to Kolkata, I led a workshop at The American Center for nearly 50 high school students, for an annual creative writing event they have every Spring. This was a completely new experience for me because the young people were from 25 of the best private high schools in the Kolkata area–I’m talking about storied, British-era high schools that graduate their students to elite universities all over India and the rest of the world. A very different population than I am used to working with. I was super excited to be a part of it, except for the catch that it had to be a competition, complete with trophies! I tried to slyly discourage competition by reading them Emily Dickinson. [I mean, not that this is unheardof, I competed in the illustrious Power of the Pen tournament in middle school, even making it to the state finals, where I choked on some silly prompt, but have fond memories of going on a walk on the Ohio State University campus and throwing rocks at a stop sign with my best frenemey.]

Anyway, I decided to focus on a workshop idea that I learned from Peter Orner in graduate school, taking the oft-told family story and turning that into a crafted narrative. I focusing on the use of specific detail, language, tension, mood etc—starting off with some cognitive creativity jump-starting ideas that I learned from an amazing workshop from my Indivisible co-editrix Pireeni Sundaralingam.

It was amazing to be in a big room filed with Indian students in varying uniforms. It became clear that creative writing was not an educational tool that was utilized at these schools, since India in general has a major emphasis on science and math, but that the room was filled with budding writers and voracious readers. It was also fascinating to be in a room full of eager students. Whenever I asked for volunteers, arms would shoot into the air and the youth would stand to answer or read their work! How strange, but wonderful. The young people were truly lovely and after an hour and a half workshop, and a tea break where they got pound cake and mango juice, they all set to work on their competition piece. It was so exciting to see these young people bent over their papers. I could feel the creativity buzzing. There is nothing like seeing 50 kids writing stories by hand in this time of video games and Facebook. I wish I had an equivalent picture of students I worked with in Megan Mercurio’s English class in the San Francisco Juvenile Hall, because I often felt the same energy there. I was pleasantly surprised at the numerous stories of heartbreak and romance written by young men, and my co-judge commented on the endless numbers of ghost stories. In the end, we awarded the top prize to a very shy young woman for a story about a girl in the metro station who may or may not have been a terrorist.


More and more lately, I’ve been really thinking about pedagogy and about my experiences teaching writing and literary arts in different settings. Yesterday, I met with novelist, professor and blogger extraordinaire Rimi B. Chatterjee at Jadavpur University to get a feel for the creative writing field here in India. Monday, I’m going to go see the people at Jana Sanskriti, so I can connect and learn about one of India’s largest Theatre of the Oppressed groups–a technique I want to know more about. Next week, I hope to meet with the people at the India Vision Foundation, one of India’s leading NGOs working on incarcerated rights and rehabilitation. I’m so excited to see how this work is being done here and how I can take back knowledge to my own work in America.