By Lydia Gans
A Muslim woman born in India was making preparations for her daughter’s wedding reception when the World Trade Center destruction happened. … A Filipina daughter in a military family encounters racism living in New Orleans and San Pedro and even at Galileo High School in San Francisco. … A student near Kent State University becomes radicalized when the National Guard shoots protesting students. A Jewish man from Brooklyn titles his short story “Fighting Back.” A young writer begins her story, “I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Cleveland Ohio, and I have spent the last ten years running away from it.”
These are some of the stories included in a new anthology created by students enrolled in a recent memoir-writing workshop held at the Berkeley Public Library. Featuring people from all different backgrounds, the stories create “a kind of portrait of the community, a part of the history of the U.S. that you don’t read about in the paper or the history books,” said Frances Lefkowitz, the author and essayist who led the class titled “The History of the Rest of Us.”
Lefkowitz and her students will read selections from the anthology, “We Are Here,” on Tuesday, July 16, from 6 – 7:30 p.m. at the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library on Kittredge Street.
Their writings open a window to the striking variety of backgrounds and experiences of Berkeley residents.
“The two dozen people who took this workshop ranged from 20-somethings to 80-somethings,” Lefkowitz writes in the book’s introduction. “They came from India, Mississippi, China, the Philippines, Brooklyn, and Berkeley (among other places). They were first- and second- and seventh-generation Americans.”
The stories vary from two or three pages to several that are quite long. Some are funny, while others recall troubling incidents.
The workshop proved to be an enriching experience for the participants as they got to meet different kinds of people and make new connections. And, whether they were published writers, occasional scribblers, or had never thought of putting their ideas on paper, all felt that they learned a great deal and had the satisfaction of producing a good piece of work.
Joy Kawaguchi, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, begins her long story in 1940 in Los Angeles. In 1942, the family moved to a small rural community in Utah. They had managed to avoid being sent to the camps where Japanese Americans were being interned during World War II. She writes a fascinating account of life under conditions that most of us are totally unfamiliar with. Asked about the workshop after it ended, she said, “It’s really been a turn-on for me … I was just amazed at how therapeutic it was. It was all the painful stuff that happened in my life that came pouring out.”
Since the workshop, Kawaguchi has become passionate about writing.
“Although Joy had not thought of herself as a writer, she became completely immersed in telling her story,” said Kawaguchi’s daughter, Debbie Carton. “She spent many hours outside of class writing … Her memoir is currently at 40 pages, and growing.”
Salma Arastu, who wrote about her reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center, has always enjoyed writing, she said, but primarily in Hindi, her native language. She was enthusiastic about the class. “It was a beautiful experience. … Amazing class … Everybody came out with so many interesting stories.”
Arastu talked about her own story in the memoir book .
“It affected me so much, the 9/11. It was always on my mind. That day when she said write something that affected your life, a big event or a small event, this immediately came out. I’m happy that I wrote it down because it has been bothering me for several years — and the best part, she was so good at editing.”
Lefkowitz, the author of the memoir, “To Have Not,” is a writer of journal articles, essays and short stories. She has won numerous honors and prizes for her work. She is also an experienced teacher. After running a successful personal essay class at the Point Reyes library, she decided to apply for funding to take the program to other libraries. She got a Koshland Arts and Culture Grant from the San Francisco Foundation to do the project in Berkeley neighborhoods. The Berkeley Pubic Library agreed to sponsor the class and assigned reference librarian Isobel Schneider to be host.
“It was one of the best programs I’ve ever been involved with,” said Schneider.
The Berkeley Public Library and the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library will sponsor another workshop early next year.