As a writer traveling abroad, Masha Hamilton sees people’s needs. As a conscientious person, she does something about them, even if it’s not what she set out to do.
Two non-profit organizations, the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, have resulted from this tendency of hers to act. The former supplies books through a camel-borne lending library to remote Kenyan villages. The AWWP is an online magazine that gives voice to otherwise silenced Afghan women through writing workshops, mentoring and a publishing platform.
“I told my agent ‘I’m a novelist, not an activist,’ ” Hamilton says. “She said, ‘You’re doing a pretty good imitation of one.’ ”
Over a weeklong residency at Sweet Briar College from Nov. 2-8, Hamilton will explore with students and public audiences the intersections of her work as a writer and humanitarian. There are three events that are free and open to the public:
Lecture and presentation
Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 8 p.m., Wailes Lounge, Elton Inn & Conference Center
Hamilton will talk about working as a journalist abroad, her career as a novelist, and about the non-profits she founded.
“Out of Silence”
Friday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m., Murchison Lane Auditorium, Babcock Fine Arts Center
Sweet Briar theater students will stage dramatic readings of works written by participants in the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
Monday, Nov. 7 at 4:30 p.m., Pannell Art Gallery
Hamilton will read from her most recent novel, “31 Hours,” which was chosen by The Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009.
Hamilton was recently in Afghanistan, where she led a two-week writers workshop for the AWWP. Although classes are held regularly in Kabul and Herat, most of the women participate online, guided by published authors in the U.S. They are provided laptops and Internet access, so they can work from their homes or villages.
Even in the cities, getting to a session is difficult, says Hamilton, calling what the women are doing by their participation an “act of bravery.” Some lie to husbands or fathers about where they are going.
Hamilton founded the AWWP in 2009 to honor a woman who was publicly executed by the Taliban in 1999. She was shot to death before thousands of spectators in a soccer stadium, her death was viewed by many more in a smuggled video online, yet no one knew the story of how she got there.
“I believe telling your story is a human right and it’s as important to survival of a certain kind as food and shelter,” Hamilton says.
Expressing themselves through the AWWP is empowering to the women, but as importantly, Hamilton believes their moderate voices will be necessary for change in Afghanistan. It’s crucial that they be heard as part of the national dialogue to counter the extremists who Hamilton says are becoming more strident as the U.S. and NATO prepare to transfer security to the Afghans in 2014.
A new radio project is intended to help with this objective but like Internet access, it is expensive. It costs the AWWP $2,500 per writer per year, Hamilton says.
To raise funds in conjunction with her visit, Sweet Briar business students are organizing the sale of original, limited-edition, handcrafted broadsheets featuring poems and excerpts from the AWWP website produced by art students Kaitlyn Holloway ’13 and Sally Toms ’13. The hand-decorated prints will be sold at the Nov. 2 lecture and the “Out of Silence” performance on Nov. 4. Three one-of-a-kind prints will be sold through a silent auction.
Senior Stephanie Prato, meanwhile, is urging students to attend Hamilton’s events. An English major, she interned over the summer with the AWWP board of directors and still serves as its secretary. Hamilton’s work resonates with the values Sweet Briar was founded on, Prato says — women’s education and empowerment.
“This is our opportunity to reach beyond our bubble and support women in Afghanistan who embrace the same goals and values we promote here on campus,” she says.
“I continue to be inspired by the work our organization is doing,” Prato added. “Although I have not met any of the [Afghan] women personally, their voices and their stories speak clearly through their writing. You can’t read a poem like ‘If I Don’t Write’ or ‘Under Burqua’ and not be moved to help, to act.”
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