Monthly Archives: April 2012

I Get Educated by The Education of Auma Obama


Last Friday, before heading out for a Buddhists of Color retreat (more on that later!), I attended opening night of the 8th Annual San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival. The fest opened with “The Education of Auma Obama,” a documentary by mixed, Nigerian-born filmmaker Branwen Okpako about Auma Obama, an impressive scholar-activist who happens to be the Kenyan older sister of our mixed president.

Okay, am I the only mixed girl who didn’t realize that the entire Obama family is mixed? Obama Senior had 3 wives: a young Kenyan girl (Auma’s mother), our President’s mother, and another white American named Ruth who raised their mixed kids in Kenya. Auma herself has a daughter by a white European; one of the Obama brothers lives in China; and I have at least met Maya Soetoro-Ng, the President’s half-Indonesian sister. In comparison, I feel positively pedestrian!

The film incorporates Auma’s own films and home video, including footage of a young Barack and then-fiancee Michelle on their first trip to Kenya, and is structured around the final days leading up to the U.S. presidential election, managing to capture the giddy pride all Africa felt at the prospect of the first black African U.S. president. (A lovely moment is when the family is dancing with cardboard cut-outs of Obama around the grave of his father. Oh, spoiler alert: he wins the election.) Ah, remember how excited we all were, thinking that this was a strike for racial parity, rather than an invitation to public figures to spout their racism in the media with impunity?

Watch African Women in Cinema’s video interview with filmmaker Branwen Okpako.

April Film Countdown: Undercover Documentaries


Today started off my April Film Countdown with 2 international documentaries, both shot secretly in countries with totalitarian regimes. Both in theaters–and in need of support–now.

Film #1: This is Not a Film 

Renowned Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, received a 6-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking and conducting interviews with foreign press due to his open support of the opposition party in Iran‘s 2009 election. In this documentary, which was secretly shot by Panahi’s close friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and smuggled into France in a cake for a last-minute submission to the Cannes Film Festival, Panahi shares his day-to-day life as he awaits for a decision on his appeal.

I saw this smart, thought-provoking film with the same friend who took me to see Academy Award winning The Separation, another brilliant offering from Iran. Granted, I’m primed to love anything smuggled in a cake, but this truly is worth the price of admission!

It’s a quiet study of the psychic costs of not being able to create, of the intricacies of coding and negotiating art under censorship, and of the creative process itself. Together the film Panahi wanted to make and this film he does make show how the study of an interior can be an indictment of an entire nation. Against the backdrop of Tehran’s volatile streets, symbolic situations fall into Panahi’s lap all day long, culminating in a breathtaking ending. A bit like My Dinner with Andre, except with much, much higher stakes (given that the director/subject is now serving 6 years in prison)!

Film #2: They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain

Shot clandestinely over a 2-year period by novelist and filmmaker (and Cornell physicist!), Robert H. Lieberman, this film provides a rare look at the second-most isolated country on the planet (North Korea gets top honors). It lifts the curtain to expose the everyday life in a country that has been held in the iron grip of a brutal military regime for 48 years. This feature length documentary, culled from over 120 hours of striking images, is an impressionistic journey. Interviews and interactions with more than 100 people throughout Burma, including an interview with the recently released Aung San Suu Kyi, are interwoven with spectacular footage.

Terrific Q&A afterwards with Director/Renaissance Man Lieberman. He explained how the narrative couldn’t follow a character/”hero” the way most documentaries do, as that would be unsafe for the subjects, so the film editor had to create a panorama of characters with a chorus of unidentified voice-overs. The result is a bit disconcerting (who are these voices and why do so many sound like British elite?), almost like those Come-to-the-Land-of-Smiles travel ads, but with a dark underbelly. (I got all nostalgic seeing the ruins of Pagan and other major Buddhist sites.)

Burma has vast natural resources, plus incredible geographic, linguistic and ethnic diversity (125 languages!). This, plus the huge mansions next to slums, the lack of electricity, and the cleptocracy of The Generals–primarily poor, uneducated folk–reminded me of Nigeria (though I didn’t feel that upon visiting all those years ago). A shocking 2 percent of the GDP is devoted to education, health, and social services combined!

Fascinating historic footage of the Japanese occupation and the Father of Burma (as well as of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) Aung San working for independence. Surreal, scary Manchurian Candidate-like footage of the collective, nameless Generals who never attempt to connect with the populace. I recognized the heart-pounding footage of the Saffron Revolution taken by the gutsy underground video-journalists profiled in that other great documentary, Burma VJ. The film advances the interesting theory that every one of Burma’s governments, from the ancient monarchy to the invaders/Colonialists to The Generals, saw its role as keeping out other nations, never providing for the people.

With Junot Diaz a few days before the Pulitzer


THIS COULD BE YOU, if you apply to VONA: Summer Workshops for Writers of Color by TOMORROW (April 9)!

I just found this photo on my phone. It’s classic me (lime green) and classic Junot Díaz. He spoke at Carnegie Mellon U in Pittsburgh, and afterwards I took him to my favorite retro hangout, Kelly’s. I think the next day we heard about the Pulitzer.


Travel Writing Scholarship 2012 – Southeast Asia

Entries close April 23rd, 2012 at 2pm AEST (UTC +10).

Do you want to be a published travel writer?

This year we decided to shake things up a bit and instead of choosing just one country for our scholarship…we’ve decided to send you off to three different countries in Southeast Asia! Once on the ground, you’ll have the opportunity to see for yourself life beyond the banana pancake trail, and get to know Southeast Asia from the local perspectives, through the eyes of three amazing writers.

Here’s the triple-dip deal:

First you’ll head off to Singapore to go on assignment for five days under the mentorship of Rough Guides writer Richard Lim to review and update ‘The Rough Guide to Singapore’.

Then you’ll fly to Bali and meet up with Stuart McDonald, founder of Travelfish, the online travel guide to Southeast Asia, before heading off on six days of cultural insight and adventure in Indonesia.

For the last leg of the scholarship, you will be whisked off to Malaysia for a food odyssey through Kuala Lumpur and Penang with former local and cookbook author of award winning hsa*ba Burmese cookbook, Tin Cho Chaw, to explore how cuisine shapes the lives of Malaysians.

Only 8 More Days to Apply to the best writing workshop ever!


Each summer developing and experienced writers in all genres come from around the country and globe to work and build community with renowned writers of color. In choosing our faculty we select only internationally celebrated authors who are known for their excellence as writers and their sensibilities toward political and cultural issues. All of our workshop leaders are inspiring and proven teachers experienced with diverse populations.

Summer 2012 Faculty: Elmaz Abinader, Faith Adiele, Junot Diaz, M. Evelina Galang, Minal Hajratwala, Randal Kenan, Maaza Mengiste, David Mura, Willie Perdomo and Patricia Smith. As usual, this summer is going to be killer! Mark your calendars for the all-star faculty reading on Thursday June 28!

Submit to Colors of Nature Teaching Guide


The editors of the groundbreaking anthology on people of color and nature, The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions, 2011), are looking for contributions for a higher education online teaching guide with lesson ideas, questions, prompts, and resources that teachers of literature, environmental studies, multicultural studies, American Studies, geography, and other pertinent fields would find valuable for teaching the book.


The provocative writings in The Colors of Nature exist at the intersection of cultural identity and ecological awareness, featuring work from more than 30 contributors of widely diverse backgrounds—including Jamaica Kincaid, Joseph Bruchac, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kimiko Hahn, Nikky Finney, bell hooks, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Francisco X. Alarcón and me, Faith.  This anthology explores the relationships between culture, place, “race,” and identity, which historically have been overlooked in traditional environmental writing.

Timetable and Submission Guidelines: Please let them know of your interest as soon as possible.  The deadline has been extended for receipt of lessons or class ideas, plus resources, to May 30, 2012.  Read the call for more detail CallSubmissionsOneSheet

Lauret Savoy lsavoy @ mtholyoke . edu Alison Deming  aldeming @ aol . com

Summer Study at Berkeley


So I’m teaching this summer at Berkeley with my old friend Camille Dungy, my old classmate Tony Swofford, my old friend & classmate Shane Book, and my new BFFs (though they don’t know it), Daniel Alarcón and Justin Torres! Fun!

6-Week Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Faith
Berkeley Summer Creative Writing Program
May 21-June 28, 2012, University of California, Berkeley
Apply here


Our unique 6-week program offers aspiring, practicing and experienced writers a sustained community in which to create, network and live the writing life. Make lifelong connections while enjoying master classes with renowned authors, meeting with agents, and attending and participating in panels. Specialized intensives such as novel writing and preparing the MFA application portfolio will also be offered. Classes meet Monday through Thursday morning.