Right to left: Naomi Shihab Nye, Neela Vaswani and Storylines Honorable Mention. Photo courtesy NCV FoundationOn October 26, 2010, adult literacy students and their volunteer tutors from the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island gathered at the Bronx Library Center for the second annual Storylines Project celebration. The Storylines Project brings together adult literacy students from the New York Public Library's Centers for Reading and Writing, a free program for adults to learn to read and write, with a published author, for a night that recognizes and celebrates the writing of both, and the unifying power of story.
The event was conceived and organized by Neela Vaswani, a former volunteer tutor at the Seward Park Center for Reading and Writing (CRW) on the Lower East Side, who was so moved by her experience there that she created the Storylines Project, sponsored by the NCV Foundation, to honor its student writers.
This year, Naomi Shihab Nye, author of over 20 books of poetry and fiction including 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, a National Book Award Finalist, was the Storylines Award recipient and student submission judge. From submissions of student writing from all eight Centers for Reading and Writing, Ms. Nye selected five winners and 23 honorable mentions to be honored that night.
The Event Begins
Anticipation filled the air of the packed Bronx Library Center auditorium. Each guest received a complimentary copy of Honeybee, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Students and tutors greeted each other warmly—"Hello Pablo! Welcome!” “Hi, Ndiaga!" "Frankie, how are you? Diaw! Mariam! Ji Hyun!"
After brief welcomes from Ken English, Literacy Project Director at the library, and Storylines creator and organizer Neela Vaswani, Ms. Nye took the podium. She smiled across the roomful of faces and exclaimed, "What a beautiful room full of beautiful names. We are here to celebrate all of you."
During the evening, all the student honorees were invited to the stage to shake her hand and receive a certificate. The five winning stories were read aloud by actress Sydia Cedeno.
The Winning Stories
The voice in each of the winning stories was raw and powerful, a glimpse into a life:
"Becoming sober made me able to get help for my reading and writing at the Tompkins Square Library," concluded one, "Now, if I don’t know how to spell a word I’ll leave the space blank and continue–I know there is no need to stay stuck in one place." Before the actress could finish, the audience burst into cheers and applause. She had to wait for everyone to quiet down before reading the last line: "I think that is true in life as well." On the stage, the writer, Pedro, clasped Ms. Nye's hand in a warm, two-hand shake.
Actress Sydia Cedeno reads winning stories
The next winning story was from Ji-Xing, 77, in a suit, tennis shoes and a Yankees cap. He couldn't resist waving again to the crowd before sitting down, beaming. His quiet story about sparrows ended: "When I first came to the United States I was very homesick. Then I saw the sparrows, the same birds as in my homeland. It was like running into old friends in a distant land. It alleviated my longing for my hometown."
Adjowa, a student at the Aguilar Library CRW, wrote of her struggles after a hysterectomy: "As an African woman, your family wants you to have kids. Because of my surgery, I can’t. So I have to keep it secret from them. Whenever I call home, my mommy asks me 'Please, can you have a baby?' And I say 'Mama, there are so many kids out there who need help, and I will devote my life to them.' ”
Meeting the Author
After the program, participants filtered out to the lobby for refreshments. A long book-signing line formed immediately for Naomi Shihab Nye. She dedicated each book to the participant by name, signing off, "In Friendship," and "In hope."
Everywhere people posed together, smiling, mugging for photographs. The scene recalled a line from the story Ms. Nye had read earlier: "This is the world I want to live in. The shared world."
To read the complete winning stories, please visit the NCV Foundation website.