By Hope Reese
“I didn’t miss anything about Pakistan,” Maria Zaminkhan writes, “except myself … I’d had the freedom to do everything except get a good education. In America, I could get a good education, but I didn’t have the freedom to do anything else.”
Zaminkhan’s personal narrative, in which she explores the nuances of transitioning to life in America, appears in “No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer,” the Louisville Story Program’s latest collection. And on Thursday, Oct. 11, she will join eight other authors at Spalding University’s Columbia Auditorium for the launch of the book — which is, arguably, the program’s most ambitious project to date.
Darcy Thompson, the founder and current director of the Louisville Story Program, and deputy director Joe Manning worked with this group — the nonprofit’s third youth project and first all-women group. The authors, as in the past, will be published and paid for their work.
The nine women were students at Iroquois High School, the most diverse school in the state of Kentucky, working during third period over the course of the 2017-2018 school year. Six are immigrants or refugees from Pakistan, Cuba, Kenya and Iraq, and several of the students are here after escaping from dire situations in their home countries – Mehwish Zaminkhan, Maria’s sister, grew up in a small village near the Afghanistan border, and at age 14, was driven out of school by the Taliban and later smuggled past Taliban checkpoints to Islamabad.
The Louisville Story Program was founded in 2013 with a mission to give voice to underrepresented communities in Louisville. Since then, it has produced “Our Shawnee,” “I said Bang!: A History of the Dirt Bowl,” “We Can Hear You Just Fine: Clarifications from the Kentucky School for the Blind,” and “Available Light: Louisville Through the Lens of Bud Dorsey,” as well as radio programs and photography exhibits.
Concurrently, the Louisville Story Program is interviewing people who work on the backside of Churchill Downs — Louisville’s most iconic landmark, as well as the site of one of the most diverse communities in the city, housing 1,000 workers, mainly from Guatemala, who are charged with training and grooming the horses and managing operations of the track.
In “No Single Sparrow Makes A Summer,” Zaminkhan captures walking the difficult tightrope of acclimating to a new country and culture while trying to respect her family’s wish for her to follow the tradition of wearing a hijab. The project not only helped her tell her story, Zaminkhan said, it helped shape, in real life, the story she would tell.
Before Zaminkhan decided to get involved with the Louisville Story Program, “I was scared to take any action,” she told Insider Louisville. “This year changed everything. I’m not scared anymore. I feel so free. If I didn’t have this chance to be part of the Louisville Story Program, I wouldn’t be the same Maria.”
Gaining the courage to tell her story took time. “I was making each move to make it not seem like I’m just going apart from my tradition and culture,” she said. “I had a lot to say in my heart, but I didn’t want to say it all at once. With each word, I would hide a meaning. I would write it so short so that no one could judge me.”
But over time, Zaminkhan said: “I didn’t want to hold anything back. When I write something on a page, it helps me. I’m not scared that anyone can judge me.”
Atalya Lawler’s writing process led to self-discovery as well. Born in Chicago, she began to struggle in fifth grade after, as she writes in the book, “something happened.” She describes acting out, picking fights, and eventually ending up in the Clark County Correctional Facility before landing in Louisville and turning her life around. Writing the book, Lawler said in an interview, helped her realize she “still had a chance to improve myself.”
Writing the story was a challenge for Lawler. But “it helped me find myself.”
“This is my story. This is what I thought about it,” she said. “I didn’t know how my life turned out until I had to put it down on paper.”
Thompson said the project was unique in several ways. For one, the group spent more time working together than any group in the past, which meant more interviews in the community. There were also logistical hurdles to overcome, like translating interviews into English. But there is a cohesion to the book, even with the authors coming from six countries and three from the U.S.
“Everyone has done a lot of moving around,” Thompson said. “They can relate to the themes of transiency and transition.”
The cross-cultural exchange is also a staple of the project. Initially, Zaminkhan worried that the other authors might not understand her story, because they didn’t know her culture. “But they motivated me,” she said. “They let me believe that if I want to do something, if I want to make a change, I have to do it.”
Thompson viewed the experience as a fundamental gift that literature can offer. “One of the insights we draw from literature is that, despite what appears to be great differences between us, in almost every meaningful way, we have so much in common,” he told Insider. “We have similar hopes and dreams for our loved ones, similar fears, similar anxieties about the world, about ourselves, about our families.”
There are important differences, as well, he acknowledged — like when one author had a New Year’s tradition of roasting a pig, which would be forbidden in some of the other cultures — yet these differences are not judged.
And, perhaps because it was the program’s first all-women group, Thompson said he saw “a different dynamic” with these authors, noticing “a lot of openness early on.”
Zaminkhan agreed that writing as a group of all-women was empowering. “Women don’t want to be judged because of their sex. We can be equal. We can write,” she said. “We can do things that people tell us not to.”
“By doing this project, this tells us that nobody that nobody can hold onto us. We can let the world hear our voice.”
Lawler echoed the sentiment. “We had a lot of similarities when it came to the stereotypes of girls and women, [but] we all had that power and strength to tell our stories even though a lot of people think that women can’t do that.”
“We prove them wrong.”