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Panelists Beena Sarwar, Dahlma Llanos Figueroa, Fatmata Jah, and Boyah Farah.
July 3, 2017

Race, immigration among topics at UMass Boston writers’ workshop


  • Boston
Master classes held in poetry, nonfiction, fiction and drama

UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences hosted its 30th annual Writers’ Workshop last week, offering an opportunity to study with and learn from award-winning poets and writers.

Participants could take part in readings and master classes in poetry, nonfiction, and drama. There were also roundtable discussions on the legacy of the Vietnam War, modern wars, and race and refugees. Author Dahlma Llanos Figueroa, journalist Beena Sarwar, Bunker Hill Community College professor Boyah Farah, and Fatmata Jah, an academic advisor in UMass Boston’s University Advising Center, took part in a discussion on race, refugees, immigration, and war. Danielle Legros Georges, the poet laureate for the City of Boston, moderated the discussion.

Farah, who describes himself as a refugee-turned-writer from Somalia, said he wears the label proudly even though the word “refugee” has developed a negative connotation among some groups.

“You write because you’re taking refuge,” Farah said. “In the war of literature, I don’t have to lie. What do I fear? I’ve seen dead people before. Death doesn’t frighten me. What frightens me is we have enough information today to know the drivers of war. … We need you as the writers to speak and talk.”

Jah, who escaped war in Sierra Leone, found support in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at UMass Boston. Professors invited her to come to their offices and study.

Sarwar, who moved to the United States from Pakistan in 2011, said all people belong to “tribes,” and called the writers in the room a “tribe of humanist writers.” This was a theme echoed by Farah, who said he looks at humanity as one

“The color thing doesn’t exist in the rest of the world. It’s an American thing. It is as American as apple pie. Now that I’ve stayed here over 25 years, I resist. I am a black man, but I am human first,” Farah said.

Figueroa, who was born in Puerto Rico, said writing is how she makes sense of the world. She recalled feeling speechless in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. To get those words back, she turned off the news and turned to things that brought her joy.

“Storytelling – it is the best arsenal at my disposal. I have come too far for too long to allow myself to retreat into silence. My words will disrupt the national narrative that has for too long ignored my very existence,” Figueroa said. “We are woven into the very fabric of this nation. There will have to be a new definition – one that includes all of us. All the voices from within. Tomorrow I will sit before my blank pages and start filling them with the words and the images of the world as I know it. I will write my stories and will not let the mean-spirited and the hate-filled rob me of my voice again.”

“You, as a writer, really you are the driver of society,” Farah said. “When I say that words matter, how do words matter? Before you were born, you were words. Before wars start, they write it out and say, ‘OK. This is how we are going to do it.’ Words are incredibly important.”