The Arts & Ideas’ Fellowship Program gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the arts by way of activities and seminars. Over a period of six months, they share their personal stories with each other, explore social justice issues through the arts, respond to live performances and articles, become familiar with the format of a non-profit organization, and even create and produce their own Town Hall program for the festival.
We asked this year’s fellows to introduce themselves to our online community and also share their personal reactions to The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the featured book of the 2019 Big Read. In this post, we are proud to introduce five of our fifteen fellows: Yoselin, Emily, Natalia, Daniela and Maya.
The fellows were predominantly raised in New Haven and appreciate its overarching energy and diversity.
Yoselin: What makes New Haven stand out to me is that it is a wonderfully diverse city, where many people can co-exist.
Emily: When I go on walks now I enjoy seeing how many people are walking their dogs, looking at the scenery, running, riding bikes on the trail and the list goes on. To me feeling like I know my neighbors is a really good feeling because it's how a community is built up… Since I live in such a beautiful place, many people will come outside at dusk when the sun is just about to start setting to watch the beauty or even take photos. This also is something I love because it brings people together.
Natalia: [My family and I] have lived in the East Rock neighborhood ever since we came to the United States and it has welcomed us with warm and open arms. Not only is East Rock the home of the majority of my friends, but it contains small businesses where we can get together and make some memories.
Daniela: I currently live in Fair Haven and have lived in New Haven for my entire life. Fair Haven is a lively neighborhood; most families and businesses are Hispanic/Latino, but there’s a good mix of different cultures from across the world.
The fellows are all attentive and thoughtful, but their differences are what gives the group its vibrance and charm. Some ways the fellows describe themselves are as compassionate, determined, and goofy. They spend their free time on a variety of interesting activities, some of which directly correlate to their goals and aspirations.
Emily: When I grow up I always dreamed to be a professional athlete. However with all my knee injuries over the years I don’t see myself pushing to get to that level of competition. I wouldn’t want to damage my body … I made a promise to myself to still stay in touch with the sport. That could be go to a batting cage once and a while to practice or even coach others. Since I have always been involved in softball I wanted to try to find a hobby on my own. One day I was fiddling with my mom's camera hoping to take some beautiful photos on it. However, they didn’t come out like I wanted them to. I worked hard teaching myself about angles and editing. This was something I actually taught myself how to do and something I grew to be very passionate about. One day I hope to be a great photographer and coach, perhaps. Sometimes I think about mixing the two together—a sports photographer. Super cool. I know I will get there one day.
Natalia: In my spare time, I love to listen to music and cook. Coming from a Hispanic family, my love for music flourished… my love for cooking and baking came specifically from my mother. My mother used to bake with us all the time when we were little; we made millions of treats. From rice crispy trains to cocoa balls, everything we made was exquisite. I am not a very good public speaker and I get really nervous whenever I have to present something, so I aspire to be better at public speaking. I have made various attempts to improve my public speaking: fidget toys, rehearsing, and focusing on one thing while presenting. Although all of these attempts have been in vain, I am determined to continue my journey to become a great public speaker.
Daniela: My hobbies include reading, playing music, and knitting. I would describe myself as an unathletic person, however, I do enjoy hiking and biking. I am also a musical person; I teach myself different instruments and occasionally perform. I want to further improve my musicianship skills. I don’t plan on becoming a professional musician but I continue to play my instruments for my personal interest.
Maya: I like to hang out with friends and think about my future career because I'm not totally positive about what I want to do. I want to be great at being comfortable with stepping out of my comfort zone, including speaking in public, meeting new people and more.
These students are perceptive, their values are deep, and they each find inspiration in different places. Their role models hold high importance in their lives:
Yoselin: I look up to my favorite teacher, Mr. Osborne. His unwavering dedication to teaching inspires everyone around him. He cares deeply for all of his students and goes above and beyond to make sure they are comfortable in our school environment. He inspires me daily to be a better person filled with compassion and understanding towards others.
Emily: I look up to my cousin Jordan because he was a phenomenal athlete and writer… He was a good cousin. He changed me, and when I grow up I hope to be as strong and humble as he was. I am a determined young woman and I believe that he has supported me to get to where I am now. With sports and schoolwork, my mind never stops and I never let failure get in the way. I always keep going and try again; he taught me that failure was okay, because if you didn’t fail, how would you get motivated to try again? He helped me with being confident and humble… Being around him, I gained knowledge, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Natalia: My role models are my parents because they have been through some much to get us here and to give us the opportunity to have more than Guatemala offered to us. My parents have taught me to seek every opportunity I am presented with, as they both take every chance they are given to expand their knowledge and improve their character.
Daniela: I look up to my sister because she is a very resilient person and is currently pursuing a nursing career.
The fellows are just as excited to learn as we are to share the festival experience with them!
Yoselin: I am very excited to see how the festival comes together behind the scenes. I wanna know how everyone works together to pull off such an amazing festival!
Emily: I’m excited to go to new places in my hometown of New Haven and visit places that I walked by or heard about but never visited on my own time. This opportunity will allow me to actually see what us New Haven kids have available to us that we don’t even take the time to appreciate, like art galleries, museums, poets, spoken word, and theaters.
Natalia: I am excited to see what other neighborhoods are like and how people come together in those neighborhoods. In addition, I am also really excited to learn about how the festival is made from scratch. I have attended the festival every year since my family moved here, so I really want to know how the staff is able to put on this amazing festival where everyone is welcomed.
Daniela: It’s very exciting to meet new people in a creative space. The projects we are involved in are amazing hands-on experiences and I appreciate this great opportunity.
Maya: I am excited about working with high-ranked people in New Haven and help them organize the Festival, because I'm bad at organizing stuff so maybe this can strengthen my organization skills.
The Namesake is a story of identity, love and family. Following the life of Gogol as he grows up brings us to question the significance of this novel to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. How are the fellows experiencing the book?
Yoselin: The Namesake makes me feel déjà vu. That is what made me feel drawn to the book. When Gogol felt embarrassed when teachers would pause during roll call or every time he had to correct people on how to pronounce his name; those are things I have experienced before and I know exactly how he feels.
Emily: The Namesake took awhile for me to actually enjoy. The first few chapters didn’t really grab my attention. I wasn’t really attached to the book. After going to the Institute Library with my mom to hear short stories read by actors and actresses from the New Haven Theater Company, it changed my opinion on the book. One story presented to us was one by Jhumpa Lahiri, who happens to also be the author of The Namesake. I grew to enjoy the book even more as I was comparing the story she wrote called “A Temporary Matter” to what I have read of The Namesake. Many things that are mentioned In the book are very interesting. All the dishes that are discussed make me think of my mom because she is a really good cook. In the novel they list the ingredients and I can imagine my mom doing the same thing with dishes we make in my culture.
Natalia: So far I am in love with this book. Even though the characters are from a different culture than me, I find this book extremely relatable. As the characters face a culture clash, I find that I went through some of the things these characters are going through. I specifically relate to Gogol because he struggles with his culture, and Ashima because she is an immigrant who is trying to find her place in a new country.
Daniela: Immediately, I was drawn to this book because I come from a multicultural background, so I felt a connection to Gogol as he encountered environments much different from his home and questioned his own cultural identity. This book reminds me of the medley of different cultures in my community.
We asked the students to pull out passages from The Namesake that really struck them. Their authentic reactions to the book reveal the importance of stories like these.
Yoselin: In the first paragraph on page 63 of The Namesake, Ashima's guest was talking about Sonia as if she was a full American because she refused to eat at her rice ceremony. I can relate to this on so many levels. I’ve had people tell me that I'm not Mexican but American because I celebrate the Fourth of July, and also that I'm more American than Mexican because I speak English more than Spanish.
“Unlike her compliant older brother, Sonia, seven months old, refuses all the food. She plays with the dirt they’ve dug up from the yard and threatens to put the dollar bill into her mouth. ‘This one,’ one of the guests remarks, ‘this one is the true American.’”
Emily: “Her child will be born in a place most people enter either to suffer or die”—I think this is a very interesting way to think about something that is “usual in America”. Since it is very common to be born in a hospital I don’t think many people think of birth like the author has chose Ashima too. I think of the hospital as both a happy and sad place. If you end up in the hospital and are “suffering and dying”, it means you get a chance to keep taking a day at a time. The hospital isn’t fun, no matter the level of pain you are in, but I think you should feel lucky you got the chance to be able to take that step for more help. To keep fighting, because we are lucky to live even on the hard days. The whole idea that the hospital is where you are born is interesting—you start healthy and strong, but you will come back and need care for certain things as you grow older. When you end your life it's usually at a hospital, and it shows the beginning and end to your life and it leaves out all the in-betweens, which is actually quite interesting.
“Ashima thinks it’s strange that her child will be born in a place most people enter either to suffer or die. There is nothing to comfort her in the off-white tiles of the floor, the off-white panels of the ceiling, the white sheets tucked tightly into the bed. In India, she thinks to herself, women go home to their parents to give birth, away from husbands and in-laws and household cares, retreating briefly to childhood when the baby arrives.” p. 4
Natalia: A passage that I found extremely relatable in chapter 3 said, “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.” p. 50
This passage spelled out the words I had forced myself to ignore; it clearly states what being an immigrant felt like. I have always hidden my status as an immigrant because some people treat you differently if they know you are not a citizen. This passage described clearly the struggles I had been facing and made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that other people from other cultures also felt like this.
Daniela: I found the portion of the book that took place in New Hampshire especially significant. In this section, Gogol constantly compares his family to his girlfriend Maxine’s parents; for example, he notices the differences even within family trips:
“The idea of returning year after year to a single place appeals to Gogol deeply. Yet he cannot picture his family occupying a house like this … It is an impulse his parents have never felt, this need to be so far from things. They would have felt lonely in this setting, remarking that they were the only Indians … He feels no nostalgia for the vacations he’s spent with his family, and he realizes now that they were never really true vacations at all.” p. 155.
These growth-minded students represent unique neighborhoods and an array of cultural backgrounds. They continue to teach us as much as they learn from us, and we are excited to have them as a part of the festival. Stay tuned to meet another group of our amazing fellows!