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Imam Baksh on his passion for reading and introducing literature to children

Imam_Baksh_.jpg
Image courtesy of Imam Baksh.
Imam Baksh

Since 1967, about 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have spent time in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. A group of 18 established writers from around the world took part in the 2021 fall residency in Iowa.

Imam Baksh is a storyteller, a writer of children's andyoung adults books, and a teacher from the South American country of Guyana. Baksh has authored two award-winning young adult novels The Dark of the Sea and Children of the Spider. He has been a featured presenter at literary festivals, runs a literacy project in Guyana as well as a library for his community, and owns and operates a kindergarten. Ben Kieffer spoke with Baksh on River to River on Nov. 5.  

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Kieffer: "Tell us a little bit about your writing, your background and the themes you like to explore."

Baksh: "So my published novels, first of all, focus on young people, and it's very much about the idea of figuring out what you're willing to fight for, what you value in life. In my first novel, we meet a person, the main character, who has grown up isolated in a harsh society, and she needs to learn kindness. She needs to learn the idea that her actions affect a larger community. And in my second novel, we meet a boy who lives in a rural community without any sense of purpose or hope. He is a very under-privileged person, and something magical happens to him, and he starts to realize there is a larger world of opportunity out there, and, of course, again, he has to decide if he's going to make a stand to preserve that."

"This ties in to the fact that several years ago, you started your own kindergarten and pre-K. Tell us about that. Why did you see that need?"

"Our school system back home, it's kind of stuck in a very colonial British style with very much rote learning, memorization, a lot of structure, order and discipline. And there's not a lot enough emphasis on literacy, or certainly not a very scientific approach to literacy, no phonics or much of phonics. And the time set aside for reading is not very much.

"So my experiences in the government school system were frustrating, and I decided I should start my own school, and I had the opportunity to start it in terms of capital, having a space to do it, and I thought I would be in charge, and I'll emphasize reading education. I'll emphasize things like plays, influences from American and Canadian style teaching, where there's a lot more free-form learning, a lot more lateral communication rather than just a teacher telling people things.

"The plan was to start with pre-K and kindergarten and build up to a full-size school, and I actually got all the way to grade two. Every year I was adding a class and it was a successful project as it was going along. And then in 2016 my novel got published, and it got some good acclaim. I thought to myself, maybe I should try this writing thing, I don't know if it will come along again. So I ended up putting the school on pause, so to speak. So, sadly, I had to cancel grade one and two, but I kept pre-K and kindergarten. Starting this year, I've taken a stronger hand with it and have actually opened a second branch closer to an urban center, and I'm looking to expand the project.

"So, I'm not sure if I'll ever go back to grade one, two, even high school, as I had originally envisioned, but I enjoy the fact that at the pre-K and kindergarten levels, that's the entry point for literacy for people in my community. These students, I feel like I'm one of the few people giving them that entry into literacy in a calm, seductive way where reading is fun. Reading is something they go to, rather than reading being a challenge that they're told that they have to engage with, whether they like it or not."

"You are also an advocate for, I guess, your native language Guyanese Creole, which I would infer a language with a mix of influences native to your country?"

"Yes. Guyana is a colonial legacy. We have West African people who were enslaved and brought to the sugar estates. We have Indians, from India, who were brought here to work with indentured workers to Guyana. And we have the native population, who were there before the Europeans showed up. So the British gave us the English words but the work structure on the estates with people, who spoke all these hundreds of languages from all these places, they had to take English words and cram it into a new structure that was very efficient for work purposes. That was the birth of Creole. Guyanese Creole sounds almost identical to, say, Jamaican Creole.

"Getting back to the kindergarten issue, when a child is born in Guyana, 95 percent of them speak Creole at home and they don't speak any English, standard English. And then they get to age 4 or 5, they go to the school system, and all of a sudden they're told they have to read in standard English. They're trying to reconcile these two languages with different pronunciation, and the phonics system doesn't do them any favors. At the same time, they're trying to learn the rules of standard English, so it's a very confusing entry point into reading.

"What I've found is that if you relax the stringency and you say to the child, 'hey, this is Creole. This is English. This is how we do it in Creole. This is how we do it in English.' They grasp that idea really easily, and they're able to separate the streams, so to speak. And they learn the reading of the English, the standard English phonics, much more easily. It seems like such a simple thing to say to them that we have a Creole, and that we have a standard English, and these are two separate streams. But what they end up actually getting in the school system, for the most part, is they are told that Creole is broken English, and they are forbidden from using it in the classroom. They are forbidden from, in any way, expressing themselves with that. Especially for any formal purposes. It's a shock to their system because a lot of them don't know this language, they're suddenly expected to perform it, and it ends up creating a situation where many students just shut down. They refuse to engage with reading. They refuse to engage with any kind of public speaking.

"So, I just want to be able to have some kind of parallel stream where we can say to students, 'these are both acceptable languages, and you're free to move between them.' And that freedom will create that sense in them that, 'oh well, I'm learning two different things' and it orient them to learn English reading in a much more systematic way."

"I have to ask you, you are certainly no stranger to the United States. You attended university in Florida, in Miami. You're here in Iowa. I wonder how those places compare? Are there any particular points of American culture that you are looking to, or perhaps already have experienced again here in Iowa?"

"I find that America, even here in Iowa, is really very cosmopolitan. Maybe Iowa City is a bit of an exception, I don't know. I've heard people say Iowa is so uniform, compared to Miami. Miami is such a mix of cultures and languages and nationalities. One aspect of American life I like a lot is just that the way you guys do value your culture, and that's another thing I think Americans get down on themselves about that. I've heard that Americans are not as cultured with others or they don't think they are. But you guys have museums and projects to preserve your culture — things that I think my country could learn a lot from. You designate things like historical buildings. You do have a sense that you should preserve your heritage."

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa
Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa