Breaking Silences, by Erika Duncan

I am sitting on a conference call with the special-collections people from Hofstra University and Barnard, speaking of how we might highlight two decades of writing from some of Long Island’s most silenced and isolated communities, as a resource for activists, scholars, and students grappling with the living history of this long island of ours. As we speak of noncustodial and digital archive models, I remember those days in the Morgan Library, studying the original manuscripts of the already acknowledged “great” writers whose works had become the canon for the striving and the young.

Could a literature of unheard voices become its own kind of canon? What would happen if those voices were to be truly heard?

My mind wanders back to the dream that led me to open the doors of the Southampton Cultural Center to a small group of women wishing to write their memoirs but not yet knowing how they might begin. I had offered a week of free workshops following a conference I had co-organized celebrating women breaking silences. 

Up until that time, whether I had taught writing in the university or at home, I had assumed that there was a certain consistency that people needed to count on as they were opening themselves up on the page. By the time I had second thoughts as to what it would mean to craft intimate stories in a situation where strangers might come in at any moment, it was too late to take back my offer. The publicity was out, and people had already signed up.

I decided to make the most of what I thought was a bad situation by inventing the notion of writing for a reading stranger who might walk in at any “page one moment” of each person’s life. I told the circle of women that the stranger wouldn’t intrinsically care about the dreams and sorrows, injustices and gifts that make up a life. 

“How then could you come up with a scene that would fast-forward your imaginary ‘stranger/reader’ into walking in your shoes?” I asked. Then we all got to work, playacting the scenes out of each woman’s life that began to tell her story, trying each one on for size, seeing what produced the greatest empathy and engagement. 

I wasn’t prepared for the power of the stories that people who hadn’t written before were able to create. Within two or three days, I could tell that these opening moments were far more consistently compelling and strategically shaped than anything my students in closed workshops had been able to produce. 

But something else was happening as well. Already the women had formed a community that broke through those barriers that keep us from hearing one another. They were rearranging child care, taking sick days at work, and making other adjustments so as not to miss even one of the five days. They were staying up all night writing. 

On the third day, I sat bolt upright at 5 a.m. and said to myself that I had happened upon an interesting pedagogical notion, that someday I would pursue it and see if it could be funded. As I made my morning coffee, I could not stop thinking about the private-public nature of this odd amalgam I had chanced upon — part speakout in search of the stories most needing to be told, part throwback to the consciousness-raising of the 1970s, but with something else added, through the making of a product that was meant to be publicly heard. Why it worked, against all intuition, was something to be pondered and explored. 

On the fifth day, which was to be the culmination of the workshop, I realized that I didn’t care whether it would be funded. I asked the Town of Southampton for the use of the cultural center one evening and one morning a week. And Herstory Writers Workshop was born.

Never could I have dreamt that I would spend the next 20 years building a network of writing circles engaging thousands of women and girls (and more recently men and boys) in domestic violence shelters, universities, labor halls, public schools, and healing centers, nor that the words “stranger/reader” and “imaginary page one” would be echoing in Spanish and behind prison walls.

As the weeks turned into months, and eventually years, we continued to alternate our meetings between daytimes and evenings to accommodate working women as well as mothers and grandmothers with young children at home. Some came to every meeting, working on book-length projects that would take years to complete. Others came just long and frequently enough to write a particular story that needed to be told. There were always new strangers. There were houseguests and visiting cousins who would come simply to listen or to offer support, but soon they, too, were beginning to tell their own stories.

After a while, the project, which had begun as a bit of an experiment as to why such a public-private thing should work so well, took on a life that came to feel more permanent. Women were coming from so far away that we were invited to open another branch in a more central part of Long Island — in a community and counseling center whose teddy bears and boxes of tissues, bright sunflowers and freely wandering animals would sharply contrast with the guns in cases and displayed war helmets of the Southampton Veterans Hall. 

And then there was another invitation, and another, from the Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council, from Friends World College, from a union of day laborers, as together we developed our tool kit to help our stranger/readers care. 

Teachers, human-rights activists, and healers took notice of the power of a pedagogy based on the dare to care. There was talk of replication and the creation of a manual to train new facilitators. The first two trainees asked to work in the jails, where the silencing was the greatest. A third founded our first Spanish workshop here on the East End, where women who worked as housecleaners, nannies, and cooks, many of them scholars or judges in their own countries, could write in the language of their memories and dreams. 

We published two bilingual magazines, along with a prison collection, then six other books, including two full-length anthologies used as textbooks by our college partners to help their students give the issues they studied a face. We received many invitations for our writers to give public readings. 

I will never forget the day when our favorite lieutenant called to purchase 250 books to train incoming officers in Suffolk County’s correctional academy. For 18 months, no officer was allowed to graduate without reading the stories of the women he or she would someday guard. 

We began to work in the schools, taking students with stories of growing up in poverty, racism, violence against immigrants, teen pregnancy, and early incarceration to write with college students on their campuses. Today it is our largest program, with eight school districts and five colleges involved.

And then, five years ago we created a new position for a justice and advocacy director, who just became our executive director, while I let go of the administrative journey to return my 70 hours a week to the literary work that set me on a course larger than I could have imagined. 

As I drive the long miles from my house in Sag Harbor to the campus of Hofstra University, the home of our new training institute in partnership with Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement, I look down at the copies of our manual “Paper Stranger” that I will be distributing to our cohort preparing to work in the field. And I think about how in this moment of history, when those coming into power are sanctioning hatred of the stranger, how doubly important are the stories that come from populations kept silenced, estranged, and apart.

I think about the notion of passing along the dare to care — how simple it is. And yet how profound are the ramifications as we move out of silence into speech. For when we care deeply enough, we find words we didn’t know we had. Each of us has a poetry of experience hidden deep inside us that can be called into being out of the stream of memories that bubble up to the surface from our hope and our anger and our grief. When we dare to imagine that someone might hear us and actually care, bit by bit we break out of the silence and isolation that is the fate of so many.

But what is caring, really? It is so much more than a feeling passed along to another, going nowhere. It is — and must always be — a very deep call to action. Otherwise our belief in society’s capacity to protect us will die even before it is properly born.

Yet this is the time when our stories are needed the most.

Erika Duncan is the author of the novels “A Wreath of Pale White Roses” and “Those Giants: Let Them Rise.” Her monthly “Encounters” series ran in the Long Island Weekly section of The New York Times for four years in the 1990s.