Of steps and story slams: Rebirths, Returns, and Comebacks Story Slam at Wolf Humanities Center

I had just signed the lease on my apartment. I was an adult now. Naturally, I did what every reasonable adult would do. I climbed the Rocky steps, sat on the topmost stair, and cried.

That August afternoon was hot. People on the steps would have mistaken my tears for sweat. Fortunately, my emotions evaporated into the heat as quickly as they came. Looking out onto the Parkway  released me from my anxiety and brought me peace.

It had taken me less than a week to find my place. My search had begun in University City, but gradually, I was drawn across the river, through Center City, and eventually onto the Parkway.

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is celebrating its centennial this year. I could not have picked a better year to move here. I’ve witnessed the opening of Fireflies, the winter fountains, protest marches, marathons, and, of course, the Eagles victory parade.

I wasn’t supposed to be in town for the Eagles parade. I was supposed to be in NYC listening to Amish Tripathi talk about Immortal India, his latest book. But, I got sick. Nothing serious. Just enough for me to decide travelling would be inadvisable.

I wandered onto the Parkway around noon, and then I did what I always did: I walked. I walked up toward Eakins Oval and then wandered back toward the Franklin Institute and Billy Penn’s statue on City Hall.

That’s when the little flashes of memory came to me. My past and present were connecting through the sights and sounds I experienced that afternoon. After six months in the city, Philly finally felt like home. I was making new memories, memories that belonged only to me.

The next night, I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its regular Friday night event. As I sat in my favorite gallery, a re-created Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu and Krishna, my experiences overseas, my moves, my love for art and for history—everything was with me in that moment, inside me.

A place called home.

The words came pouring out.

Too many words, actually.

I had decided to enter my story for the Wolf Humanities Center Rebirths, Returns, and Comebacks Story Slam event. The story slam required that the story be only five minutes long or about 500 words. That meant that I had cut the story in half, tossing some of its most controversial content. I had written about a girl in the crowd kneeling during the national anthem. Was she kneeling in protest or just stretching? I never found out, and neither would my audience.

What remained was a journey along the Ben Franklin Parkway. I whittled and whittled until the reading fit within five minutes and submitted the story just inside the deadline.

Receiving the email from Sara Varney at Penn was such a joyful moment for me. Finally, things were beginning to click into place creatively. Philly was welcoming me home, accepting me because I wrote about my love for the City of Brotherly Love.

This story slam wasn’t a typical story slam like those at First Person Arts. It was a unique deaf and hearing story slam benefitting the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The event would be a wonderful opportunity for my story to benefit the local community. Five storytellers were hearing. Five were deaf. A large part of the audience would be deaf, and all hearing stories would be simultaneously translated into American Sign Language.

Sound is an integral part of my fiction. Songs and sounds aren’t just background; they often play pivotal roles in moving the story forward. As I sent the final version for translation, I wondered: Did I have too many sound elements in the story? Should I make the images move visual? How would removing the sounds affect the story?

I realized too many changes would have gutted the story. When I learned the event would be recorded on audio only, I decided to keep the story largely unchanged to maximize the impact of that format and remain true to my own voice.

I emailed about one line where I say “Listen!” How would the translator handle that? I spoke with them again before the event. They said it would be translated as “pay attention” in ASL.

The event was even better than I imagined. The Wolf Humanities Center team did a great job selecting storytellers and organizing the event. I did hardly anything that night except show up and get on stage.

All the storytellers offered personal, sometimes difficult, testimonies about how they returned from the brink of cancer or were reborn through online gaming. I loved watching the deaf storytellers communicate through gestures. I could feel their emotions in their expressions.

I learned so much that night. Here are my top three takeaways:

  • You don’t clap in ASL to show your enjoyment. You raise your hands and shake them back and forth rapidly.
  • Writers have a duty to confront difficult topics, like suicide, but we cannot always predict the impact our words will have.
  • Every language has its own version of sign language, so deaf immigrants must not only learn written English, but the American version of sign language.

If you want to hear the stories that taught me those lessons, you can listen to the SoundCloud recording. My story is at 1:19.

 

 

 

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