Since early 2014, I have worked as a writing mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), where I lead online creative writing workshops for women based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Responding to weekly writing prompts, workshop participants create poems and short essays which are discussed as a group, then revised and often published via the organization’s blog. The AWWP strives to create a safe, empowering space where women can share their stories with the world without the threats of violent retaliation, harsh criticism, or indifference that are part of many Afghan women’s lives. The organization was founded by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton to honor the memory of Zarmeena, an Afghan mother of seven who was publicly executed by the Taliban in 1999. All of the AWWP’s mentors are women, which I believe makes it a little less intimidating for workshop participants who have been traditionally oppressed by male presences. I passionately believe in the importance of women collaborating with other women, encouraging them to find their voices and share their experiences.
Storytelling puts the power back into the hands of the writer. Through writing, workshop participants bring more narrative coherence to their own experiences, which offers a renewed sense of power and freedom within the constraints and oppression of their circumstances. When asked to reflect on her experiences working with AWWP, Nasima, a writer who lives in the Herat province, stated that the AWWP “understand[s] me and respect[s] me… AWWP provided me time to talk and find my heart. When I am writing… from my heart to paper, it makes me free of pain and hardship.”
Writing produced in AWWP’s workshops has reflected on such issues as gendered violence, as in writer Asma’s essay “How Culture Leads to Gender Violence,” and anxiety about the onset of menstruation and being married off at a young age, as in Rahela’s essay “You are a Woman Do Not Tell Anyone,” as well as on hope and religious faith, as in Friba’s poem “I Think…”
My role as an AWWP mentor is to help lead writers through producing and revising a finished creative work. From the start, I set a nurturing tone, one rooted in empowerment and healing, with a focus on craft. The women write in English, which also provides an opportunity for them to practice and build their English language skills. It is a source of enormous joy for me as an editor and workshop facilitator to see the development of a piece, draft by draft, through the consistent digital exchange with a writer over the course of two months.
AWWP’s workshop prompts directly address Afghan culture and current events, but women in our workshops are always free to write about whatever topics they choose. Often the work produced is a response to the violence of living under the Taliban. For instance, in late 2014, the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, where 132 children were killed. Some of the writers working with AWWP at the time had spent time in Peshawar and went to school there when their families fled Afghanistan during the Taliban era, and AWWP encouraged its writers to respond to this tragedy. The workshop served as a place for people to express and share their grief.
Along with enduring the Taliban’s ongoing terrorism, it is not uncommon for Afghan women to face extreme domestic abuse—some even to the point of brutal mutilation. In 2013, a young Afghan woman named Sitara had her lips and nose sliced off after refusing to fund her husband’s opium addiction. In “Star,” a moving poem published on the AWWP blog, AWWP writer Seeta helps bring awareness to a tragedy that is all too commonplace:
“You are not the only Afghan woman
we need to defend. Aysha too
lost her nose.
You shine, Sitara, in Afghanistan’s sky.
Our sky is full of stars like you,
veiled in blue.
If we fade, shadows will darken
our Afghan people.
Women must light up our country again—
but how? We are being hung and killed.”
As an AWWP writing mentor, my job is to help people tell their stories, along with their hopes for a better Afghanistan. Many of the writers I encounter express great pride in being Afghan and a desire to improve their lives and society through education.
This past April at AWP in Minneapolis, I had the honor of speaking on a panel called “Writing as Therapy for War,” with authors David P. Ervin, Elana Bell, Maurice Decaul, and Amira Pierce. The panel focused on facilitating workshops for veterans and witnesses of war, and two of the panelists, Ervin and Decaul, are also US military veterans, which made the conversation all the more rich and compelling. Our panel discussion centered on the value of literary community as a space for processing wartime experiences. In addition to sharing our pedagogical practices, we also read writing from workshop participants in order to further illustrate how important it is for individuals to process the realities of war through such empowering means. Bell, a poet and educator who has done extensive peacebuilding work in the Middle East, described her workshop experiences with Palestinian women much like “turning on a faucet” in that, when given the opportunity, these women are eager to tell their stories. I have found this to also be true with the Afghan women I’ve worked with.
After the panel, I was approached by a psychiatrist who expressed her frustration with current trends in her practice. She discussed the possibility of incorporating creative writing into her therapy sessions with patients who specifically suffer from Continuous Traumatic Stress Disorder (CTSD). Through my work as an editor for Military Experience and the Arts, where I work closely with veteran writers, I’ve gained a more intimate understanding of the suffering involved with the more commonly-known Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But CTSD is a condition that affects those in environments of ongoing stress and violence, from war zones to domestic abuse situations. If trauma isn’t processed, it is often relocated through self-destructive behavior or abuse against others. Creative writing offers those living with CTSD a very practical and empowering means to cope with the ongoing presence of abuse and suffering in their lives.
I believe that many of the women I work with through the AWWP operate from a place of trauma. For many of them, living under the Taliban and harsh gender discrimination makes for a life of constant fear and uncertainty. Retelling one’s story through writing invites play, which promotes movement through traumatic memories toward healing. Creative writing allows people to move freely in psychological spaces, and to own their trauma instead of being owned by it.
Recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Olivia Kate Cerrone’s fiction and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals, including New South, the Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, War, Literature and the Arts, JMWW, Word Riot, and The Portland Review. In addition to her work with the AWWP and Military Experience and the Arts, she also leads creative writing workshops for refugees to help them process the trauma of migration and displacement. Find her online at oliviacerrone.com.