Awaiting A Great Poet's Arrival, Kansas City Immigrants Get Writerly

May 20, 2016

Juan Felipe Herrera's official duty is to be the "lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."

That's how the Library of Congress begins its job description for the United States poet laureate. In other words, the poet-in-chief "seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry."

In Kansas City, Herrera has been able to do that without even being present. He's scheduled to give a reading here at the end of the month, but on a recent Sunday afternoon at The Writer's Place, a big old mansion in Midtown, people gathered to tell stories "in the spirit of Juan Felipe Herrera."

As the nation's first Latino poet laureate, Herrera's work is concerned (among many other things) with the experience of immigrants. So the Writer's Place asked three immigrants to lead a panel discussion on the idea of home.

The three women who spoke didn't call themselves writers, but their stories — told in the striking accents of their homelands — provoked strong emotions nonetheless.

Deki Yangzom read from the harrowing narrative she'd typed up, recounting how her family had to leave Bhutan after he got death threats for supporting religious freedom. They lived for years in a refugee camp before a resettlement agency helped bring them to the United States.

"The day we boarded the plane, I realized we had spent exactly 14 years in exile where the cream of our life, the prime time of our opportunities, was eroded in long years of open confinement," she said.

Lynne Aime, a refugee from Haiti's political upheaval in the 1990s, spent time in Africa and New York before coming to Kansas City. She spoke about having surgery and seeing news of the 2010 earthquake from her hospital bed, and about the seemingly endless bureaucracy that forced her to wait 15 years to obtain a green card through the proper channels (instead of, for example, entering a fake marriage).

"It’s very easy to lose who you are if you don’t pay attention," Aime said. "There were days when I was in such despair didn’t know if I would live to the next day because I didn’t know what else to do."

Nyakio Kaniu-Lake, from Kenya, opened her talk with a literary reference.

"Charles Dickens wrote a book, 'A Tale of Two Cities.' I have my story of my two homes. It’s a bittersweet story, because as much as I love Kansas City, I still long for my country."

With parents who were business people, Kaniu-Lake was a child of relative privilege who left Kenya at an early age for boarding school but came home for holidays and grew up amid a large family and community; she attested to the truth of the "it takes a village" adage. She and her two brothers came to America for college, and she’s now been here 24 years – half her life. She’s a therapist, working with low-income, severely disabled people in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties. She often travels back to Kenya.

"I’m lucky to actually have the best of both worlds now," Kaniu-Lake said, before ending her talk with a question both literal and rhetorical: "Can you really have two homes?"

In the question-and-answer session that followed, the dozen or so people in the audience learned more about politics in Bhutan, in Kenya, and the dynamics between Haiti and its island neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

The most animated discussion was about food, including laments about McDonald's and a recommendation for a local Ethiopian and Caribbean restaurant.

Then the panel's moderator, Catherine Anderson of Jewish Vocational Services, which helps resettle immigrants, passed around a bowl filled with fortune-cookie-sized strips of paper containing the sorts of questions often used to prompt writing exercises -- "One room of a former home where you used to live," "The trees of your home," "Where was home when you were eleven years old," "The insects of your home" -- and the dozen or so people in the audience told their own stories for another hour before wrapping up with snacks and selfies.

Juan Felipe Herrera was named United States poet laureate in September 2015.
Credit Library of Congress

"While we were leading up to Juan Felipe Herrera's visit, it was important to talk of immigration stories and how (immigration) relates to the written word, and open up writing and the ability to write not only to those who consider themselves practiced writers but to all of the community," said Natasha Karsk of the Writers Place. "Because we feel there are stories to be told and healing with writing it down."

For Deki Yangzom of Bhutan, that seems to have worked.

“Today I think my heart went a little bit light because I spoke out, something that was always in my mind but today I shared it with so many people," she said. "I feel so light hearted today.”

Nyakio Kaniu-Lake even had an epiphany.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a writer before, so to be able to be somewhere and see people shake their head tells me that maybe I could write.”

All of which suggests that some of Juan Felipe Hererra’s work here is done. Imagine what he'll do when he actually comes to Kansas City.

The Kansas City Public Library hosts An Evening with Juan Felipe Herrera, Friday, May 27, 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64105.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.