College may seem intimidating at first. It can be difficult to carve out a space, to create your ideal world in such a busy environment. But there are always moments that transcend those fears and inspire you to greatness.
The 2012 Neustadt Festival of International Literature and Culture was full of such moments.
The Molly Shi Boren Ballroom is full of hundreds of excited grade-schoolers. Drum beats and sitar music begin to crescendo until a dramatic array of Indian dancers races out onto the stage. Whirling and leaping, they tell stories through dance, as the audience sits in awe. One young student tries to move her hands in time with the dancers, bhangra-style.
Neustadt Laureate Rohinton Mistry sits unnoticed in a crowd of students. The panel is asked a question, and Mistry stands up to answer it instead. He moves to the front of the room, surprising the students who hadn't expected to interact with the author they had been diligently reading.
Sudha Bhuchar stands to greet the student actors who are performing pieces of her stage adaption of Mistry's A Fine Balance. The students applaud her, awed and humbled at her presence.
WLT is announcing the winners of the high school student essay contest. As the names are announced, one young man and his friends are looking increasingly disappointed. When the third name is called, they all pat him on the back, looking sad. He looks at the floor. The fourth name is called, the grand prize winner - and the young man springs up out of his seat. His friends cheer wildly, and he makes his way to the stage, smiling.
Mistry is giving his keynote address. He shares his childhood love of cowboys with the audience, and then begins to sing "Don't Fence Me In". Everyone listens, rapt, as Mistry finishes the song. "I never made the connection," he says, "between the misnamed Indians, subjugated, destroyed, and my childhood passion for cowboys…. We held this truth to be self-evident - that everything with a tag that said 'made somewhere in the west' was automatically superior."
The University of Oklahoma is a place of great cultural frontiers. It's a place where students from Oklahoma can come together with students from India, Senegal, South Korea, Ukraine, Chile, and a myriad of other countries, and learn about different cultures. It's a place where an organization like World Literature Today can exist and thrive, in a community dedicated to enlightenment and the sharing of knowledge.
Mistry's presence at this University has the power to inspire scores of young writers. His last words to the students were these: "In the space between the truth... the idea of home [can] be built anew, with memory and imagination, and scaffolded by language."
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