I’m delighted to have as a guest today Arleen Williams from Seattle, Washington. Her book, Biking Uphill was released this fall by Booktrope. Please say hello to Arleen.
Fall quarter starts with a bang and I am reminded once again why I write. Or more specifically, why I am writing The Alki Trilogy.
When I’m not writing, I’m an English as Second Language instructor at South Seattle College, a large urban school which is among the most diverse colleges in the country. The average student age is 31.5, 54% are first generation, 41% do not speak English as their first language and there are 35 languages spoken on campus on any given day. (2012 statistics http://www.southseattle.edu/campus-information/student-statistics.aspx)
This is my twenty-eighth year working with refugees and immigrants at this college. I’ve been teaching ESL for almost forty. When I introduce myself, when I tell my students these numbers, they inevitably ask me why. My response is always the same: I love to teach because I learn as much as they do. These are not empty words. The classroom has given me a world-view that does not stem from news stories but from the people who have lived the experiences that fill our headlines.
The Alki Trilogy began with a story about suicide, a topic I wanted to understand more completely. The character of Gemila Kemmal appeared to me unbidden but understandable: I work with African immigrants eager to gain the language skills necessary to enter our college nursing program. I did not plan to write three novels about the immigrant experience in the U.S. In fact, I didn’t plan to write a trilogy at all. But there we go. I fell in love with Gemila in Running Secrets. When I began Biking Uphill, a novel loosely based on a teenager I met years before when I was a lonely college student, I decided to hold tight to Gemila and Carolyn. Now, I’m working on Walking Home, the final novel in the trilogy, where the reader will meet new characters and revisit those who came before.
So I suppose the old adage, write what you know, guides my work just as it shapes the person I am. As I enter the classroom and greet the students before me, I wonder about the experiences they’ve lived, the things they’ve seen, the sacrifices they’ve made to come to class each morning hoping to glean the skills they need to build a new home in America. It is humbling. It is an honor. It scares the crap out of me … even after a lifetime of the same.
Arleen Williams is the author of three books. Running Secrets (Booktrope, 2013), the first novel in The Alki Trilogy, is about the power of friendship in helping overcome the dysfunction of family and life. Biking Uphill (Booktrope, 2014), book two of The Alki Trilogy, invites the reader into a world of undocumented immigration, where parents are deported, and a young girl is abandoned to face life on her own. The Thirty-Ninth Victim (Blue Feather Books, 2008) is a memoir of her family’s journey before and after her sister’s murder.
Arleen teaches English as a Second Language at South Seattle College and has worked with immigrants and refugees for close to three decades. Arleen lives and writes in West Seattle. To learn more, please visit http://www.arleenwilliams.com.