TRPL had its first Zine-Making Workshop last Thursday as part of an ongoing cut&paste creative collaborative with Three Rivers area youth. We’re working on our first issue, a zine focused on writing about our homes, hometowns and our real and imaginary constructions of place.
In these first conversations with students, it would seem as though many think that home is hopelessly dull. They could live in a Yemenite ziggurat, an Alaskan igloo, or Versailles, and still report that there is nothing special to write about. This first workshop was an attempt to teach students to see home in a fresh way, to walk through doors and open windows they never noticed, and to find the stories that home holds.
We began by brainstorming on a collaborative writing board. The abstract notion of home can easily be taken for granted, so the first task was to discover why a home became a home in the first place. I asked a group of students the following questions:
-Why is home a special place?
Several students wrote that home was special because it keeps the family together, it’s in a small town with a big yard, because home is place where we have rights to write and read what we like, and that home is special because we can walk to local stores, the library, and to school. Home was special because of strange siblings making odd sounds or how home was also school.
It was interesting to talk about what makes a small rural agricultural town like Three Rivers so different from its neighboring cities like Chicago or Detroit, what it means to be able to bike to where ever you need to go, how these students know many of their neighbors, and how they need to be creative to find fun things to do.
-What makes a home memorable?
Students pretended that they were living in a faraway and unfamiliar location, forced to look back to memories of the place they call home. Students wrote about warmth and the noise of the family and shared bedrooms, the background noise of TV and older sibling’s music, and the sound of a pet bird whistling. Another student wrote about the smell of ‘wet dog half the time’ while another described about the scents of Dad’s cooking. One student included the many climbing trees in the backyard, and the exact location and memory where a leg was broken.
-What makes home different from everywhere else?
Students wrote about the three rivers that wind through this region, a prominent feature in their description of place, as well as living in a large family, a parent’s strange cooking (tamales or anchovies), and the “weird neighbors” (The Boo Radley’s) that inhabit the same street. Another student wrote about how living with a single mother is different than anyone she knows.
-What’s weird about it? Exciting? What are its secrets?
There was mention of anchovies always available in the fridge and a cat drinking out of a toilet. One student wrote about how his house is slanted in the living room so that water will run down the slope. Another described a hand-built castle standing in the backyard, and how an unknown number of cats live in their house. One student revealed her secret of reading with a flashlight until she fell asleep without her parent’s knowledge, or hiding a chocolate bar in a “secret spot.”
As the students brains warmed up, they began to think about home in more quirky and imaginary ways.
We followed this exercise with reading page one of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and asked how home defines us. Would you be different if, say, you’d grown up on a dude ranch? In a New York high-rise? In Buckingham Palace?
The short story opens with a description of the Cordero family’s house on Mango Street, the most recent in a long line of houses they have occupied. Esperanza, the young narrator who is a preadolescent Mexican American girl, is dissatisfied with the house, which is small and cramped, and doesn’t want to stay there. But Mango Street is her home now, and she sets out to try to understand it. This first page briefly describes how Mango Street is populated by people with many different life stories, stories of hope and despair.
This short story allowed for students to examine the cultural conditions of place, the evolving houses, streets, and neighborhoods over time, and their place and history in their own neighborhood.
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After this writing and conversation time, students were given blank pieces of paper to draw home–their own street, house, block, city, vacation spot–a visual conception of place. This could be literally or imaginative; spatially accurate or a map of memory; true to life or a tall tale. The idea was to describe place in a specific way–with all the senses, in a manner that jiggles the imagination to allow a new perspective on an old place to emerge.
Students were so creative. They used color and words, aerial mapping, keys, and imagery depicting small, specific locales. We shared these maps and processes with one another. I was amazed at the amazing drawings: of noise and smells, memory and people, streets and oddly shaped buildings. There was a unicorn farm and “a man who lived in a big green sock,” a meteor crater, a blob, ET’s isosceles triangle house, and of course, the Library. Sure, so not all of these homes exist in Three Rivers.
Overall, it was a fascinating peek into how each student understands the places they call home, their community, and beyond. It encouraged them to write and think about home as unique and exciting, even if we have always considered it weird, dull, or ordinary. Hinting at the magic of home is the best any of us can do, and students didn’t shy away from allowing residual memory to linger in their descriptions. These creative writers sparked the reader’s/viewer’s imagination, rather than try to replace it.