At age 11, Katherin Socias Báez was crying as she climbed onto a plane, leaving Communist-controlled Cuba to live with her father and stepmother in Louisville.
At age 12, A’lea Marie Smith was confused, as no adults could adequately explain the mysteries of her changing body, which was carrying a child.
At age 14, Mehwish Zaminkhan was sitting on the muddy floor of a secret classroom, forced there because the Taliban barred women from getting an education.
Today, the girls are in the same place: in Louisville, as former or current students of Iroquois High School, the state’s most diverse school. Now, they all are published authors.
“No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer” is a collection of nine stories, written by the students over an intensive, 17-month project from the Louisville Story Program. It’s the fifth book from the nonprofit, which raises funds from community foundations, donors and book sales to increase understanding between Louisville residents by showing how different — and similar — they are through storytelling. This year, the authors were paid for work they completed outside of class, as part of Mayor Greg Fischer’s SummerWorks program.
The book can be bought at several local bookstores and at louisvillestoryprogram.org. The authors will read portions aloud at a Thursday launch at the Columbia Auditorium at Spalding University, with doors opening at 6 p.m. and the program beginning at 7 p.m.
Below are excerpts from the book, plus Q&As with the authors. We also spoke with Joe Manning, who is one half of the Louisville Story Program’s directorial team.
Katherin Socias Báez: ‘We’re the same person’
IT’S FROM Katherin Socias Báez’s chapter that the title of the book comes from: “No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer” — a translated phrase that her Cuban family used to describe the power of working together and supporting each other. Báez, 17, who is now a senior at Iroquois High School, talks about her pivotal role in the project, and the project’s equally important role in her own future plans.
LEO: Your story is the first one in the book, I noticed, so how do you feel about that?
Katherin Socias Báez: First, I didn’t know I was going to be the first story … But since the title of the book comes from my chapter, I feel like the editors decided that it was the right one to be the first one …
What kind of tone do you hope it sets for the rest of the book?
A tone that says, ‘I’m just like you.’ You know? I might be an immigrant, I might be from somewhere else, but we’re the same person. We’re people. So don’t think of me as something like an alien. Think of me as a human being. And for the rest of the girls, too.
So, in your story, you examined your relationships with a lot of your family members, you know, you had your parents in it and your uncle, so did writing this story change your understanding of your family at all?
Yes, in some ways it did, because when you write, you think of, especially if it’s about your life, you think of all the things that happened. You know, you look back, and you’re like, ‘Wow this happened to me,’ and like, this person was in my life, and how they affected me and how I think of them now. So I guess it did change the way I view them now, and I understand why they did things the way they did, so yeah.
Did you learn things you didn’t know about them?
Yes, I did, I learned — I mean, from my grandma, I learned a bunch of stuff that — I mean, I always knew the way she was, but writing my chapter helped me understand why: Why she was that way, why she raised us that way.
Do you think you’ll continue to write even now that the project is over?
I might. Yeah, I think I might keep writing or maybe make a career out of it.
Really, a career?
I don’t know, I was thinking something to do with journalism. But I’m not sure.
Had journalism ever entered your mind before you stared?
No, I never thought that I would write. Even though I read books, I never thought about it. You know, I mostly was in love with authors and their books and really excited about it, but I never saw myself as one of them. It was more of something that could never happen to me.
And now you do see yourself as a writer?
I mean, yes. I guess. [More emphatically] Yeah.
‘No single sparrow makes a summer’
By Katherin Socias Báez
My grandma was an activist in Cuba. As the head of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) she organized patriotic events and would march on the large streets of our neighborhood, proudly holding a bright Cuban flag and yelling, “¡Viva Cuba libre! ¡Viva Fidel!” I would follow her along with the huge crowd of students repeating after her. I loved helping Abu organize all these patriotic acts. I felt the adrenaline running through my veins every time we raised our fists and yelled something. I felt like I could do anything just by speaking up, which is ironic since I was demonstrating my “loyalty” to the Cuban government, not fighting against it. I was there not because I truly believed in what the Castro brothers were making out of Cuba, but because I wanted to feel some kind of power by screaming for the whole country to hear. Abu liked when I was this fierce about helping her because then we would be seen as honorable citizens of the Cuban nation and not as traitors.
In Cuba most people are involved in the government, even if you want out. Your job, friends, school, cartoons — your whole life experience — is because of the Cuban Revolution. Most Cubans can recite the entire Cuban history along with the biographies of all the martyrs. For me, it was normal to know all these things and have debates over wars and how things could’ve been different if they hadn’t taken the risky measures they did.
At home it was different. Most days we would watch the news, and if Abu didn’t agree with something heroic they said about Fidel, she would comment, “There they go again, making him some kind of hero. They’re giving us cat instead of hare — we all know Fidel killed Camilo Cienfuegos, a martyr for Cubans.” Abu said that the government was constantly lying to us about what had really happened but that we had to look communist and pretend we were buying what they were selling us. She said that we had to believe those ideals and apply them outside of the house, but that under her wing, we could roast the government all we wanted. She explained to us that we had to live like that in order to be safe.
Abu’s disillusionment with the government started when my uncle Danilo was 14 years old. He was the smartest kid in his class, read books a lot, and had his future already figured out. Even if he was as mature as everyone thought he was, he was still a kid, and kids make mistakes. There was a time he and a couple of friends heard about a stash of guns belonging to the government and went to find it. Without even giving his brain time to process the information, he went on an adventure to get those guns. He was curious to see what they were like since guns aren’t part of our culture. And he did, but he was caught. The Cuban government has little mercy for sinners, and he had just committed a big crime, so they said he should be punished. Uncle Danilo was sent to a correctional institution where the worst of the worst kids were prisoners. Abu suffered a lot because her first born child, who was a great kid, made a mistake. My mom tells me that Abu resented the government, yet knew there was nothing she could do but prove that she was loyal. Eventually he got out at the age of 18, but after being locked up for four years he wasn’t the same. He couldn’t get a stable job and alcohol was his best friend. It saddens me how that light was stolen from such a bright person. To this day, he is the most crafty person I know. He’d go to the slaughterhouse and get bulls’ heads, then use the horns to make earrings, necklaces, rings, keychains and espuelas de gallo, which were glued to roosters’ spurs for cockfights. Tio Danilo also fixed shoes with a huge needle and thread, which he strengthened by using resin from the Indian-almond tree in our back yard or wax from chewed honeycomb. Although Abu loves Danilo, what happened to him left a scar on her. She never forgot. •
A’lea Marie Smith: ‘How far can I go?’
ONLY A SENIOR at Iroquois High School, A’lea Marie Smith had a lifetime of experiences to draw from when she started the Louisville Story Program: Her pregnancies as a preteen and a teenager, the death of her mother and the story of how she got where she is today — a proud, 19-year-old college student. Here, she discusses how she condensed her experiences into writing, and how she thinks her daughters will react to them.
LEO: First I wanted to ask, just how did you figure out what experiences to focus on in your story?
A’lea Marie Smith: Well, I know I couldn’t really think about it all and write about it in one day, so what me and my editor did is we would focus on one topic like motherhood one week, write about motherhood as many pages as I could muster. The next week, talk about foster care and how I got through foster care, all in one week, and write about as much as I can write about foster care. And I would do it weekly to weekly, and then one day, we would just merge everything together, and that’s how I’d make my chapter.
So, a lot of your story revolves around your two daughters, Jae’dyce and Jena, and so, when do you plan on reading them your story, if at all?
[Smith sighs] Well, Jena, it’s a really whole different story, because when she gets to that age, she wouldn’t have known, ‘Wait, I didn’t know that you didn’t have custody yet, at a certain time.’ So, it’ll be a real interesting story for her. But Jae’dyce, she’s going to be like, ‘Wow, mom, I didn’t know it was so hard for you to keep up with school and keep up with Popeye’s and keep up with people at home, and still thinking about all those feelings at the same time.’ So I think that Jae’dyce will love me more. I think Jena will be a little bit confused, and it will be about her brain capacity of what she can take in and how she’s going to react to it, and I’m looking forward to it really.
Your story has some tragic moments and some joyous ones. You talk about your mother’s passing, the birth of your daughters, the story of how you found the home that you live in. How, if at all, did writing this story help you process through some of the emotions that you might have had about those experiences?
Well, when you get the chance to write something down, you see that it’s in the past, so it’s an accomplishment that you even get to write it down. So really I just think, ‘Wow, I’ve made it so far, how far can I go?’ So, I never just stop in one place or one moment; I keep going and going and going, and when you keep going, things like people calling you, ‘Hey, there’s an apartment ready,’ or you know, someone saying, ‘Hey you did good on a book,’ you just keep going. There’s other events in your life that’s just bound to happen, but you know, the negative moments isn’t always going to happen, but there’s always going to be something positive happening in your day.
‘A day and a life’
By A’lea Marie Smith
5:45 a.m. comes around a little bit too soon as I put a snowsuit on my daughter, Jae’dyce. I couldn’t afford to get us both a winter coat, and as we walk through the back door, the cold air bites at my sensitive teeth. I put Jae’dyce’s hat on while I push her in her stroller. The sun hasn’t come out yet. The trees are silent, nothing in the air. I walk as fast as I can to my TARC stop on the corner of Sutcliffe and 38th.
There is an elderly man smoking a cigarette beside me at the bus stop, so I move a few paces to the left, not wanting Jae’dyce to catch secondhand smoke. I don’t want Jae’dyce to grow up with temptation all around her. I don’t want Jae’dyce to grow up wondering where her next meal is either, so I work 25 hours a week, after school, at Popeye’s over on Preston Highway. I’ve worked there for a year and a half, but I don’t have any loyalties. I walk in every day, look at my fellow employees and say, “Welcome to Popeye’s.” I put on a hairnet, wash my hands and immediately get to work on the cash register, packing food, doing dishes, battering chicken and dropping it in the hottest grease, slowly, so I won’t get burned. While I’m there I work my butt off, and when I get home I smell like chicken. It’s hard work but it pays off.
I look down Broadway. The bus is nowhere in sight. Five minutes have gone by. If this first TARC is late it has a chain reaction: I’ll get to my next bus stop late after I drop Jae’dyce off at daycare, and then miss the next TARC, and then I’m late to school. Some people think that my tardiness is the result of laziness but it isn’t. I gotta fuss with a child at five o’clock in the morning, and sometimes she just isn’t feeling it. Some things are out of my control.
The loud engine of the bus creeps up to the streetlight slowly. The tires slide against the ice along the concrete. The birds are silent, still asleep. Only crazy people are out this early in the cold. With Jae’dyce in her car seat in one hand, and her stroller in the other, I take my time struggling to get on the bus. Numerous men are waiting for me to get done and not one volunteers to help me. Chivalry these days.
After setting her stroller on the rail, I turn to pay my TARC fee: 80 cents for JCPS students. I insert a wrinkled, old dollar into the machine, eager to get rid of it. I look up expecting my transfer ticket. The driver is an old man with an unattractive five o’clock shadow.
“You don’t look like you’re under 18 to me,” he says, not looking in my eyes, focusing on lower places. I put my arms around my chest and back away from him.
“I’m still in school,” I claim.
I slam my body in the seat, upset at nasty people these days. People look at me and Jae’dyce. An old woman wearing shades with a Bible in her hands melts at the sight of my daughter. Jae’dyce loves the attention, of course, but I’m not in the mood to answer the same constant questions today. How old is she? Is she teething? What’s her name? Don’t forget the biggest one: Is her father around? The men always ask that one, and I politely answer, “No, are you offering? Because I’m taking baby daddy applications.” Sometimes I am not that respectful.
Although there have been times when I hated the TARC — the heat and the stench — there’s also been times when I didn’t want to leave or go home, when I wanted to stay forever.
For some reason I do all my heavy crying on the TARC. I was on my way home from middle school once, thinking about my newborn at home. When it was time to get off the bus, I didn’t ring the bell. I just sat there and watched my house roll by. I kept going till I was miles away from home, and I knew it would take forever for someone to notice.
The day grew dark. It was peaceful. No one bothered me as I cried. But then an elderly black man sat beside me and gave me a tissue. He was wearing a black Kangol that didn’t go with the black capris and wife beater he was sporting. He was quiet. Even when I talked, he stayed silent. I told that stranger all my secrets, and I never saw him again after that.
You come across all types of people riding the TARC, and you’ll have all types of conversations. A friend of mine once said, “I’d rather tell my secrets to a stranger, rather than someone I know.”
Mehwish Zaminkhan: ‘My voice has never been heard’
Mehwish Zaminkhan and her family moved to Louisville from Pakistan four years ago. She had to learn English and grapple with her past of living under Taliban suppression, all while trying to be a successful American high school student. When she heard about the Louisville Story Program, she saw it as a way to help with all of the above. Here’s what Zaminkhan, now 20 years old, got out of the experience:
LEO: Your excerpt starts with the story of when you were in Pakistan and the Taliban came into your classroom. What do you think your former self, the self told not to go to school and get an education, would feel about you participating in this project today?
Mehwish Zaminkhan: When you say my former self, I mean I was banned from school, you know? I was stopped from going to school. So when I heard about this opportunity, I was thinking it was going to be a dream for me. Because I’ve been banned. My voice has never been heard. So this is my opportunity. You have to do it. I was telling myself, you’ve got to do this so people of the world can know about you and the dream you’ve been living with for the rest of your life …
So, how did your story change from when you first started writing it to when you finished it?
When I applied to this program, since I’m an ESL student, I’m still learning. My English, when I first came to the U.S., my English was really — the vocabulary was really low. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher would tell me, anything. I used to go to Conversation Club, public libraries. Trying to find every [way] to improve myself, because I was driven, and I was having that fire inside myself. I was like, I get the opportunity, this basically means I got second life, you know? Second chance.
So, when I heard about this project, my writing skills were really low. My communication skills, my vocabulary, it was really low, but then I heard this from my high school counselor, and when I heard about it, I was like, I’m going to apply for this program and then see what’s going to happen.
So, during — through this process, it helped me a lot in my writing skills, because it was not a typical class. Like, high school, we have English class. You just get the essay and then you’re done? This was really a special thing to me, because in this writing project, we did a lot of writing every day. We would get homework for it like, not inside of school for the one-hour class or 45-minute class, but outside of school as well. For example, we used to interview strong leaders in our community, Louisville. So it helped me in a way to write down. When I see myself, I feel proud that my writing skills got better and better. Before, I used to write a little bit, but right now, when I write things down, it just makes me write more — to be more descriptive. This thing, I really would take away from this program.
So, throughout the program, you spent a lot of time with the other writers. What did you learn about other people from participating in the project?
They all have really unique stories to tell. They all have really unique backgrounds, and also to be able to communicate with them, to build a strong friendship, relationship with them; I felt like it’s my home. It’s like a community. It’s like a family. ‘Cause we all worked together, all my fellow authors. So every time we had a hard time or something, we would discuss it.
‘We were stronger’
By Mehwish Zaminkhan
By the time I was a teenager, the Taliban ruled the neighboring country of Afghanistan and had started to come over to villages in the northern part of Pakistan. We never imagined they would come to Bazira. One day I was sitting in the classroom and gunmen from the Taliban — their faces covered, wearing all black — entered our classroom and threatened everyone, saying that no girls could come to school anymore. Their voices were heavy and terrible as a storm. We were all shaking and hoping we wouldn’t pass out in front of them. They wanted to talk to us face to face, so they told our teachers not to stay in class with us. We sat quietly in our chairs, listened to their awful voices, and hoped for death to come early so we wouldn’t have to go through all the cruelty of the Taliban. We couldn’t make eye contact because that would be considered as challenging them. We hid our faces behind our scarves because we did not want to be recognized.
They were using Islam in the wrong way, telling us that Islam says, “Women are meant to stay at home and no matter where they reach, they are women, and women can’t be like men. They cannot rule the world, only men can. They can’t bring babies into the world and grow the generation without a man.”
When the Taliban left the room we were shocked, scared and hopeless. We hugged each other tightly and kept our voices low, fearing that they were still in school. Tears were running down our faces as we remembered the memories we had all made together. Our teacher came to our room and told us, “We don’t have a choice and we want the best for you all. We don’t want to risk keeping the school open because we would be killed for sure. It’s better to be alive and live with your loved ones than to die.”
The teachers hugged us as we left. We walked to our homes and looked back at our school and the tears came on the edge of our eyes. “What just happened?” we asked each other. On the way home, we exchanged phone numbers and hugged for longer than we ever had. We waved our hands and didn’t know if this would be the last time we would ever see each other.
When a tsunami comes, it destroys everything and the crops die before they are ready to harvest. That’s what happened to the girls of Bazira: They were getting ready to sparkle and blossom, then the Taliban took over my village and destroyed everything. They took innocent children from their parents, kids who had dreams to become doctors and engineers, and taught them to use guns instead of pens. They had no other choice; they were told to choose a side: get killed or become Taliban. They took over people’s property. They banned girls’ education and bombed hundreds of schools. They told every girl’s parents to stop their girls from getting an education or their whole family would be killed. Many innocent girls were married forcefully.
I was desperate for education. I still could not believe that I was banned from school. Every time I would go to my room and look at my uniform, my backpack, my books, my notebooks and my school shoes, I would cry. My friends and I thought our dreams would be destroyed. We were very close with the woman who had been our Islamic studies teacher before the Taliban shut down our school. When we told her that we did not want to give up our education, she started a secret school in her tiny mud house. I told my Amma about the secret school. At first she said, “What would I say to your parents if something happened to you? They would never forgive me if you got hurt.” I usually got my way with her, though, and finally she gave me permission.
My teacher, my friends and I text messaged each other in Punjabi because the Taliban did not understand that language. We went to school two or three days a week. We always learned a lot on Fridays because almost every man and boy was busy praying in the mosque that day.
We left our phones at home whenever we walked to the secret school. We held the Quran close to our chest instead of carrying school books. Whenever I passed by a boy or a man in the street, my heart beat ten times faster, my forehead started sweating, and my throat dried up. What if he is a spy for the Taliban? What would happen to my family? What would happen to my friends? What would they do to me? Every day in the news we heard about girls getting caught going to school and being shot.
My teacher’s house had a fireplace in the corner of the kitchen where she would cook food since there was no gas in the village. The small bathroom did not have a sink or a mirror. We would spread a cloth on the cold mud floor before sitting down, but the house would get messy when it stormed — mud and leaves everywhere — and our clothes would get dirty and our feet would get muddy. There were only two books for each subject, which we would share among six girls. We would keep our voices very low. The Taliban were strong, but we were stronger. They were smart, but we were smarter. They were ignorant and we had the power of a pen, the power of education, which no one would ever be able to take away from us.
Joe Manning: Book speaks to this current moment
Joe Manning, a nonfiction writer, is one half of the Louisville Story Program’s directorial team, and in his role, he’s coaxed tale after tale from the city’s residents, offering differing, firsthand perspectives about life in the ‘Ville. His work with Iroquois High School students, however, the third time the program has recruited youth to write down their own stories, has been a unique experience, both because of the story program’s growing name recognition… and the participants he was able to discover.
LEO: So, how did you choose the students that you did for the project?
Joe Manning: It was extremely difficult. [Director] Darcy [Thompson] and I, this is our third youth project at Louisville Story Program … and the first one in which folks sort of saw us coming if you will. Our reputation preceded us, and we were able to get the attention of the English teachers in sort of a big way. So we had an applicant pool of 20, I think. So, this was the first time that we were really in a position where we had to conduct interviews and choose authors …
This time, we conducted interviews and had the authors write essays and we had to think about it, and it was not easy at all. In fact, it was like maybe one of the hardest things that I’ve done in my role as deputy director of Louisville Story Program. So, we picked 10, and nine of them stuck it out, and they stuck it out in a really significant and pretty impressive way. It’s not an easy thing that they have done. It’s pretty difficult.
I noticed that all the students involved in the project are women. So, how do you think that shaped the way the book turned out at all?
I think of it as a very timely and fortunate anomaly. We had one male participant early on, and he didn’t, he wasn’t able to continue in the project, so we ended up with nine young women who had a lot of grit in a moment in our culture and in our history when there are a lot of women with grit with a lot to say, and it fairly makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’m so proud of them and so sort of humbled by them. There’s a lot in this book that speaks to this current moment and the ways that we all need to listen closely to one another and maybe especially to young women right now. So, a very fortunate, timely anomaly, and one that I hope will stand out to people.
So what’s the most important thing that you think residents of Louisville can learn by reading the book?
… We hope people read these books and learn more about their neighbors and have a moment of real, dedicated empathy for their neighbors, you know? This city has some pretty hard lines in it that are hard to cross and people don’t know each other well enough — don’t understand one another. And so a book like this offers an opportunity to see both the ways in which people are living vastly different, unique lives from our own and the ways in which we’re extraordinarily similar — very, very similar. So, that’s my hope for this book.