Writers I Love


Karim Ajania

Alphabetically, from James Baldwin, all the way to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, these are writers I love.

When I was twelve years old, and at school in London, England, I wrote a rather mediocre poem about an armadillo that was published in our school magazine. Emboldened, I entered my poem in the local poetry competition, coveting first prize – a magnificent set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

I was most fortunate – and quite undeserving – to win the third prize. My third place consolation prize was a newly published hardback copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

I had no idea then, at age twelve, that there were forced labor camps in the former Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes through my reading his compelling and heartbreaking books, such as The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Over a decade later, when I was a doctoral student at the Harvard School of Education, I took theatre classes at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. My theatre professor, actor Jeremy Geidt, had previously taught at the Yale Repertory Theatre. While at Yale, Jeremy initiated an invitation to South African playwright Athol Fugard to stage Fugard’s ‘banned’ play, Master Harold and The Boys, at the Yale Rep.

Just as Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago, raised a needed global awareness of the ruthless gulags of the Communist Soviet Union, Fugard’s play, Master Harold and The Boys, raised a needed global awareness of the brutal atrocities and injustices of Apartheid South Africa.

There are writers we appreciate and admire, and then, there are writers that we absolutely love.

We love these writers for different reasons. I love Solzhenitsyn and Fugard for their unwavering and steadfast courage in exposing the workings of oppressive governmental regimes, at great personal risk to the writers themselves. I love Jean de Brunhoff and Beatrix Potter for their sense of whimsy and wit, in creating such marvelous characters such as Babar the Elephant and Peter Rabbit.

Teaching multi-cultural literature in the global school classroom for several decades now, has been enormously rewarding for me, as I have learned far more than I could ever have taught.

When I taught high school in New York inner city schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, I learned to study and to understand African American women poets from Phillis Wheatley to Maya Angelou.

When I taught high school in Lithuania, I learned from my students how much they cherished their ‘adopted poet’ Czeslaw Milosz, who, although a Polish national, had grown up in rural Lithuania.

When I taught at Arundel Girls’ School in Harare, Zimbabwe, I got to learn about and to teach profound African writers from Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, to Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

When I taught at The Doon School in Dehra Dun, India, I got to learn about and to teach treasured Indian writers, from the Classical Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, to the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

A schoolteacher is always a student, and is always learning. A storyteller is always being told new stories. He or she might begin by telling the story of an armadillo, and then end up being told a story about a gulag. It is within that vibrant openness of both the telling and the listening, of the teaching and the learning, that we are gifted occasional glimpses into our boundless universality.

— Karim