A generous donor has made it possible for us to send most of our students abroad after they complete their degree requirements. The Robert Pinsky Global Fellows in Poetry and the Leslie Epstein Global Fellows in Fiction may go to any country and do there what they wish, for a typical stay of up to three months. After a year of study with our faculty–in fiction, with Leslie Epstein, Ha Jin, and Sigrid Nunez, and in poetry, with Karl Kirchwey, Robert Pinsky, and Dan Chiasson, we are very pleased to offer our students an experience that will continue to challenge as well as delight.
The Global Fellowship adventure is not only intended to help our MFA candidates grow as writers, but also to widen eyes, minds, and hearts–from which better writing and poetry might eventually flow. Our students have traveled to every continent but Antarctica (so far), to places such as Greenland, Patagonia, Iran, Bhutan and Thailand, Cuba, Russia, and Brazil. Please follow the links in our navigation bar to read about each fellow’s journey.
Please click here for details on how to apply to the MFA program. The next deadline is March 1, 2015.
Featured Global Fellow Alumna: Cara Bayles (Fiction 2013)
I’ve been home for five months now, but when people ask me, “How was India?” I still give non-answers: “It was good,” or, “Crazy!”
Productivity is one of the reasons I’m so inarticulate. I didn’t finish a novel or a short story collection while I was there. I can’t write about an experience while I’m still in the thick of it. I need some time to digest first. So all I have to show for my trip are three notebooks full of chicken scratch. I could only sit still and focus on a story during monsoons, because I couldn’t go outside, or on the train, because (I couldn’t go outside and) there was the comfort of constantly moving. Most of the time, I couldn’t sit still. So much India was happening outside, and I didn’t want to miss any of it.
I’m also frustrated by my non-answers as a storywriter, because I struggle to jam my adventures into a concrete narrative. It’s a jumble of numbers, images, and bragging rights.
First, the numbers: I covered 3,691 miles along the southern coast of the country, mostly by Indian Rail. I rode seven trains up and down the mountains of Darjeeling, through rice paddy fields, and along the coast of the Arabian Sea. I took two ferries, three jeeps, and countless buses. I was adopted by two different wonderful families. I threw up three times. I was groped twice.
Then, there’s bragging rights.
I rode between two men in the front seat of a manual transmission jeep stuffed with eleven other passengers as it climbed the Himalayan foothills. The driver, a skinny guy with an arm full of faded tattoos, kept knocking my knee with the stick shift, and he had to lay on the horn before each hairpin turn, because the road was only wide enough for one car.
An organist at Saint John’s Church played Hava Nagila for me.
I rode on the back of a motorcycle through Kolkata’s Mallick Ghat flower market, alongside the sculpture-making warehouses of Kumartuli, into the red light district, and along the Ganges. I saw a goat sacrifice at a temple, and I ate mutton the next day.
I joined a group of young professionals at a toddy parlor, where we drank white liquor made from fermented coconut.
I befriended a band of homeless omelet venders. We went to the market to fetch oil and eggs, and to the gas station to get diesel for their portable stove burner.
I was the only woman at the Kolkata racetrack, where I pressed my fingers to the fence and watched the horses drum through waves of humidity.
I played a game in which you shoot at rows of balloons with an air rifle, and whenever I popped one, the guys watching would shout, “American hunter!”
I saw: Slums built out of old billboards, the giant faces of politicians smiling up from their roofs. A factory where artful fingers hand-rolled thousands of cigarettes each day. A boy who cast a line with a bamboo pole, flicked his wrist and brought tiny fish soaring out of the water, then whacked his catch against a concrete wall. There were crowded streets jammed with barking vendors, begging children, cows, trash, and pop-up tea stands. I saw four temples cut from one boulder, a waterfall, and a wild elephant. I saw long-necked boats lining the shore next to piles of coconut husks that resembled tufts of red hair. I heard electric stonecutters whining into marble statues of Ganesh. I smelled the Ganges.
I volunteered a Catholic home for the elderly poor in downtown Kolkata, where retired sailors chatted about their adventures and a hunched old man with a profile like a sock puppet’s hid slices of white bread in his pocket. During lunch, the men had all been served dhal, rice, chicken curry, soup, and slices of white bread.
This little man was so puckered and wrinkled, his eyes were slits. Sister Beatrice, a cheerful nun from Kerala, first noticed the crust sticking out from the side of his trousers halfway through the meal.
“How’d this get here?” she asked him.
He looked at the crumbs in her hand, then looked straight ahead and kept on chewing his rice, an action that involved violently churning the bottom half of his face.
Sister Beatrice reached further into his pocket. She pulled out more and more bread and deposited it on his plate. “Very clever,” she told him. “Very clever.”
He picked up the smushed dough and put it in his mouth without looking down. He never stopped jerking his jaw.
I’m not sure if he was saving the bread or if he was hiding it so he wouldn’t have to eat it. I wanted him to have hoarded the slices for later, maybe because it’s more hedonistic and surprising from a shriveled little man, or maybe because I found the prospect that he didn’t want to eat depressing. Or maybe the concept of saving something for later, be it bread or adventures, was in line with my experience in India. The tiny old man and I both think: “I’ll just carry this with me, because later on, I’ll be glad I have it.”
While I was in India, I grabbed all the bread around me and stuffed it into my pockets. And, if I can belabor the metaphor even more, I’m truly grateful to Mr. Hildreth and Boston University, because I know that I’ll be carrying that bread around in my pockets for the rest of my life.
Read more of Cara’s adventures in India here.