Berkshire Festival of Women Writers launches 55 events


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Marie-Elizabeth Mali has felt buoyancy, weightlessness as an astronaut may feel it. She has felt the shimmer in the water where a cooler current meets a warmer one and the shiver of whale song vibrating through her body.

Holly Brown holds an image of Frida Kahlo's "What I saw in the water," a painting of the artist's view of her bath tub, with furled plants, shells, people and creatures floating in it, and her feet surfacing like red clay islands.

Mali is a poet living in Housatonic and New York City, and Brown a professor of Spanish Language and Literature at Bard College at Simon's Rock, and they will speak, on Monday and Tuesday, in the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Across 50 events in five weeks, the festival will encourage women to share their stories.

Brown and her students will hold a conversation about Latin American women writers, and Mali and Berkshire photographer Lynnette Najimy will talk about the meeting of photography and poetry.

Poetry became real for Brown when she was in college, in a semester abroad in Córdoba, Spain. She had known and memorized poems before, but here, one warm evening, a friend pulled a poem out of his pocket and asked a group of friends what they thought of it.

"I thought, ‘we don't do that in the U.S.,' " she said.

Seeing them carrying their poetry, calling themselves poets, talking about poetry and making it their own, made poetry real for her -- and made it useful.

Mali has traced her poetic roots before, in part, to time with her family in Venezuela -- but her newest travels have taken her into the Pacific. She has spent four of the last five months in Raja Ampat, in Indonesia, swimming in the water that shelters maybe the greatest diversity of sea life in the world.

She began diving in 2000, she said, in the year her father died. She took her mother to an island in the Caribbean at Christmas, and there she met a coral reef.

"I didn't expect to fall in love with it," she said.

But when she went into the water -- when she came close to the shapes and colors of the coral, in brains and fans, orange elephant ears and purple tubes -- she did.

Five years ago, she became serious about underwater photography, she said. In poetry and in photography, she looks "for a moment, an image, a feeling to incorporate," she said, "a juxtaposition of the beautiful an the ugly" -- as she writes in a poem, "a kiss from a mouth that bites."

If she sees an ocean starfish with a crooked arm, she will focus on that one -- one that has broken and then healed. She might turn her verse or her lens on a male sea horse with stretch marks. Among pygmy sea horses, the size of a finger nail, the males bear the children, she said -- and they're monogamous.

She hopes to publish a collection of photographs and poetry together, to make the places and the life she loves as tangible to her readers as a drink of coconut and lime on a Papua morning.

"[I want them] to love the ocean as I do and recognize that it is crucial for all our lives," she said. "We couldn't be who we are without it."

She feels an urgency to learn about this web of underwater life while it still exists, she said. She has made contact with a private conservation organization, Sea Sanctuaries, that works to preserve the sea life and the reefs. But the warming of ocean waters is out of their hands.

Brown finds this kind of determination, this need to speak, among Latin American women writers today. They also face a double challenge -- they write in Spanish, and they are women.

Today, still, a Latin American woman may have to fight to be heard. Even anthologies of Latin American writing include few women, Brown said.

So she and her students have set out looking for them.

They "wanted to pick examples that would stretch our understanding of what Latin American women write about," she said.

Her students will present the writers -- though they are all contemporary within the last 50 years, not all are still alive. But imagine meeting them all together.

Spanish literature, Brown said, has a word, an idea -- Picaro, a roguishness, a way of doing things to get by -- that creates a different morality.

"You can feel it in Spanish," she said.

She feels it in the way women use wit, in the way they present themselves and observe the world around them.

They have a strong sense of self, she said, and a drive to teach future women. They have faced violence and survived.

If you go ...

♦ What: ‘Fleeting Reality: Interpreting Place' with Marie-Elizabeth Mali and Lynnette Lucy Najimy

Where: Leibowitz International Center, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Great Barrington

When: Monday at 7 p.m.

♦ What: ‘Cuatro Mujeres, cuatro géneros -- Four Women, Four Genres' presentation and discussion hosted by Holly Brown, Olivia Dhaliwal, Paola Garcia, Melissa Sherman-Bennett, Abby Smith and Mayu Suzuki.

Where: Leibowitz International Center, Bard College at Simon's Rock, Great Barrington

When: Tuesday at 7 p.m.


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