Today’s Dame of the Day is Shappi Khorsandi (June 8, 1973-). Born in Iran, Khorsandi and her family were forced to flee to Britain during the Islamic Revolution. She chronicled how the move impacted her family and childhood in her book, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English. Khorsandi continues to tour throughout Britain and internationally.
In today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we sit down with lawyer turned arts and culture writer Philippa Hughes.
Philippa created the Pink Line Project to inspire creative thinking in everyone, to build community and connectivity, and to open portals to art and culture for the culturally curious. Her vision for DC: to change the way people view DC, both residents and visitors. DC is more than just institutions and politics; it’s filled with amazing people doing amazingly creative things using art, technology, and good-old fashioned ingenuity. Philippa publishes a weekly subscriber-based email that highlights the best of DC’s creative scene. It’s about cool people doing cool things. Philippa writes about arts and culture in DC and speaks about the power of art and personal choice to transform your life. She established a reputation for creating inventive and collaborative environments in which people who would not normally have the opportunity to interact with each other gather to experience art and culture in alternative and stimulating ways. She has been a leader in the creative and temporary use of vacant, urban space throughout the city.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
I got married young at 23 years-old and believed that my husband and I would go to graduate school and settle down somewhere in a big house and take fabulous vacations and host dinner parties with all our couple friends and eventually have kids. That was the script and we were following it to a T until I started to realize that there were many scripts and I didn’t need to follow the one that had been given to me; I could write my own script.
What was your first job like?
When I graduated from college, I took a job at the Close Up Foundation, which brought kids to Washington, D.C. to teach them how our democracy works. I had attended Close Up as a student when I was in high school and that experience made a huge impact on me. It made me want to pursue some sort of public service. I later liked working at Close Up because it gave me an opportunity to share my enthusiasm for the democratic process with other young people.
What was your first apartment like?
After my second year at college, two friends and I rented a shitty apartment off-campus for which we paid hardly any rent. Roaches were our constant companions. I furnished the place with fancy things that my mom let me borrow from our house, which did not quite fit the aesthetic of a college kid’s apartment. A pale silk Persian rug covered the living room floor and the ornate sofa belonged in a Louis XIV salon. I mixed in pieces that I found at yard sales and junk shops and created a shabby chic look that reflected my eclectic interests and personality. Even as a little girl, I took great care in decorating my room. I always wanted my environment to inspire me and to be beautiful and a place in which I wanted to spend time and to which others would be drawn. After college, my first apartment was in a tall, ugly building in a suburban neighborhood. I hated the location, but it made sense for my husband’s commute. So I modified the interior as much as I could to make it a colorful and fun place to live.
In what ways did your friendships change?
I was a tomboy growing up and prided myself on being one of the boys for most of my life. Late into my 20s, I started to realize the value of friendships with women. I started to see that I need not compete with other women and that we could support each other and lift each other up.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
I was married to an awesome man who I met in my last year of college. He was smart, funny, fit, and all the things that make a person great. We were a great team and we did so many cool things together and accomplished so much by supporting one another throughout our 20s. We renovated two houses, went to grad school, and travelled to some pretty amazing places. Whenever I’d hear the front door open, I would run downstairs to greet him because I was always so excited to see him. Even though we are divorced now after having been together for 18 years, I consider our marriage a huge success. I use my relationship with him as a benchmark for all my relationships now. It’s a high bar.
How do you feel society viewed you?
I was the only Asian kid in my schools (apart from my little brother) whole growing up in a Southern suburbia. I was actually half-Asian, but everyone considered me Asian and treated me as such. People would say things like, “You speak really good English!” But I didn’t even speak an Asian language and I watched all the same television shows as everyone else and ate mostly the same foods like sloppy joes and pizza and sugary breakfast cereals. I never really fit in anywhere.
How did you change intellectually?
I became less judgmental and more open to possibilities. I thought I had all the answers. Now I see that I didn’t know anything at all. And I still don’t. Fortunately, I also have always had innate curiosity and a thirst for learning. I liked taking classes long after my formal education ended.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
I used to be a lawyer. I always wanted to go to law school. I was on the debate team in high school and loved it. And I thought that being a lawyer would be a great way to make a difference in the world if I went into public interest law. I loved going to law school. I mostly liked the intellectual challenge of law school. I never liked the actual practice of law. So boring. After a while, I revisited my writing aspirations by starting a blog. That was the beginning of my transition away from law and my identity as a professional who follows the rules, to Chief Creative Contrarian, a person who does whatever she wants with her life and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I am still scared sometimes about the choices I make, but usually everything works out okay, so I just keep charging ahead.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
I started to understand how big the world was and how much there was to explore and experience. Though I’d spent the first seven years of my life moving around, most of my adolescence and young adult life was spent in safe environs. I even to college only two hours from home. I felt a little sheltered and risk adverse. Then I realized that nothing terrible would happen to me if I did things that were a little uncomfortable. I started pushing myself a little more and more until I realized I could do anything I wanted!
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I wish I had not been afraid to live abroad and I wish I had been willing to sacrifice the comfort of a law career for the passion of writing.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Leslie Feinberg (September 1, 1941-November 15, 2014). As an author and activist, Feinberg championed the rights of lesbians and trans women through hir seminal work, Stone Butch Blues. Through hir writings and active demonstrations, ze fought against groups with a narrow definition of womanhood to earn trans women a rightful voice in the conversation. Sadly, Feinberg passed away in 2014 due to complications from Lyme Disease.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Shay Youngblood (1959-). As a child growing up in Georgia, Youngblood spent much of her time at the library and often dreamt of living in one. As she grew older, she channelled elements of her childhood into her own stories. In addition to writing, Youngblood also participated in college community service trips to Haiti and served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dominica. Today, she serves on the board for the Yaddo artists’ colony and teaches creative writing at Texas A & M University.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Yayoi Kusama (March 22, 1929-). This Japanese writer and artist inspired Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and their contemporaries during her time in New York. Not content to confine herself to one medium, Kusama experimented with abstract expressionist painting, collage, sculpture, and performance-based happenings. (One such event involved naked participants covered in rainbow-colored polka dots. While she eventually returned to Japan, Kusama continued to produce work. In 2008, one of her pieces set a record for living female artists when it sold for $5.1 million.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Ofelia Zepeda (1952-). As a poet and member of the Tohono O’odham tribe, Zepeda’s work seeks to promote and preserve her native language. In addition to poetry, she documented the language’s structure in her text, A Papago Grammar. She served as the poet laureate of Arizona and, in 1999, became a MacArthur Fellow.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923-February 1, 2012). During the Second World War, Szymborska attended underground classes, refusing to let the war interrupt her education. Even when poor financial circumstances preventing her from completing her degree, she continued writing. Dubbed the “Mozart of poetry,” Szymborska is widely considered one of Poland’s greatest writers. In 1996, she received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Leslie Marmon Silko (March 5, 1948-). Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Silko juggled writing short stories with raising two children. Her stories discuss issues surrounding Laguna Pueblo identity, white cultural imperialism and racism. Silko and her colleagues are widely considered part of the First Wave of the Native American Renaissance, a term coined by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln. In 1981, she became a member of the first class of MacArthur Fellowship recipients.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (May 7, 1927-April 3, 2013). During World War Two, she escaped her native Germany and fled to England, then later relocated to India. In the 1960s, this writer expanded her repertoire beyond literature by collaborating with Merchant Ivory Productions; together, the team wrote and produced 20 films. With 12 novels, 23 screenplays and eight short story collections to her name, Jhabvala remains the only person to ever win both a Booker Prize and an Oscar.
Today’s Dame of the Day is Yiyun Li (November 4, 1972-). While she originally earned a degree in immunology, she later transitioned to creative writing and received a degree from the Iowa Writer’s Project. Her works have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. In addition to earning numerous residencies and prizes, she became a MacArthur Fellow in 2010. Editor’s note: I recently read Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and it is fantastic–D.Duff.