Thank you all for coming out tonight. It’s good to see so many friends and familiar faces. I know many of you through tutoring work at the Centers for Reading and Writing and I am also Vice President of the NCV Foundation, a non-profit education and health organization that is the creator and sponsor of the Storylines Project.
In 1947, India—the country my father is from—was partitioned into three different nations. Millions of people, my family included, were forced from their homelands into refugee camps. As many people have had to do before and since, all over the world, they did the best with what they had. My father came to New York in 1971 with forty-four dollars, two pairs of socks, and a dedication to health and education that his father had taught him, and that he in turn instilled in me. The NCV Foundation is named after my grandfather, Nanikram Chabledas Vaswani, and is dedicated to helping people care for themselves in both mind and body. From starting village schools and libraries in India, to health lectures, book grants, and writing fellowships here in the States, the NCV Foundation seeks to empower people and give them a chance to help themselves. I’m extremely proud to welcome you all to this first celebration of the Storylines Project at the New York Public Library.
I would like to give thanks to Ken English and Terry Sheehan without whom none of this would be possible. They championed the project and gave invaluable inspiration and time. I’d also like to thank all tutors, site advisors, and literacy assistants for your hard work, and the big and little acts of kindness and education you do on a daily basis.
I feel so lucky to be a part of the family at the Seward Park Center where I’ve been a volunteer for three years. I always consider teaching to be a privilege and I know I speak for the other tutors and staff at the seven Centers for Raeding and Writing when I say we receive as much as we give, learn as much as we teach. I teach undergraduates and graduates at universities across the country but the people I’ve met and the tutoring I’ve done at Seward Park are the experiences I value most. It’s a gift to be a part of this community. The students’ courage, commitment, and accomplishments are extraordinary. Being able to help your son or daughter with homework, to read subway stops, cereal boxes, to have claimed your independence, to express yourself, one word at a time—those are real triumphs, real measures of success. Everyone here knows what a long journey it is to go from one country to another, or one state to another. But sometimes the journey from one state of mind to another can be the longest journey of them all. Learning is a constant process and the students and staff at the Centers for Reading and Writing are an inspiration and asset to this city we call home.
And what better place to celebrate your achievements than at the library? The New York Public Library is the only library in the world that features both acclaimed research centers and a large network of neighborhood branch libraries, all of which may be used by the public, free of charge. More than fifteen million people use this neighborhood system every year. For us, tonight, we’re highlighting the branches of: Harlem, Aguilar, Staten Island, Seward Park, Tompkins Square, Wakefield, and the Bronx.
This evening is designed to bring you readers and writers together with a best-selling author because words are powerful, pure, and life-changing, from the top of the New York Times best-seller list to the sentences we all create at the Centers for Reading and Writing. The Storylines Project heralds the importance of literacy. Beautiful and utilitarian, words pay bills, explain medicine bottles, identify streets, and make everything from poems to newspapers to birth certificates possible. Most important of all, words allows us to know each other, to communicate, to learn and grow. What you students have done with your writing and storytelling is as mighty, as beautiful, and as important as anything that’s ever been written or put on a library shelf.
We’re honored and thankful to have Silas House here with us tonight. Mr. House is the author of four novels, Clay’s Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves, The Coal Tattoo, Eli the Good, and two plays, “The Hurting Part,” and “Long Time Traveling,” as well as a book of nonfiction, Something’s Rising, co-written with Jason Howard. Silas currently teaches at Lincoln Memorial University and Spalding University and is an environmental activist fighting against mountaintop removal mining in the Southern Appalachian mountains where he was born and raised.
The NCV Foundation is proud to present Eli the Good, by Silas House with the 2009 Storylines Award. Mr. House’s book is being awarded along with the four honorees he selected and the ten honorable mentions. In his writing, Silas uses words to raise consciousness, draw out emotion, witness and take note of the little beauties in life, and to honor his home place and people. His novel, Eli the Good, has touched Young Adult and Adult readers and helped us all get a little further along in our literacy journeys. It’s a beautiful book—one that you all now own and can enjoy any time. So, without further ado, the NCV Foundation presents the 2009 Storylines Award to Eli the Good. Please join me in welcoming Silas House.
First of all, I thank Neela Vaswani and the NCV Foundation, which is doing such great work in literacy. It’s a truly great organization that is doing selfless, important work. I also thank the New York Public Library and the Centers for Reading and Writing for hosting this program. It’s my great honor to be amongst the staff, tutors, and students of the Centers, who are also doing important, life-changing work.
The main reason I am so honored to be here today is because I am certain that I am amongst a fine group of determined, hard-working people. I was raised around determined, hard-working people just like you.
And that’s the main reason that literacy is so important to me. I have always been crazy about words and sentences and books. Even when I was very little, I would run my hand over the pages of a book, or put my face down into the pages and breathe in that crisp, sharp smell of ink and paper. I loved saying words aloud, trying to figure out their origins. I loved looking up words in the huge, thick dictionary in our house, to see what they meant, to find out all the different things they meant.
After a time, during my childhood, I moved on from the dictionary to the encyclopedia. Back then the encyclopedia was twenty-some big books. Ours was the World Book Encyclopedia, green and white, with a gold stripe all the way around and a little globe on the front etched in gold, too. Its pages had the tangiest, most pungent smell. I can still smell those books, so clearly. They smelled like something new even after they were twenty years old. They smelled like knowledge, which was what I was craving so badly, what I am still craving.
I must have read that entire encyclopedia, every single letter of the alphabet, two or three times. In the C, for instance, I found out everything I ever wanted to know about cattle and Cambodia and cabbage and cancer and the Civil War, about coal-mining and how the calendar was invented and how cotton was grown. I loved learning about each of the states: the pages on Kentucky, my home-state, are completely worn out now. The World Book Encyclopedia was my first true friend, always waiting there on the shelf for me, always reliable and full of words and information.
Although she was not a big reader, my mother always put a lot of store by words and information. I didn’t know it at the time, but as a child we didn’t have any money. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t well-off, we weren’t even middle class. We had all we needed but not one bit more. So the World Book Encyclopedia was a big investment, a major step in educating me, a gamble on my future. Back then—just about thirty years ago—people went around selling World Book Encyclopedias door-to-door. An innocent time, when salesmen could come to your door and not be turned away.
I was still a baby when the man in the fedora came to the door of our little red and white house-trailer and knocked. I am grateful to him for trusting us; most salesmen sneered at the trailers that sat close to the railroad tracks there in Fariston, Kentucky, thinking the people inside couldn’t possibly afford such treasures. But this salesman knocked and my mother eased the door open. I can picture her so clearly, probably sleepy from getting off late at the refrigerator factory where she worked in town. She hadn’t even awakened, like she usually did, to fry my father an egg sandwich and see him off to his job as a mechanic at a gas station out by the interstate.
I can see her listening closely as he showed her one of the World Books, explaining all the knowledge that lay within the set of twenty volumes of encyclopedia and the new and expanded dictionary. I imagine that I woke up halfway through his sales pitch and she finished listening while holding me in the crook of her elbow, a glass bottle in my mouth. He completed the sale as she put me on her shoulder, patting my back until I burped. It hurts me, to think of her going to her little Mason jar of savings in the trailer bedroom, counting out the ones that would serve as the down payment, filling out the paperwork so they could bill her for the rest.
I picture us sitting there after the salesman left, my mother thumbing through all the books and hoping I would grow to like them, to use them properly. I did more than that; I cherished them.
And from the World Book Encyclopedia I moved onto other books that would change my life forever. The Outsiders. Peyton Place. The Bible. To Kill a Mockingbird. Jude the Obscure. And eventually, I wrote my own books and fulfilled my dream of becoming a writer.
It started with my parents’ investment in a set of encyclopedias and dictionaries. I was lucky, to have people who encouraged me to find that knowledge. Other people I went to school with were not so lucky. No one talked that much to them about learning, about the power of education, about how reading can give you power and an advantage. I grew up in a culture that put more store in countless other things besides reading. And I think it wasn’t just because of the place, but just because of the time, a time like now, when people put more store in wealth and vanity than they do in ethics and learning.
I think one reason my parents were different is because my maternal grandfather couldn’t read. He passed away three years ago, at the age of 85, and he never did learn to read. He never read a word in his life. He signed documents with his “mark,” which was a simple, shaky X.
My grandfather, known as Papaw to me, didn’t go all his life without learning to read because he was stupid, but because of circumstances. Raised by a single mother with four other children—his father died when he was just five—Papaw had to quit school in the fourth grade to go make a living. He worked in a saw mill as a young boy, then entered the mines when he was sixteen. Shortly thereafter he was sent to Africa to serve in World War II. Just out of the war he was rewarded with a job in the deep mines of Leslie County, Kentucky.
He was there the day the whole roof caved in, killing four of his coworkers and crushing him beneath a boulder the size of a car. They dragged him out with his right leg hanging on by one cord of muscle and the doctor amputated it without my grandfather ever losing consciousness. After six months he went back into the coal mines and worked for twenty more years. When I asked him why he didn’t draw a check and not go back into the mines, he said “I had a family to support. Children to feed. And I liked to work.”
But he never got a chance to learn how to read. By the time he was able to slow down enough—to not be working around the clock or serving his country in the war—he was too ashamed to ask anyone to teach him to read. So he went on without words.
But he made sure that his children not only read but were readers. He once heard a man on the radio quote a line by Abraham Lincoln that became his favorite: “The man who does not read has no advantage on the man who can not read.” So my grandfather drilled into his children’s heads that they had to get an education, they had to know words and sentences and books. And my mother—and father—passed that onto me.
Nobody was more proud than my grandfather when my first book was published. He couldn’t read it, but he could sit and run his hand over the page. He told everyone who would listen about my book. “My grandson’s a writer,” he’d say. “He writes books.”
Once my books were published and I started going out on the road, I encountered a lot of people who made fun of where I was from. They thought they were being clever when they asked me if people back home wore shoes, if we had indoor plumbing. Only a couple of years ago, one man asked me, in all seriousness, if anyone in Kentucky had the internet. Another woman asked me if I’d ever heard of Ronald Reagan, as if we were so cut off from society that we didn’t even know who the presidents were. And then, one day, a man asked me if my grandparents could read. I told them that yes, of course, everybody I knew in Kentucky could read.
I felt guilty later about lying. It wasn’t that ashamed of my grandfather. It was just that I was being protective of him. What I should have said was that there are people all over the country and world who can’t read, who never had the opportunity, or who are trying their best to learn how to read. I should have told him that it was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was, instead, something to change. But it was too complicated, and I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea about my papaw. Because there was no way I could stand there and explain to him about my papaw’s dignity, his intelligence, his wisdom. People who would ask such a question would never understand that kind of wisdom, anyway.
So I want to congratulate you on the great accomplishments you have made here. I want to congratulate you for being curious, for craving knowledge, for bettering yourself. You have used your own dignity and keen intelligence and wisdom to seek out a place of learning, and then to do that most important thing: to learn, to better yourself. That is what we must all do, every single day, because the only way we can make this world a better place is by making ourselves better people. Learning is hard work, good things only arise out of difficulty, never out of easiness.