Cups, Cakes & Conversation: Seeing A Passion Project through to Publication

Join me as I brew a cup of coffee and pull up a comfy chair for…

A Writerly Chat with our friend, Ami Maxine Irmen

My own focus in writing is historical fiction and romance, but I enjoy reading across several genres. I also enjoy friendships with writers all across the world, who are following their own dreams, and I’m happy to share their stories with you. It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these posts, so I’m thrilled to get back into it by celebrating the release of a very special novel: VOICES OF JANE ADENY MEMORIAL SCHOOL.

A collection of memoirs from students of the school for girls in Kenya, VOICES OF JANE ADENY MEMORIAL SCHOOL is filled with stories of adversity, triumphs, and resilience – journeys of transformation made possible through giving.

Ami Maxine Irmen, Editor

Today, joining us from the great state of Wisconsin, is my friend, professor and writer Ami Irmen.

Hello Ami! Glad you could join me. VOICES OF JAMS has released and I know you couldn’t be more thrilled! Can you share your story of how you heard of the JAMS school in the first place?

I’m a life-long learner, and I missed being on the student side of the classroom, so I enrolled in the university up the road from where I teach to earn a couple graduate certificates (Women’s Studies and LGBT Studies). I was in a Feminist Theory class, and the professor brought folks in to talk about their projects that were feminist in nature. One class, Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno came in to talk about a school they started in Kenya (where they are from originally, though at the time they were teaching at the university).

I learned so much about the education system there, especially in how girls are often the last educated (the family might not have the money to send them, or the girls are kept home to care for the family or because they can earn income – and then even if they do make it to school, teacher prejudice can hold them back – in one instance, the teacher sent girls during instruction to fetch water from the river for the teachers to drink, so the girls missed out – there are also instances of hygiene where girls have to stay home during menstruation because they don’t have products or access to clean water). JAMS sounded like a haven for these young girls who wanted an education – and something in me just wouldn’t let it go – I wanted to get involved.

I can only imagine. How did that then evolve into the idea for the book?

One night, I had the idea of teaching memoir – and then the girls could opt into publishing within a collection that could then be used as a fundraise for the school (I hadn’t intended to tell anyone about it, certain they would think it was silly). I did mention it to one of my classmates, who promptly outed it to the professor – who loved it. Next thing I knew, I was in her office and on the phone with Teresa and Andrew telling them the idea – certain they would think it silly – but they loved it, too. I did an independent study with the professor where we created the curriculum. A couple years later, I was on a plane, leaving the U.S. for the first time in my life.

I know we’ve spoken before about how family and friends who’ve had the opportunity to travel to Africa have said that the trip is one of the most incredible and impactful trips they’ve ever taken. Tell us more about your own journey to Kenya and about the school. 

The school is really beautifully built – and it’s on this lush, green hillside overlooking sugarcane fields. It’s all the more impressive when we learned that everything (including leveling the land to build on) was done by hand. It’s a boarding school, so the girls stay on the premise – which makes it harder for their studies to be disrupted. Beyond their traditional studies, they also learn skills like tending the garden and caring for the cows (one of the volunteers while I was there helped to build a small dairy – the school now has access to milk and can sell the surplus). During the gap year (between high school and college), some of the girls have returned to work at the school, too – giving them an opportunity to learn more skills and to save some money. 

These students were some of the hardest working students I have ever met in my life. They have a mandatory lights-out at 10:30 – or they would study all night long. In Kenya, they have a high-stakes test – their results will determine if they can go on to university. Most mornings, the girls were already in their classrooms before breakfast, studying and teaching each other. They were so inspiring. (They were equally fascinated with us – I remember a particular conversation where my professor and I were listing all the things we do to potatoes here in the U.S. – and their eyes just kept growing. They also were incredibly curious how we manage to survive our winters in the snow – we were there during their winter, which was in the 70s F – and they were all in slacks and sweaters.) 

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your time there?

The state of the government run schools. There was a primary school down the hill from us that we visited (as well as a couple others in the area). They are severely underfunded – to the point that they didn’t have enough desks for all the students (which are not like the desks common in our own classrooms – literally a couple pieces of wood nailed together) – so the desks were moved around to whichever room had exams that day. Otherwise, the students had to sit on the floor – which was concrete. I remember learning, also, that there were sixty students in the first grade – with one teacher. I’m not sure how anyone can learn in such an environment.

What is your greatest hope with helping to put together the novel about the students and school?

The book is actually a collection of the girls’ memoirs. There is a foreword and afterword that I wrote, but it’s all them (there has been minimal editing to keep their voices in tact). The goal is to raise money for scholarships. Teresa has a goal that at least half of the students will be on scholarship – which is $800 for a year. This covers everything – school supplies, books, food, bedding, etc. Their motto is ‘Forward Together Forward’ and she wants this to be a school ‘good enough for the richest, open to the poorest’ (quote attributed to Horace Mann).

What do you hope your readers gain from the story?

The difference an education can make, not just in that girl’s life, but in all the people she will come in contact with in her life. The forward focuses on educating about the school system – and the afterward has bits of interviews that have been done with some of the students who have since graduated and are out in the world. These young women are already making incredible change.

What does this journey mean to you as a writer?

The trip was life changing in a lot of ways. As a person – seeing the sort of poverty we saw (in Nairobi), as well as the positive impact that Teresa and Andrew are having on these girls’ lives. As an educator, it helped me realize how little we actually need to teach. We have all this tech that might make things easier (but not always), but it’s not really needed. It also set me on a path to make my course content free for students – I’ve always tried to be frugal in the price of textbooks, but now I don’t even use those. This was also my first time out of the U.S. – so my world view was forever altered. All of this, of course, also bleeds into my writing in one way or another.

I can imagine so. What other writing projects are you working on?

My first book, ALL FALLING THINGS, is in the process of being published (my editor is working on final edits right now). I’m querying two projects and have two other works in progress (WIPs).

. . . And all while being a full-time professor. For the last thirteen years, you’ve been teaching writing (composition and creative) at a small community college. As a writing professor and an author yourself – how do you keep all of that organized? Does one inspire the other? Or do you try to separate the two writing forums?

One informs the other – I think it would be impossible to separate them. The more I continue to learn about writing as a writer, the more I can teach my students. On the flip side, I get inspiration from my students and from teaching writing – I am never more productive in creating poetry than when I’m teaching it during the spring semester.

What tips would you give to writers who are just starting out?

  1. READ.
  2. Join “Writer Twitter” / #writingcommunity – follow authors you admire, follow marginalized writers (and really listen to what they have to say), follow editors and agents. Twitter can feel overwhelming at times, and there are a lot of stressful rabbit holes one can find themselves down – but there is a lot of joy over on “Writer Twitter” – and a lot of information available to you. Also, if your goal is to publish, start an author platform now. You don’t have to wait to have a book out – in fact, having a strong following can help you in the publishing path sometimes.
  3. Find a WRITING BUDDY who will talk about your characters like they are real people. This person does not also need to be a writer, but it’s helpful if they are. My writing buddy is one of my closest friends – and I love that bond we share through our writing.
  4. Join a WRITING GROUP. Writing can feel isolating a lot of the time – having a community is important. The best part is the community. I’m also part of a global writing community online and have found some wonderful people who encourage and support me, and who are so knowledgeable and helpful. I love when we get geeky about things like research or plot points.
  5. Call yourself a writer. IF YOU WRITE, YOU ARE A WRITER. Also, you do not need to publish to be a writer. Not everyone who writes has that as a goal – it doesn’t make you “less” of a writer if you don’t want to publish. You don’t need to write every day to be a writer. You don’t need to follow a specific process – find what works for you. Every writer is different. All you need to be a writer is to write.
  6. Set REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS. Remember that your writing won’t be for everyone. You haven’t loved every book you’ve ever read, right? That mindset can be very hard to get into, but it’s important. Not everyone is going to fall in love with your book – some might not even like it. But there will be people who do – and it can take time to find them. Don’t give up – keep looking.

It’s easy to see how JAMS became such a passion project for you – with so much time centered around writing and learning and being engaged with so many students – within the classrooms here in the States and in Kenya. Looking back on this experience, what is your greatest takeaway from yourself and hope for students collectively?

The biggest takeaway for myself was – you never know where your writing might take you. If not for my love of writing, I wouldn’t have become a writing teacher. If not for being a writing teacher, I never would have been taking those classes nearby and never would have met Teresa and Andrew or traveled to Kenya. Though my work, I also had the chance to participate in a professional exchange with an English professor in China and helped direct a study abroad to Costa Rica. Writing has also been my path to community and to some of my favorite people. I couldn’t have predicted any of this when, as a kid, I sat and listened to my grandpa, Papa, and fell in love with telling stories.

My hope for all of these students is that they can find their thing, their passion – whatever it is that lights a fire in them. I hope that they can find some way to keep that passion a part of their life because it’s not always easy to do that. Life can throw up a lot of roadblocks and curveballs. My wish would be to help knock down those roadblocks and make the path a bit easier.

Well said. Now tell us, what’s in that mug? And what kind of delicious treat did you pair with it?

If we were able to meet at Kavarna Coffeehouse (my favorite coffee shop in Green Bay), I’d get either a chai latte or a cup of black coffee. And for a treat, their Carmelita bar. 🙂 (Though I’d more likely get a cheesy artichoke wrap than a sweet treat.)

Thank you so much for having me! Ami

Thanks for joining us.

Best, Rebekah

If you’d like to learn more about Ami and VOICES OF JANE ADENY MEMORIAL SCHOOL, please visit www.amimaxine.com

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