BAR HARBOR — Sirohi Kumar is not afraid of the big issues facing Maine and the country. She also thinks literature, and the way it can expose people to different perspectives and experiences, can help start important conversations.
Discussing a book with others, she said, makes it “really easy to see all the sides and all the things people notice.
“A lot of people make connections and a lot of people disagree with you,” she said. “And that’s good. When people disagree with you, you can talk with them and that’s really important.”
That’s part of why the Conners Emerson eighth-grader, a voracious reader and prolific writer, was excited about an Island Readers and Writers program that brought Mount Desert Island seventh- and eighth-graders together last month to read and discuss a recent novel and talk with its author.
“Out of Nowhere” by Maria Padian is set in the fictional Enniston high school, which is upended when a group of Somali refugees joins the boys’ soccer team. Tom Bouchard is the captain and star player, but all that changes when Saeed and his friends, refugees of post-9/11 Somalia, take the field.
During a visit to MDI on Feb. 8 to meet with students, Padian said she was inspired by experiences in recent years in Lewiston, which has become a second migration city for refugees escaping war-torn countries.
“I think a lot of us thought of immigration as droves of people coming in and they have to live on the streets because they can’t get any aid and there’s nowhere to live,” Kumar said. But in the book, these refugees moved to the town after first being settled somewhere else in the U.S.
“People would come here for the jobs, then they realized there were good schools and safe communities, so people would call all their friends and be like, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of good stuff here.’
“That was one of the main issues in the book, the mayor actually wrote a letter that said there are too many people, you need to stop telling people to come here,” she said.
That really happened in 2002, when Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond wrote an open letter to that effect to the Somali community.
“I liked how the book really talked about an issue that was important,” Kumar said. “I think several books make the mistake of being too forward and too blunt with their opinions, and people are like, ‘I don’t agree, so I’m just not gonna read this.’
I liked this book because it shows both sides in a way that makes you still want to read the book.”
Tom, the 18-year old protagonist, “thinks that life is perfect,” she said. “He realizes that things aren’t as good as they seem because he meets a bunch of these kids who’ve immigrated and they’re on his soccer team and he starts to realize the things that they go through.”
Kumar and others asked Padian why she chose to write from Tom’s perspective.
“She said if she tried to write it from the perspective of one of the Somali refugees, it would butcher the book. It would have ruined it. Because she thought she couldn’t make that jump as an author.”
So she wrote it in Tom’s voice. “And even that was a stretch for her because he’s an 18-year-old boy,” Kumar said. Padian “had an 18-year-old son at the time, and she said that was the only reason why she could write Tom.”
The workshop with Padian also included writing exercises, which helped inspire Kumar to write a poem, “Refugee.” She said she and her family have some experience of people making assumptions about them, giving her an inkling of what the refugee community she learned about in the book deals with.
One day, talking with her mother, Neha Kumar, about the book, Sirohi said, “Nobody has ever asked me, but I wonder if my friends know that I’m a citizen.”
“When we say we moved here, people looking at us immediately assume we came from India,” Neha Kumar said. “Then we explain.”
Sirohi Kumar was born and has always lived in the United States. The family has moved several times within the U.S. for academic jobs, most recently in Dallas, Texas, before moving to Maine in 2014, when Sirohi Kumar was in fifth grade.
Recently, with a group of friends, “someone said do you speak Hebrew?” Kumar said. “It was an honest mistake. I said I speak Hindi, and they thought I said Hebrew because they were [standing] far away.”
The idea for the poem came to her when the “Out of Nowhere” group was doing writing exercises. “I was like, let me just try to scribble this, and [I wrote it] on a piece of paper on the back of my phone.”
Poetry, she said, “tells a story in a way a lot of books don’t. It’s told through the thoughts of character. I find that super interesting.”
By Sirohi Kumar
That’s their deal in life
No other options
Afraid of misplacement
Afraid of being replaced
Unable to stay in one place
They apply and apply and apply
But nobody will reply
Jobs, housing, bills
All the paper
Fills and fills.