Oral Fixation project brings stories by immigrants to stage at the DMA
Bosnian war refugee Belma Islamovic (left) and Nicole Stewart, who started DMA Late Night’s storytelling series Oral Fixation, edit Islamovic’s story.
Nicole Stewart is not shy with her pen.
She clutches a bright pink ballpoint in her hand, scribbling a question on the script in front of her, circling one sentence here, underlining another there and labeling a paragraph with a star. To her right, Jean Congera, a refugee from Rwandan genocide, watches placidly.
“I want to understand the whole thing so we can cut it down together,” she says, shuffling the pages. “I want to understand how this felt to you. Can you read it out loud to me?”
In an even, measured voice, Congera recites the script, tracking his place with an index finger. The three pieces of computer paper chronicle his entire life, the most painful and beautiful things to happen to him. He stumbles over the words. Again and again, he practices until the sentences flow smoothly.
On Friday, he will share those words in Horchow Auditorium at the Dallas Museum of Art. Congera is one of eight people performing at the special DMA Late Night edition of the storytelling series “Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales).” The show is sold out, but Stewart expects some seats to become available that evening. Videos of the performances will be available later at youtube.com/oralfixationshow.
The theme for the night — “Lost in Translation: Stories About Immigration.”
“I have always used an idiom as a theme for the storytelling,” says Stewart, who started Oral Fixation. “I thought it would be impactful for this night to really explore this concept of what does get lost in translation.”
Stewart came up with the idea for the show while talking with Carolyn Bess, the director of Arts & Letters Live at the museum. Bess mentioned that the DMA was hosting naturalization ceremonies as a way to connect the world collections of art with people from those regions.
The idea immediately hooked her, Stewart says.
“We have so many immigrants in Dallas that this is a really ripe theme,” she says. “It’s a chance to really understand the challenges they have faced to be here and to be part of our community.”
Three of the performers are driving up from Austin and Houston, and the rest are from Dallas. The immigration stories include tales from India, Burundi, Nigeria, Bosnia, Mexico, Russia and Bangladesh. Another performer, Julie Hersh, will share the story of translating her memoir, Struck by Living, into Spanish, a situation where things literally got lost in translation.
Congera says the event gave him an opportunity to tell parts of his story that he has never told before. It took nine years to get from his war-torn country to the United States. His family is from Burundi, but he has never seen the country. Congera grew up in refugee camps in Africa.
“During my journey in Africa, I thought about death, and I could not see how God can save us from darkness and hopelessness,” he says. “The only thing I knew was that if I stayed, I would be destroyed. We were told that being in America is amazing. Some would say that being in America is like being in heaven. It feels good to share this.”
Belma Islamovic, a Bosnian war refugee who lost both her arms in a shell attack, says writing her story was a freeing experience. She typed her story by using a pen in her mouth, a slow and laborious process.
“It was a story I kept to myself for so many years,” Islamovic says. “I decided it was time to say what happened to me, to explain why I am here. It feels good to talk about it. I have kept it inside of me for a very long time.”
Plan your life
“Lost in Translation: Stories About Immigration” is at 9 p.m. Friday at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St. Sold out, but visit the will-call table in front of Horchow Auditorium between 8:45 and 9 p.m. Friday to see whether seats become available.