Saturday, December 18, 2010

Adopt a village in Tamil Nadu for just $500; help kids learn to read!

Balaji Sampath speaks at Princeton University about AID’s revolutionary Eureka SuperKidz Initiative

My Plea

Tamil Nadu has one of the lowest child literacy rates in India. As of 2002, schools boast an enrollment rate of 99.5% (and that number has increased since then), but over 80% of 5th standard students can’t read. What does that say about the state’s education system?

Plenty, if you’re Mr. Balaji Sampath, Founder and CEO of the Association for India’s Development (AID), which has been working with the Indian government to revolutionize the way students are taught basic language and math skills. He believes in “education, health and livelihood:”

  • set clear and simple goals for the students
  • cultivate a healthy environment for learning
  • translate parents’ livelihoods (however small) into teacher accountability

On December 18th, he showed us with slides, handouts, chalk and a blackboard how AID is implementing these principles today. Read his story below, and if you’re inspired, donate to his project, Eureka SuperKidz by December 31 for your donation to be matched by generous donors. I believe I have enough family and friends to adopt a chunk of the 88 villages left, and I hope you will help me in this worthy campaign!

Sampath’s Story

Kerala and Himachal Pradesh have the highest children literacy rate, while Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank at the very bottom. Learning was just not happening,” Sampath says matter-of-factly, the preface to his 15-year-long story about AID’s introduction to and involvement with Tamil Nadu’s rural poor.

In 1994, the World Bank launched the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) in India, in parallel with AID’s surveys and assessments. “No organization works in a vacuum,” Sampath says, and explained some of the crucial realizations the collaboration yielded:

  • While student enrollment—that is reported on—is high, so are dropout rates. Angry, frustrated and embarrassed parents pull children out of school as early as the 3rd standard when they find out their children are performing poorly, or failing, and the child has slim chances of returning to school.
  • The Tamil Nadu government, eager to maintain high school attendance rates, instituted an “all pass” through 5th standard policy, uniformly passing all students regardless of their performance. Parents didn’t know any better and the students continued in school and continued not learning.
  • Re-evaluations at the end of the 5th standard showed similarly low literacy rates, so the government remedied the problem with an “all pass” policy through the 8th standard. It was a “short-sighted” solution, Sampath says, and created a “brain drain” situation from primary school onwards.

Partnering with Pratham, the largest education NGO in the world, in 2004, AID took a sample survey of schools across Tamil Nadu to see how the government’s new policies were faring. The results weren’t promising. With more funding and attention in 2005, AID surveyed every district in Tamil Nadu and Bihar and found approximately 53% illiteracy among school-going children. But the infrastructure seems to be in place; Sampath tells us that every school has 2 teachers for a classroom of 80 students spanning 1st through 5th standard, so how can the quality of learning be improved?

“If you make it fun, kids learn better,” Sampath says with a smile on his face. “When subtraction becomes a game that you play with 4 friends, you want to play it, and you end up learning.”

He demonstrates on the blackboard, drawing 8 Tamil characters with chalk. He rapidly explains them to us, “this is ma, pa, tha, ka,” and erases them as quickly. He draws just one character: which one is this? The non-Tamil readers/writers in the room (including me) identify them with some accuracy, mixing up ka with tha, but not ka with pa. Sampath’s point is that it’s easier to mix up letters, objects, numbers—anything—that look similar, such as ka and tha, or, switching to English: b, d, p and q. “It’s easy to see that a and b look different; one has a stick attached to it. So how do you tell the difference between b and d, that both have sticks and balls?”

Make it fun! The more fun a task, the more appealing and the less difficult or cumbersome it becomes to children. He shows us a math jigsaw puzzle, 9 individual number squares that make up a 9x9 box. Each tile has 4 numbers on all 4 edges, written as arithmetic problems (4+15; 13x2) instead of the answers (16; 26), and the objective is to piece the puzzle together by matching the numbers on the edges of each tile with the 8 other tiles in the puzzle. It’s a basic game, made out of paper and requires a lot of arithmetic to play and complete. Our resources are limited to paper, cardboard, markers, so we keep our games simple,” Sampath says.

Games are effective because kids work together, challenge each other, and learn in the process. “Attention span increases, focus increases.” Voila: a learning environment.

Next, AID introduced their learning-through-games methodology in 2 schools in Tamil Nadu which quickly showed positive results. They talked to the government about expanding the program, which seemed skeptical at first. But a government assessment in 2005 showed that AID was right, 5th standard students really could not read. Frantic, they demanded state-wide intervention from AID, who responded with a plan to work in 5, then 10, then 15 districts, scaling up the program over time. AID has created the 6th standard text book for schools all over Tamil Nadu. Sampath switches to the next slide in his presentation, showing us impressive quantitative results:

  • The government funded teacher training in 7,300 schools
  • Pratham funded reading campaign in 13,000 villages
  • UK-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) provided monitoring in 7,219 schools

“The goal is not to improve education as a whole but, more simply, to teach kids how to read,” Sampath reminds us, reiterating the need to keep targets simple.

AID sustained a 3-year continuous focus on 10 districts, reaching 1 million kids, training 18,000 teachers and running AID-designed classroom lessons for 1 hour a day in the classrooms of all 10 districts. As important as exposing the children to these creative learning incentives and techniques, was exposing the teachers to the reality of their students’ abilities. The AID assessment showed the teachers that more students than they thought could in fact not read.

The response to this glaring gap in the children’s education was straightforward: set a goal that all students will be able to read sentences. Simple goals and strategies are far more effective than complex ones when working with 18,000 teachers. “Take the example of India’s freedom struggle,” Sampath reminds us, “make salt. You can’t get simpler than that!”

Draw up two lists: students who can read and students who can’t, and work with the students in the latter list to move them to the former. Leverage kids who can read, have them help those who can’t. Involve the students because “you can’t hide things from children,” Sampath laughs, and simple goals appeal to kids. “They have an incentive to move lists. They set goals for themselves. If I read a sentence will I get a certificate? Will I move to the other list? Ok, I’ll do this.” Sampath assures us that sentences are picked at random when testing the students’ reading ability to ensure they actually can read and have not just “mugged up” a passage.

Percentage marks in an assessment doesn’t show students what they have learned and not learned; it is unclear what they have to improve upon to move from 60% to 80%. Tell the kid what is to be learned—a to read a sentence, a paragraph, 2-digit subtraction, etc.—and the students can go about it more effectively.

AID’s assessment highlighted another glitch in children’s education. Most of the children who could not read had parents who were illiterate and not involved in their children’s schooling, and could not provide any homework or other after-school support. Typically being from lower communities, they did not feel confident to approach or confront teachers—literate, better paid, higher status— with concerns about their children. “Getting the parents involved matters as much as, if not more than, game learning and regular assessments,” Sampath concludes.

He paints a picture for us: a classroom in rural Tamil Nadu today holds 80 students spanning 1st to 5th standard, with2 teachers attending to the entire group. Obviously, this makes individual attention very difficult, if not impossible. How can this be addressed?

Eureka SuperKidz!

Sampath describes how AID visited several villages and appointed 3 “young people” as after-school teachers trained by AID. Each is paid $1,000 / month, which is split between AID (Rs. 500) and the village, who further divide the fees between all the parents, so each family contributes Rs. 25. The afterschool program runs from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. daily and leverages materials (assessments, workbooks, games) supplied by AID.

Such materials show the village that AID takes literacy and after-school programs extremely seriously, exciting the parents to be equally engaged. Now everyone is working towards the children’s development. More importantly, perhaps, is the approach that the after-school teachers take, which is to move away from the “I teach” attitude to the “you learn” attitude. Progress is measured by output from the children versus input from teachers. The teacher’s agenda isn’t to push material onto the students, but to pull learning out of them. A simple attitude shift, but so critical!

Sampath reads out names from a visual check-mark chart showing students’ progress afterschool, in fundamental concepts in English, Tamil, Math(s) and Science). “Janet has learned 2-digit subtraction; Monisha has learned 2-digit addition but not subtraction; Armstrong has also learned multiplication…by the way, names in Tamil Nadu have changed quite a lot!” he jokes. “We have a lot of Stalins and Marx also!”

A mentality shift is taking place: take the example of microcredit. Poor women thought themselves separate from banks, in no way connected to them or reliant upon them. After international organizations and NGOs set up microcredit programs, bringing women together, having them meet regularly—very important, we learn— the women recognized that they were making the effort, saving money, maintaining personal accounts informally , and believed that the bank did owe them something. A new market was created.

Similarly, teacher/parent reciprocity and accountability is very important. The after-school teachers in the villages are from those villages, locals that the elders have seen grow up, so even if the parents are illiterate, they do not feel inferior to these teachers. They are confident enough to confer with them regarding their children, since they, like any parent, want the best for their children. The students feel the benefit of the encouraging educational environment they’re in after school, at home and with their friends, and are motivated to excel.

In Bihar, the same after-school program is in place, running earlier in the day, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. since it gets dark quicker. Some villages have solar lights for our programs; that’s the only part of the village with lights in the evenings,” Sampath says.

Now What? The Perfect New Year’s Resolution!

Here’s where we come in as interested donors, inspired individuals, locals, NRIs and firangis with networks of family and friends who believe in education. AID has identified a group of generous donors—Prithvi Solutions, Prabhu, Shiva, AGK and SAVLAC Fund—who have put together a Seed Fund to support the Eureka SuperKidz project in 250 villages in Tamil Nadu. A village costs $1,000 to adopt so we need to provide just $500 per village. You can do so here: please include my name and ‘Dec 18 Princeton University talk’ in the Comments section. Donate as individuals, families, student groups or however you choose, the money’s going directly to Sampath and the villages!

Hopefully these folks will nudge you in the right direction:

  • A UChicago MBA student is providing additional funds to sponsor students who complete school to attend college.
  • Mohana, a 7th standard girl in one of the villages, called “makku” by her friends and deemed an expense to her drunkard father, sells her dad’s liquor bottles to pay the Rs.25 teacher fee.

Still Not Convinced? Maybe the Internet can Help

Kirsten Anderson worked with Sampath for 2 years in Madras as an American India Fellow (an AIF peer of my dear friend Hamsa Subramaniam) designing an English reading curriculum, and helped produce this video about AIDs efforts in Madras:

And on a lighter note, here are some of the outtakes:

Charles Leadbeater, an expert in “innovation strategy,” gave a superb TED talk on different and creative ways to educate the children in burgeoning cities in the developing world. Like Sampath, he believes in the “push, not pull” approach; it’s not what the teachers teach, but what the children learn, and he praises Pratham’s creater Madhav Chavan highly. Watch the TED talk here, it’s just 20 minutes:

For even more inspiration, here’s what kids all over India are doing to effect social change in India, an idea discussed by educator Kiran Bir Sethi in another TED talk:

If you don’t want to donate to this cause, check out some other organizations featured by the New York Times:

If you made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading, watching and, hopefully, donating!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

20 (Writers) Under 40 (Years) in 80 (Minutes): Authors selected as The New Yorker’s best 20 UNDER 40 speak at the 92Y Tribeca

It’s always satisfying to put a name to face, and even more so to put a voice to a face. Deborah Treisman is the Fiction Editor of The New Yorker magazine, and interviews writers and holds consistently eloquent discussions about writing on her weekly podcasts. Today she is stylish in a grey dress and shiny red leather boots that I now want (I’m a sucker for red). Thank you all for coming in spite of the cold, she greets us, “I probably wouldn’t have made it out.”

But she is clearly happy to be here and glows like a proud parent about the provocatively ambitious list of authors she and fellow editors conceived, whose gestation period involved expansions (so many authors to consider!) and contractions (so little time!), and which eventually birthed a brilliant collection of stories. It was “exhausting and thrilling,” she says, and she’s overjoyed at the result, to have all the stories “united” in one issue. She is standing at the podium on stage with a hemisphere of empty chairs behind her. “These aren’t for Chinese dissidents,” she cracks, but for the writers to occupy after their readings, when the audience can ask questions. Without further ado, the writers begin.

First up is David Bezmozgis: tall, dark-framed glasses, tame in a sweater and collared shirt. Treisman describes his writing—primarily about immigration, culture shock and identity— as “politically savvy and emotionally deft.” Bizmousis reads a section of THE TRAIN OF THEIR DEPARTURE, dealing with a romance between a male and female protagonist. The thorn here is a pregnancy and a perplexed is-he-or-isn’t-he father, who thinks of babies as being “the size and vascular transparence of a gooseberry,” floating around in the “red convection of the womb.” The weary maybe-maybe-not father reflects that “life, which he treated as a pastime, which he thought he could outdistance, had caught up with him.”

Second is Nell Freudenberger, praised in an article following her first book as being “too young, too pretty and successful.” With a bashful smile and a calm monotone she reads from her story AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE, which came to her after a chance conversation with a stranger on a Jet Blue flight, an involved email correspondence, and an internal compass directing her towards a plot. Amina is soon to be married to George who she met and is getting to know over email. When she first sees a photo of him she observes his “large uncolonized expanses of cheek, nose and chin,” which she later decides she can love. Her parents debate hiring a rickshaw to bring the visiting fiancé from the main road to their house, about 200 ft of unpaved path away, but decide that such a gesture would be “more of a spectacle than it was worth,” and I am struck by what the ‘spectacle’ of an arranged marriage conveys to readers both familiar and foreign to the concept. Amina wonders what George looks like and her mother—who met and married Amina’s father of her own accord, via a ‘love marriage’—placidly reassures her that he looks the same as he does in his photo: “nothing is wrong,” and I wonder if it's ironic or intended that I think of the prevailing American sentiment that we are innocent until proven guilty. Before Amina moves to Washington, DC to be with her fiancé, her mother exacts a promise from her not to do “that” before they are officially married. Amina is emboldened by the intimacy of proximity and inevitable propinquity, and breaks her promise to her mother. While she does not like his facial expressions while he’s on top of her—“as if he were in pain somewhere very far away”—she has no regrets the next morning, a significant marker of who she is and who she is becoming.

Third is Rivka Galchen who, Treisman says, draws from a “closet of curiosities” and a “grab bag of interests,” a sort of “Thomas Pinchen meets Kafka meets Oliver Sacks” for the scientific, technical and colloquial happenings she writes about. Galchen reads from THE ENTIRE NORTHERN SIDE WAS COVERED WITH FIRE that begins with a bit about the dearth of readers these days being a “felicitous injustice.” Galchen is expressive and performs her story with expression, comedic hesitations and flawless timing. Her hair is tied in a ponytail that looks like it was an afterthought, but is actually skillfully done, much like her writing, which reads like a casual conversation because of how finely it is crafted. The main character, Trisha, is in the middle of being pregnant, left by her husband, lectured by her brother and tempted by filmmakers, and Galchen manages to bring into context romances between land animals, Parmesan cheese graters without the “unappealing ‘comfort’ grips” and money being “also very winged.” She is hilarious and poignant!

Fourth is Karen Russell, the shortest and most cherubic of the bunch. She writes about things that are “both singular and universal,” Treisman tells us, and whose “cultural references are sweeping.” Russell sweetly thanks Treisman. “It’s great to be here with this rad team,” she says, drawing a chuckle from the audience. Her story is THE DREDGEMAN’S REVELATION and the main character is someone who works on a dredge for so many hours a day that “lately he preferred to think of himself as a profession.” Russell’s voice is soft and airy, musical and sounds practiced; I could listen to her read for a long time. She smiles when her main character starts reminiscing and “trying like the other guys to turn his life into theater.” She boldly uses Southern and Turkish accents for other characters, making us laugh again. After a traumatizing delivery that leaves a baby near-dead and its mother dead (prompting its adoptive father to later repeat like a chant, “you were born dead,”) the audience is as grateful as Russell that the baby chose life: that “windy interval between birth and death.

Fifth is the one author I recognize because of his distinctively receding hairline, dark hair and perpetual boyish grin on his face. Gary Shteyngart manages to be “hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time,” per Treisman, and effortlessly applies his “well developed satirical skills” in his writing. His 3-line biography includes the sentence, “Gary Shteyngart lives in his own head” and Treisman invites us to visit it with her. His opening line to the audience is, “I can’t believe I’m not 40 yet! I feel like I’m 80! Jeez!” with mock truculence. He reads from SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY which is set in the future and where everyone’s quirks are magnified. There’s the group of scientists that is “trying to find a cure for death,”—Shteyngart starts laughing, heh heh heh—“not going so well.” There’s the protagonist’s mother who welcomes him home with “some Russian garbles of amazement” and uses her “post retirement English” when addressing his non-Russian, non-Jewish (the latter a reason to disapprove) girlfriend. Shteyngart mimics with his hand the action of the mother running her hands through her son’s hair and describes how she quickly covers the couch before her son sits on it, since he’s wearing “compromised Manhattan outerwear.” There’s the father who, when he hugs his son, leaves behind some of the “grey carpet of hair that my father wore with a touch of class.” When he pulls his son into the living room for a father-to-son talk, they discuss “all the monetary things that kept us fearful and connected.” Shteyngart hops nimbly between the narrator’s American accent, his girlfriend’s question-mark-at-the-end-of-every-sentence American accent and his parents’ eager, affectionate, thick Russian accents. The novel may be super sad, but this bit is pretty damn funny.

Sixth is the author with the coolest name: Wells Tower (who names their kid Wells?). Treisman says of Tower that he captures the “panoramic cavalcade of American life” and has a “cinematic eye for the details that both stab and tickle.” Tower reads smoothly from THE LANDLORD about a real estate “investor guy” going through some “stuff” whose 31-year old daughter, Rhoda, creator of uniquely incomprehensible yet message-driven art, moves in with him unannounced, and continues to stump him with her work. “Her field is bummers,” the father tells us, since Rhoda makes “leukemia-cluster art, floating-yuan art, water-rights art, and mental-health-funding-cuts art,” among others. When Rhoda speaks, Towers impressively executes her waterfall of dissent, disdain and disgruntlement with rapid-fire diatribes about the recession and her ex-boyfriend and her father’s porn collection and that creature from the ‘Black Lagoon’ movie they saw together when she was 8. Her father convinces her to go out for dinner one night, and drives her through the scenic routehow about a sunset for message-driven art made more beautiful by Towers’ light, rhythmic alliteration: in the “late light” of sunset, “each blade [of grass] looks hand-tinted;” sneezeweeds “dot the ditches” and are “woozy with the weight” of their heads. Writer Gary Lutz, known for his essay The Sentence is a Lonely Place, would be proud. Rhoda complains of a “massive Old Testament magnitude of guilt” from her childhood, and confirms that being exposed to “a walking compound genital” in ‘Black Lagoon’ didn’t help. What would? Seeing “a Pegasus fucking a unicorn. Good to know!

After being read to about porn, arranged marriage, cheese graters, Turkish doctors and abortions, we are primed to ask the writers questions. They arrange themselves on the stage and finger their microphones with varying levels of awkwardness and habit.

Books versus electronic media? Shteyngart responds that reading a book means “completely shutting myself off, which you can’t do with an electronic device.” Booya.

How should an audience member write her autobiography? Russell offers friendly advice: “act like a tennis shoe” (and just do it!).

How do these writers deal with rejection, and what does it mean to have been elected to this prestigious list? Bezmozgis responds: “the nature of the job is rejection, it continues,” and urges people to keep at their work regardless of how tiring or obstacled it seems.

Do any of them teach writing or English classes, and why? Russell enthuses about how fun it is to “get to read closely” other people’s work, especially younger people who are “free.” “You have to wear pants in a room; that’s always good,” she adds. Hmm...

Do they find themselves being more subversive than usual in their stories, to pack a stronger punch? Towers says, “I vent a lot of bile and sorrow on the state of American politics” in non-fiction magazine pieces, but fiction is a space “where I can intrigue myself” and explore the “more fundamental artifacts of human emotion.”

A question to Treisman reveals that this same list from 11 years ago recognized 15 men and 5 women, and this year has yielded 10 of each. Hurrah!

How can first-time writers find their voice? Shteyngart says that reading aloud helps activate the “bullshit meter.” “There’s kind of a shame to reading in front of the mirror, but it’s helpful…do it naked if you have to.”

Sounds like a plan. Although, maybe I’ll keep those tennis shoes on.

PostScript: I haven't read any of these stories in full yet, but based on what I heard tonight, here's how I'd rank them:

1. Towers

2. Galchen

3. Russell

4. Shteyngart

5. Freudenberger

6. Bezmozgis


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Those who see him gush: Colum McCann at the Hunter College Writing Series

Colum McCann is a writer, poet, singer and comedian rolled into one inimitable Irishman. He paints sentence landscapes with his lilt-tipped brush, interjecting a sprightly “emm” between words, and amazes us with the pictures he effortlessly, eloquently conjures up.

He starts the evening, as he does the rest of the talk and the Q&A, with a story. Two funny things happened to him that morning, he tells us. He was walking through the park early this morning and a passerby recognized him and commended his “great book.” It was a “gorgeous moment, the sun was coming up,” and McCann was delighted. Moments later, someone ran by him and shouted, “get of the way, you baldy prick.” Flicking dried paint off his face—he was moving house that day—he smiles at the memory, perhaps trying to temper the glowing praise he has just been delivered by the woman who introduced him (I have shamefully forgotten her name, which is unfortunately because McCann says she throws the best parties). Her thin eyebrows arched in admiration, her hair perfectly pouffed, she shares some of the late Frank McCourt’s recognition of McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winner, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN: “of course it took an Irishman to get to the heart of New York City.”

But enough chatter; there are real words to be spoken and heard this evening. McCann tells us he’s not going to read from LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN—“I’ve been doing that all year”—but instead retreat into his past and treat us to something dated, something dusty. He’s chosen a short story from his 2004 collection FISHING THE SLOE-BLACK RIVER which describes struggling humanity in different pockets of the world when money and cheer was short, a sentiment neither dated nor dusty in recent headlines about Ireland’s impending bailout. The book in his hand lacks a jacket cover; McCann admits he left it at home because the photo was “so embarrassing…jeez!” He’s charmingly—or maybe I mean disarmingly?—candid, telling us he thought his first story was “completely twee.” Today, armchaired in literary stardom and unsolicited compliments (even if they are directed to his “baldy” head), he is ready to give it some attention. I assume ‘twee’ is slang for crap, but (Merriam-Webster and) Urban Dictionary tell me otherwise: in British English it is used much more widely for things that are nauseatingly cute or precious. It comes from the way the word sweet sounds when said in baby talk. McCann stops after the first couple sentences, informing us that the 26 women he’s begun reading about represent Ireland’s 26 counties. This is a “meticulous story,” he explains; hardly seems twee to me.

He has a musical voice, a cadence of patience. He reads the way one enjoys a glass of wine: respecting the fragrance with a deep inhale and a swish, playing with the liquid in one’s mouth, tasting and swallowing it with focus, and McCann relishes each word as he says it aloud. When he reads, his eyes flick upwards, as if looking at the Aurora Borealis in the story that is “fingering the sky.” Each time a woman casts her net into the river, she catches sadness, reflection and humor—one woman reflects that a man in the story is “not worth a barman’s fart.” He mentions Jameson and I cringe at how I ruin the name each time I order it with a crass American accent. He pronounces ‘white’ and ‘when’ with an ‘h’ in front of the word; I blithely imagine that he has perfect pitch, too.

After a water break, he shares from a new novel he’s working on, acknowledging that such premature exposure is “terribly reckless.” He explains how he “found this story,” being inspired by Frederick Douglass’ travels through Ireland in 1845 during the Potato Famine, and the crowds of 30,000 and 40,000 he drew each time he spoke: “a black man in Ireland speaking about temperance and abolition.” McCann starts to describe his protagonist, but stops himself: “I don’t even know what protagonist means, and I’m supposed to be a teacher at a writing program!” To stop himself from “jumping all over the place” with too long a preface, he jumps right into a chapter about two pilots flying an air-mail plane during the Second World War (if I remember right). The plane is a “nippy little thing” and the characters reflect upon its “shadow shape on the clouds” as they coast through the sky, a “species of abyss,” with “long scarves of tarmac” beneath them. War has turned Europe into a “carnival of bones”—what a stained image of despair.

McCann is deliberate with his tone and tempo: he starts off slowly, introducing the grim characters, and once the plane takes off and land skims underneath them in gulps, McCann’s voice becomes light and quick. He hops over the 3 syllables of a German word like a stone skipping over water – hurriedly, skimming the surface with a flourish, effortlessly landing elsewhere. “Oh, there’s a mistake; ok!” he chuckles in an aside, spotting an error as he reads. The section is a hybrid of impressively technical aviation and the haunting, beautiful imagery he so uniquely concocts.

After the two read-alouds McCann invites questions and waxes eloquent about the power of storytelling. Needless to say, his answers are the perfect blend of wordplay and delivery.

When asked if his novel will be ready for eager audiences soon, he replies, “I hope! We shall see. These things take a long time…As my students very well know, I’m very fond of throwing things away.”

Whether it’s a famine or a financial recession, McCann believes in the old-fashioned tale: “I don’t know if storytelling can save us, it can certainly hold us up.”

Compared to novels, McCann believes that “short stories have to be more perfect.” And then the zinger: Short stories are “imploding universes with round edges” while novels are “exploding universes that move in all directions.”

An audience member congratulates McCann on his convincing section about aviation; is he a pilot, too? No, he shakes his head, he spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library. The “benefit and beauty of libraries,” he says, is the “deep, deep stuff… in our library systems, you cannot find this stuff in Google.” The challenge is to write not just about what you know, but about “what you want to know.” Then it becomes “an adventure, you travel and you journey with it.”

In response to several compliments on his reading voice, McCann is, of course, ready with a story. He remembers when friends suggested that he make an audio book of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN and the woman he spoke to on the phone about doing so. She hesitated, then asked him to come in to audition. “For my own book!” McCann laughs. “I thought, fuck it. I went in, did an hour-long audition…and I didn’t get the job!” He believes the musicality and poetry in his voice and words “has to do with the music” of Irish culture. He refers to Hiberno which, Wikipedia tells me, is a dialect of English spoken in Ireland, a sonorous mix of tongue-twisting vocabulary that is clearly conducive to the spoken word. “I always get my kids to learn a poem for Christmas,” he concludes, and the crowd gasps with collective endearment. I vow to do the same with my kids.

McCann was inspired heavily by his father, a journalist. He narrates a quick story about traveling back to Ireland recently to visit his ailing dad who has 2 broken hips and is in bad physical shape. As McCann walks through the door, his father gets up to greet him, falls over and breaks his shoulder. Later in the hospital he quips, “I’m just like the Irish economy, amn’t I?”

A talk by a writer isn’t complete without encouragement from the horse’s mouth to get through whatever project us budding writers are working on:

“The really hard work comes tomorrow morning when you sit in front of an empty page,” he states matter-of-factly, and if you keep at it, “the hard work, the good work, will come out in the end…It will break your heart but you’ve just got to keep on fighting the fight…Accept that it’s never as good as you want it to be, when it comes through your fingers. Accept that you can fail better.”

McCann says repeatedly that his first book was a “deeply flawed novel in a number of ways,” but as the protagonists—whatever they are—in his work-in-progress point out, “failure didn’t interest them.”

Nor does it interest McCann, nor Philippe Petit, nor I, goddamit!

The following day, McCann was at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side where actress Amy Ryan read his short story, EVERYTHING IN THIS WORLD MUST. Read about their rehearsal in New York Magazine.