Column |  ‘We zipped through Manhattan with a bunch of drag queens and slept in Central Park’

Column | ‘We zipped through Manhattan with a bunch of drag queens and slept in Central Park’

For the past ten weeks, I’ve danced, laughed, argued, drank, and lived night and day in a dorm on the University of Iowa campus with 35 writers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and South America. An international writing program event organized there since 1967. Can’t tell you how much it was in 550 words, but if I focus on my best friend in the group, you can get some of it out of your head.

Her name is Busisiwe Mahlangu, Busy to friends (and to all Americans who stumble across her name). She’s only five feet tall, wears glasses, a fan of Beyonce, likes girls, and like me, she likes to sleep. She was born 27 years ago in the South African town of Mamelodi: the ‘Mother of Melodies’. His mother was a domestic worker and his mother’s mother ran an illegal bar that was a meeting place for resistance fighters. Busi was born free and was the first in his family to grow up without apartheid in South Africa.

Unlike most writers, who are invited by American embassies in their home countries, Busey signed himself up to the project. She cried when she told me this. She heard that she might come at a time when no one believed anyone was waiting for a voice like hers.

I first saw her perform the morning after her grandmother died unexpectedly. Busi stood in front of a class of American teenagers and spoke about a poem she read in Zulu about the countless women who are raped at night on the streets of Johannesburg. Bus wants to build a fire with the girls. A fire that grows large enough to turn night into day reveals all that night might have hidden. While reading, eating became like that fire. She filled the room with light and everyone was affected by her.

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In the weeks that followed, the show took us to Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York, and the same thing happened every time Busi was on stage. In our free hours, Pusi and I broke away from the group and followed our own plan. At Iowa we enrolled in Native American Law and Policy. In addition to Mississippi, we read and honored Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” We visited author Zora Neale Hurston’s home in Harlem. We went through Manhattan with a group of drag queens and slept for a while in Central Park, where I slept hungry and worried seventeen years ago, when I went to New York, with only $50 in my account, I don’t know. Everything I dreamed of will come true one day.

“Have you done any research for the new story?” asked a writer from Pakistan, after three sleepless days in New York, we reunited with 35 of our fellow writers on the bus that took us to LaGuardia Airport. Bassey looked out the back window at the shrinking skyline, shook her head, and said, “No, we lived the story.”

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