This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading

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On Obscurity and the Long View

Janina Degutytė. Poezija/Poems. Trans. M.G. Slavėnas. Lithuanian Writers’ Union, Vilnius, 2003.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of obscurity lately, because I’ve wanted to write about a book that’s been sitting on my desk for months now. It’s an English translation of the work of a Lithuanian poet, Janina Degutytė (1928-1990). She wrote her best verse during the Soviet years, and lived openly as a gay woman in a time and place when this was unheard of. She died shortly before her country regained its independence.

My colleague and friend, Mary Gražina Slavėnas published the translations of Degutytė’s poems in 2003. Her book is a labour of love if there ever was one, for can it get much more obscure than Degutytė? What is the significance of the work that Slavėnas put into ensuring that a trace of that oh-so-talented but ever-so-obscure poet remained in a language that was not her own, I wonder. It’s somehow defiant as a gesture — the translator thumbing her nose at obscurity.

I came across Degutytė in my work on Epistolophilia. The (obscure-in-her-own-right) librarian about whom I wrote my second book used to send much-needed heart medication from Paris to the Vilnius poet. In doing so, Ona Šimaitė may have saved Degutytė’s life, and gave her many years of productivity.

I’ve always been attracted by little-known writers, by lives lived on the margins, and in minor languages. A historian friend once laughed at me (though not unkindly), saying “This is what you literary people do: find some obscure author no one’s ever heard of, and voilà, you have a subject.”

In a way, my historian friend was right.

If I have a vocation, it is this: to gather and preserve traces of lives the memories of which I feel are worth saving. Though I see the value of writing books about Shakespeare, Beauvoir, Pushkin, and other iconic figures, this is not my calling (or at least it hasn’t yet been). For me, there’s something thrilling and even weighty about publishing the first real account of someone’s life.

But is there still room for the obscure, unknown and hopelessly uncommercial?

Our industry is changing, and it somehow seems easier and simultaneously, paradoxically more difficult to publish than ever before. As much as I can, I try to ignore the building anxiety surrounding book production, and concentrate on the work of writing. Amidst all the noise, I continue to try and take the long view. I remind myself that libraries, at least, are eternal.

I build homes with poems, wrote Degutytė in “Undeliverable letters.”

I try to do the same.

In my way, I build portraits with words, memorials with paper, and memories with imagination. Even if my work might find but a few readers today, I tell myself that a trace will always remain in the stacks of great book repositories. And most days, this is enough to keep me going.

But lately, with library closures and increasing percentages of library budgets going to electronic resources, I have started to wonder if this long view is naïve. Can we continue write for the stacks? Who will ensure the safeguarding of important (though rarely commercial) works?

The discussions I hear in the media and among writers vacillate between euphoria (anyone can publish now!) and despair (anyone can publish now…). Can a writer like Degutytė (or like me, for that matter) hope to be noticed in this climate?

Perhaps.

I hope.

You built so many houses

to keep people safe and warm.

I would also like to build.

I’ll give it a try. Janina Degutytė, “Undeliverable letters.”

Me too.

For more on this collection, click here.

[Photo: egazelle]

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Pre-order Epistolophilia

My second book is now a virtual reality at the University of Nebraska Press (never mind that it doesn’t even have a cover image yet! Ha!). I’m expecting the copy edit in a matter of weeks, then proofs, then voilà!

If you’re the kind of person who likes to have all her ducks in a row, click here to be among the first to own Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė.

[Image: virtual reality by OlivIreland]

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The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?

I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.

Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.

Until now.

So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.

For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.

My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.

The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.

My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.

So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.

His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.

I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?

(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)

[Photo: supercanard]

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On Archival Photographs and Paper Friends

Today I received the last photograph for my forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It shows the translator, Vytautas Kauneckas, at the desk in his Lithuanian summer home. Behind him stands a stack of texts sent to him from France by Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my book.

The photograph is from 1959 and has a few water stains. Yet somehow, despite the fact that his image was captured more than fifty years ago in the USSR, the man in the photograph looks utterly contemporary. When I opened the email attachment my colleague at the Vilnius University archives sent me, I found myself deeply moved.

Since I’ve been reading Kauneckas’s letters for the past decade, he (like Šimaitė) is someone I feel I know. Of course, since he died long before I began this project, I never met him. Our posthumous acquaintance only goes one way, but the eyes in that photo tell me I would have liked him not only on paper, but in person too.

In all, my book will contain twenty-seven photographs and two maps. There are lots of images of the book’s subject, the Holocaust rescuer and librarian, Ona Šimaitė, portraits of her correspondents (like Kauneckas), images of her letters and details from her diaries, as well as the shots of significant landmarks I took in the course of my research: her apartments in Paris and Vilnius, and the camps where she was interned.

The process of finding the archival photographs and obtaining permission to publish them has been complex. It’s required a lot of good will and patience on the part of archivists, who (lucky for me) tend to be kind and generous people. I have to say that it’s been worth the trouble, and I can’t wait to see all the visual materials in print.

I wish I could post the Kauneckas photo here, but I must respect the usage agreement I’ve made with the archive — which doesn’t include posting the image on a blog!

I hope that once they appear in Epistolophilia, these photographs will seduce my readers as much as they have me. And that you too will come to love these marginal, ghostly and paper friends as much as I have.

[Image: Dunesong]

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Litvak Studies Institute Contest: East European Roots

The Summer Literary Seminars-Litvak Studies Institute Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program announce a new non-fiction contest: East-European Roots: New Writing on the Old World, held this year in affiliation with Tablet Magazine, the leading online magazine providing a “new take on Jewish life,” and judged by Philip Lopate. The theme for the contest is Eastern European Histories: People’s Roots and Ancestral Heritage. The contest is open to everyone.

The contest winner will have their work prominently featured online in Tablet Magazine. Additionally, the winner will receive free airfare, tuition, and housing to our 2011 SLS/LSI Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program. Second-place winners will receive a full tuition waiver for the 2011 SLS/LSI Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program, and third-place winners will receive a 50% tuition discount.

A number of select contest participants, based on the overall strength of their work, will be offered tuition scholarships, as well, applicable to the 2011 SLS/LSI Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program. Read the full guidelines below.
Details here.

Litvak Studies Institute (LSI) and Summer Literary Seminars announce their joint 2011 Jewish Lithuania program in Vilnius.

It will take place July 31-August 13. Core faculty includes: Regina Kopilevich, Vytautas Toleikis, Efraim Zuroff, and a number of other distinguished individuals (TBA). The program will be held in parallel with the SLS-Lithuania program, and will share with SLS such eminent writers-in-residence as Ed Hirsch, Robin Hemley, Joseph Kertes, and Rebecca Seiferle.

[Photo: ~Liliana]



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Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

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Life-blood: Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father (Bloomsbury, 1997 [1996]).

I read this book on the recommendation of a colleague who thought it could be useful to my work. She was right: I found that it spoke to me on many levels.

I hadn’t expected to have so much in common with Mary Gordon.

Gordon’s book tells the story of her attempt to reconstruct her father’s life and identity through visits to archives and libraries, by wading through murky memories, and taking by both real and imaginary voyages.

She tells us that she connected to her father first and foremost through writing, and that she had become a writer because of him. But her daughterly love and pride get disturbed when she begins to learn unanticipated truths: that her father was both a Lithuanian Jew (who converted to Catholicism) and an anti-Semite, not an American-born, Harvard-educated once-married Catholic, as she had been told. Though he had indeed been a writer, his texts reveal he was not a very good one. His life revealed that he was not a very good husband. Certainly not a very good Jew.

This is a very honest book, so much so that at times it made me uncomfortable. As I read one bald truth after another, I wondered where Gordon got the courage to reveal so much about the things her father believed, about the lies he told, about family secrets. I wondered whom this book was for and who would care.

But just as I asked the question, I began to care about this family. This moment coincided with the author’s offering up of a portrait of her mother: a woman crippled by polio in childhood and struck by senility late in life Gordon’s discussions of her mother’s body struck me as particularly poignant:

For many years, the only adult female body I saw unclothed was, it must be said, grotesque, lopsided, with one dwarf leg and foot and a belly with a huge scar, biting into and discoloring unfirm flesh. She’d point to it and say, “This is what happened when I had you.” (221)

This mother is a phantom presence throughout the book (a shadow woman of sorts), the third member of the family, overlooked and largely unloved. But with her introduction, the narrative somehow fell into place for me, and the book began to sing, if sadly.

It was then that I started to find all sorts of common threads between my own life and work and Mary Gordon’s.  I began thinking about my own Lithuanian father who died too young, about my posthumous discoveries about his life, about my own processes of reconciliation with the dead, my relationship to Catholicism, to the country my parents left behind as children, and — most unexpectedly — about my relationship to my own mother and her poor body, battered by multiple sclerosis.

I read this book as I was starting to map out the first chapters of my current project, a family history of sorts. Gordon’s baldness forced me to ask: How much do I dare to tell? How much do I have the right to reveal? What do my parents’ stories have to do with the story of my grandmother that I’m writing?

Mary Gordon’s book is, at least in part, about learning to love someone with all their faults. It’s about forgiveness and acceptance, but without being too pretty or tidy. And (something that surprised me), it managed to speak to me on a most fundamental level by reflecting back my own story of intimacy, familiarity, and discomfort.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

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Summer Literary Seminars Contest: Kenya, Montreal, Lithuania

Summer Literary Seminars is announcing its annual Unified (Kenya, Montreal and Lithuania) Literary Contest, held this year in affiliation with The Walrus Magazine. Jayne Anne Phillips will be judging the fiction, and Matthew Zapruder the poetry.

Contest winners in the categories of fiction and poetry will have their work prominently featured online in Canada’s premiere literary magazine, The Walrus, as well as published in print in a participating literary journal in the United States (TBA). Additionally, they will have the choice of attending (airfare, tuition, and housing included) any one of the SLS 2011 programs – in Montreal, Quebec (June 12 – 25); Vilnius, Lithuania (August); or Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya (December).

Second-place winners will receive a full tuition waiver for the program of their choice, and third-place winners will receive a 50% tuition discount.

A number of select contest participants, based on the overall strength of their work, will be offered tuition scholarships, as well, applicable to the SLS 2011 programs.

Read the full guidelines at: http://sumlitsem.org/slscontest.html

[Photo of Habitat 67 Montreal: swisscan]

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