Paula Huntley Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley

An interview with Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley discusses her journey to Kosovo, Balkan politics, fear, hope, writing, her students, and the book club that brought them together.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a very small town in Arkansas, called Pocahontas. I did my undergraduate work at Lindenwood, which was then a women's college in St. Charles, Missouri. I got married right after college, moved to Dallas, got a master's in history at Southern Methodist University, and had my son, Paul, there. Eventually I moved back to Arkansas and got divorced. Later, I married Ed.

How did the two of you meet?
I met Ed on a blind date in Little Rock. It was the only blind date I'd ever gone on. Ed was living in Bolinas, California, at the time. Every year he visited some neighbors down the street, and every year, they fixed Ed up with a different woman. I was Ms.1979! Two months later, I quit my job, gave away everything I owned except my son, and moved to Bolinas to be with Ed.

Two decades later, what made you and Ed decide to go to Kosovo?
Going to Kosovo was Ed's idea. He really wanted to do somethingeven a little somethingto help in the Balkans. When he told me he wanted to take a leave of absence to go to Kosovo I was terrified and appalled. Afraid of the unknown, really. Reluctant to leave my friends and family and home. But as the weeks went on and we talked about it more, and I realized how much it meant to Ed, I just started getting us ready for the move. I loved Ed, he wanted this deeply, so I supported him. He would have supported me if I had wanted something that badly. It's that simple. But it was not "my" trip, too, until I got to Kosovo. When I got there, when I met my neighbors, our landlords, Isa and Igaballe, Ed's staff, my students... when I got to know more about what had happened in Kosovo, what the people had endured... then it was no longer just Ed's trip. It became mine, too. I will always be grateful to Ed for wanting to go to Kosovo.

What was it like when you first arrived in Prishtina? How long did it take you to get used to the presence of tanks in the streets, soldiers and policemen everywhere, the bombed-out homes?
I got used to it all very, very quickly. Within a week or two, looking at the tanks, the sandbagged fortifications, the international police and the NATO troops carrying automatic weapons was like looking at the lamppost. That may sound flip, but somehow that's what happened. For one thing, I could see that the Kosovo Albanians around me were so relieved and grateful to have NATO troops and armaments there. After all, these were the forces that drove the Serb oppressors from Kosovo, and that remained in order to keep the peace in the region. These forces represented peace, not war, to the local inhabitants. And remember that Prishtina had not been destroyed, unlike much of the rest of Kosovo. The Serbs needed Prishtina, the capital city, so although there was massive looting and vandalism, and, of course, murders and the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population of the city, they had left most of the buildings intact. The bombed buildings in the middle of the city were largely the result of NATO's surgical air strikesthat completely destroyed Serb police headquarters, for instancethat I walked past each day on my way to school. It had been a huge five- or six-story complex, and was now collapsing in on itself, the walls blasted out, a charred skeleton of a building. Most of the destruction in Prishtina was below the surfacein the hearts and minds of the residents. I saw this every day, and I never got used to that destruction. As I began to concentrate on the people I met, which I did very quickly, physical surroundings just didn't seem important.

You taught English to a group of Kosovo Albanians. Why were they interested in learning English?
You have to realize just how far down the educational and economic ladder Kosovo Albanians are. My studentsevery Kosovo Albanian, reallyhad essentially lost ten years of their lives, those awful years of apartheid under Milosevic. My students and their families were desperate to escape the consequences of generations of isolation and poverty, and a decade of brutal oppression. They knew they had to catch up with the West, and catch up fast. My students knew that their families were, in effect, sending them out into the world as the family's emissaries, as the family's last best chance to pull themselves up and out. If they didn't make it, their entire family might never make it. Knowledge of the English language is one of the most important passports to the rest of the world. It is the second language of much of the world, it is the language of business and commerce. In Kosovo itself it is the language used by UNMIK and most non-governmental organizations. And, of course, good English is necessary if the young people are to study in England or the U.S. It's not an exaggeration to say that English, in many ways, is key to the economic advancement of my students and their families.

You taught history when you were in your twenties. Did that background help you with your students in Kosovo?
My background as a teacher didn't help at all. It had been so long ago. What did help me was the short course I took in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). The course reacquainted me with my native language and gave me some interesting, entertaining teaching techniques. The second thing that helped me was simply my fifty-six years of life experience. I had learned things from just living that were more helpful to me than anything I had learned in a classroomthings like patience, a sense of humor, and the importance of listening. Also, I'd had different kinds of work experience, and my students wanted to know about that. They wanted to learn how to work. They felt that Americans knew how to work, and they wanted more of that in their own culture.

What inspired you to introduce the idea of a book club to your students?
From the moment I met my students and realized how eager they were to learn, I knew I wanted to give them something special. I wanted to do more for them than just teach English grammarthough that was important, too. I thought of my book club in Bolinasthe camaraderie we have with one another, how we use the book club to have conversations about things that mattered to us, to share experiences in our lives, both the happy times and the sad times. I thought, well, perhaps I could create a book club for my students. It would give them a chance for extra conversation practice, and it would provide a means of getting to know each other better. It also, I thought, might provide them with a safe forum in which they could express things they needed to express.

Was the book club an immediate success?
The book club was a wonderful thing just in itselfas a club, as a place to discuss The Old Man and the Sea and American literature. But it was much more than that. The club became the class and vice versa. The spirit and camaraderie, the intimacy, the trust we found in the club came into the classroom. I think the students saw that I was offering myself to them in more ways than just as their English teacher. They saw that I was willing to go an extra milemaybe many extra miles for them. They began to trust me, and for me, and I think for the students, the class became a family.

Your students were very affected by The Old Man and the Sea. Why did this book resonate so much for them?
I think the book resonated on several levels. It was such a simple story, fairly easy for most of them to read. Also, it's a fable. It's a fable of the triumph of hope and courage over adversity. For the students, the book was the story of their personal lives, of their country. On that level, it resonated deeply for them. My students also loved the old man's relationship with the young boy. It's the teacher-student relationship, the mentor-apprentice relationship. And I think that that relationship allowed them to think about their familiesthe older people in their families, whom they revere. They spoke to me of their grandparents, their older aunts and uncles, who had come through the years of apartheid and ethnic cleansing with "eyes that were cheerful and undefeated." I think my students felt that The Old Man and the Sea was their story. And we mustn't forget that The Old Man and the Sea is simply a great story! It's a tender and exciting and suspenseful story. We all love a story like that.

In your conversations with your students, they often expressed a deep, almost worshipful love for Americans. How did you feel about that?
In Kosovo, as my students and others told me of their love for America, I found myself thinking about my country in a way I never had before. I discovered how much I love my country. And for the first time, really, I found myself looking carefully at my country's strengths and weaknesses. I found, for instance, that I am very proud of our intervention in Kosovoproud of the fact that President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright, along with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, led NATO in driving the Serb military from Kosovo. We made mistakes in that war, but the intervention itself was the right thing to do. Leonard told me when I went back to visit in the spring of 2002, "I do not doubt that if NATO had not driven the Serbs from Kosovo I would be dead now." And I found myself feeling proud of the diversity in Americaproud of the fact that we have people from all over the world, every race, ethnicity, religion. We are a big jumbled mass of colors and beliefs and origins but we are all Americans, and we value our special jumble. Our strength comes from our diversity.

It wasn't until I lived in the Balkans, where many people really want to live in mono-ethnic states, that I realized how important diversity is, and how lucky we are in America to live with such a mix of peoples. But I thought, too, about America's failures and problems. I thought about how we failed to intervene when we should have in Bosnia and Rwanda. And I thought about the racism, poverty, and inequality that still exist in the U.S. I talked with my students about these things. Shangri-la doesn't exist anywhere on the planet, not even in America, I told them. The problems of prejudice and poverty, of greed and complacency exist everywhereeveryone in every country must struggle constantly to overcome these problems. Pico Iyer, one of my favorite writers on the subject of travel, says we must treat other people's dreams with tenderness. We don't want to dash illusions that sustain other people, yet we don't want to foster false notions of a "land of milk and honey," either. I tried to let my students know that, yes, America is a wonderful country, but it's not a perfect country, and that we all must work every day to make it a better place for everyone.

How do your students feel about Serbs? How do they feel about the future of Kosovo?
There is hatred in Kosovo for the Serbslots of it. It is fueled by fear, by the memories of the atrocities perpetrated by the Serb military and paramilitaries. But what my students seem to be focused on is nowthe wonderful freedom of "now"and the future. They're simply not going to be derailed by feelings of self-pity or hatred or revenge. I wonder, could I be so courageous? So optimistic? I'm not so sure. When I went back to Kosovo in the spring of 2002, many of the Kosovars I talked with seemed to have accepted the inevitability of living with other ethnic groups, even Serbs. They know that to be accepted as a country, and as part of Western Europe, the European Union, they must embrace western standardsand one of those standards is multi-culturalism, multi-ethnicity. What some Kosovars told me during my last visit is that they want only Serbs with "clean hands" to return to Kosovo. "Is it fair," one of my Kosovo Albanian friends asked me, "that the Serb neighbors who burned down my house return now to their house and we live as if nothing happened?" Clean hands, they say. But dirty hands, clean handswho will decide? It will take only a few murders of returning Serbs to destroy the effort for multi-ethnicity and ruin Kosovo's chancesruin the chances for my studentsto become a stable, prosperous part of Europe. The situation has been made more difficult by Serbian leaders' refusal to assume responsibility or apologize for the atrocious crimes committed in the name of the Serbian people in the '90s. Needless to say, Ed and I are very concerned.

How do you feel about the future of Kosovo?
Learning to live in a democratic society is difficult. One of the things Kosovars will need to learn is that western-style democracy is set up to protect minorities, to provide equal protection under the law for everyone. It takes most countries a long time to learn thisand I think that even in America we have to keep relearning it every day. In times of stress and fear, even in the U.S., it is very easy to let this value slip away, to compromise on the commitment to protect everyone equally. Kosovo will be judged by how well it (with an Albanian majority of some 90 percent) protects Serbs, Roma (gypsies), and other minority groups. Are they up to this? I hope so. Everything depends on it. Also, the notion of collective guilt, collective innocence is behind many of the problems in Kosovoand all over the world, for that matter. It's that insidious idea of stereotyping that the students and I discussed in English class one day. Can we say: "All white people are..." "All Catholics are..." "All Muslims are..." "All Americans are..." "All Serbs are..." "All Albanians are..."? No. We have to begin to say the words "some," "many," and "a few," so we can begin to see each other as individual human beings rather than merely faceless members of a group. What will happen to Kosovo? Will it be given independence? I don't know. But I do believe that, after all that has happened to them, most Kosovo Albanians will not willingly submit to Serbian rule again.

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo is the result of a journal you kept in Kosovo. Had you always kept journals?
No, not at all. Almost every New Year's, I make a resolution that I'm going to keep a daily journal. That lasts about a week. I didn't start keeping a journal until we decided to go to Kosovo. I knew from the beginning that I was going to want to remember every event, every conversation, every single thing I saw. I kept the journal in four different handwritten notebooks and a laptop. I carried a notebook in my purse so I could record conversations soon after they occurred, and make them part of my journal each night.

When you started keeping your Kosovo journal, did you ever imagine that thousands of people would be reading it someday?
No, I never imagined that. I e-mailed parts of the journal back to my friends and family in the U.S. But I never thought about it having a wider readership. I was just writing spontaneously about what happened to me everyday, without editorializing.

Is that why you call your book an "accidental" book?
Yes! When I was asked if I'd be interested in publishing my journal, I was originally hesitant. I didn't want to put myself in the spotlight. It's not my story. It's the story of the Kosovo Albanians I was fortunate enough to get to know. But Ed pointed out to me that if I let the journal be published, I would be introducing Americans to Leonard and the Professor, to Leutrim and Genti, the Granits, Drita and Emina and Edona, and the other Kosovars I came to know and love. And this, Ed told me, would be a very good thing for my students and for Kosovo. I came to believe he is right about that.

Do you think it would have been a very different book if it hadn't been accidental—that is, if you had gone to Kosovo intending to write a book about the experience?
If I had gone over to Kosovo with the idea of writing a book, I might have subconsciously developed some sort of a thesissome point of view that I would have looked to prove through my experiences. So my experiences in Kosovo might simply have become data to prove a point. Because I was just writing in my journal every day, I was writing what happenedI was open. I wasn't trying to achieve anything or prove anything.

Do you think you emerged with a thesis when you finished your journal?
I realized after I read the journal again that several theses emerge from my experiences. For instance, I realized that we Americans are fairly isolated from the rest of the word, although September 11 has changed that somewhat. We need to be more involved with the world, to try to understand other people and deal with them as they arenot as stereotypes. I also realized how important it is for Americans to do volunteer work abroad. It's much easier to do than one might imagine. There are so many volunteer organizations that offer the opportunity to go abroad to do humanitarian work, community development, to work in human rights, or to be a teacher. And there are many opportunities for American families to host exchange students from other countries in our homes, or to assist refugees or immigrants, people who are new here. Most of these things can be done by ordinary Americans. The world has so much to offer usand we have something to offer others, as well. But when we go abroad, we shouldn't go with the idea of changing the world, or of "Americanizing" anyone. We should simply go with the idea of sharing our energy and skills, of introducing ourselves to other people. If we're lucky we might be able to help someone. The one thing we can be sure of when we volunteer is that we ourselves will be changedand changed for the better. I suppose I should be able to say that I emerged from my experience in Kosovo with some conclusions about the big issuesthe problem of good and evil, an explanation of human nature. But my journal shows that I came up with few answers or conclusions to these most fundamental conundrums. I just kept asking the questions over and over. It was Kosovo that provoked these questions. I still ask them every day. Maybe that's the most important thingthat we ask the questions.

What do you think keeps Americans from going abroad to volunteer? What kept you, before Kosovo?
For me, it was lack of imagination, I suppose. Living your day-to-day life can be so all-absorbingit's hard to free yourself imaginatively to contemplate life abroad. It was also a fear of the unknown. Even after Ed and I decided to go to Kosovo, I was terrified. It was the unknown. I would wake up in the middle of the night, sit up in bed in terror, and wonder: What are we getting ourselves into? I had never done anything like that before. But it happened quicklythe transition from unknown to known. When I stepped off that plane in Kosovo, I could almost feel my fear disappearing and being replaced by curiosity, by a desire to learn about the people, the place. I realized that it was going to be the most amazing opportunity to learn. So when it comes to volunteering, curiosity is a good place for people to start, a real desire to understand other people. And, of course, a desire to be of some use. If I've learned anything, it's that sometimes the thing that you fear the most is the thing that teaches you the most.

Do you feel that your time in Kosovo changed your life?
It changed my life foreverpartly because of the stories I heard, what I now know we human beings are capable of, both good and bad. I still can't have a conversation about Kosovo, about some of my students and their terrible experiences, without starting to cry. That isn't a bad thing.

Are you glad that you know about these terrible things?
Yes. It sounds like a horrible thing to say. But I am so glad that I know about what happened in Kosovo because I now realize how limited my own experience was. I look at the world in a different way now because of what I saw and heard in the Balkans. I wouldn't want to look at the world the way I used to look at itwithout any sort of understanding or feeling for conflict and tragedy, for the atrocities we human beings are capable of. But I also learned in Kosovo that human beings are able to survive, to endure, to keep going. That we are capable of great acts of kindness and courage and generosity. I am so happy to have that knowledge. All of it. The world is both brighter and darker for me because of my experience in Kosovo.

Do you feel that your time in Kosovo changed your students' lives?
Sometimes I worry that I raised expectations that can never be metthat I did some of them a disservice. And I think about all the things I wish I had done for them. Yet, as I think that, I think of what my students tell me when they write me now. Both of the Granits, Leutrim, Besart, Genti, and Edona tell me their English is much improved after our course. Faton tells me he learned a lot about how to approach work. Leonard wrote me not long ago: "Teacher, because of you the walls that had been all around us are now torn down. We can now see the world." I hesitate to mention that they said these things. It wasn't me, really. It was simply someone being there for them, from somewhere else. I remember the night Ed came home in tears, having just heard from a young Albanian attorney on his staff about her eleven older relatives who had been burned alive inside their farmhouse. We asked ourselves. What on earth can we two middle-aged Americans do for her, for my students, for all these people we've met who have suffered so much? Well, what we can do is offer them love and encouragement. We decided that night that that's really what we were in Kosovo for. It wasn't just to create a legal system or teach English. It was to offer the people we met what all of us need mostlove and encouragement.

Do you plan to write another accidental book?
Maybe it's only possible for me to write accidental books! Ed and I may very well return to the Balkans, and certainly if I do, I plan to write again. At age fifty-six, I found the two things I really love to doteaching and writing. Better late than never!

Would you want to teach in Kosovo again?
Oh, yes, I would so love to teach again over there. If we don't go back to the Balkans, I would love to teach English to speakers of other languages, immigrants or refugees, young people or adults in the U.S. who are new to our country. There's something wonderful and inherently enlightening about meeting people from other cultures. My students and I wound up teaching each other how to live. We shared with each other the good parts of our cultures, those things that worked and made us better human beings. Are you still in touch with your students? How are Leonard and the Professor doing? I hear from almost all of my students at least once a week. Leutrim, Genti, Besart, the Granits and Edona, Luan, Faton, and Emina have written often ever since I left Kosovo. Drita and Fazile just got e-mail addresses and I'm delighted to be in touch with them now. Of course we stay in touch with Jehona and Blerta, Ed's assistants and our "adopted daughters." Only a few of the students don't have access to e-mail. I hope the Professor will get on e-mail soon.

Leonard and I e-mail each other several times a week. He just finished his first year at the University of Prishtina and made excellent grades. He has a job again with OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), helping to plan for the elections in the fall of 2002. This will be the third democratic election for Kosovo, and the third in which Leonard has participated. He is justifiably very proud of his work in helping the election process. He still yearns to come to the U.S. to complete his college education. Soon he will take the TOEFL again, and I think he'll do much better. He's studying, though he no longer has a native English speaker to practice with as he did when I was there. He sometimes e-mails me practice essays that I correct; I try to help him with both grammar and composition. Leonard is a very quick study. I visited with the Professor when Ed and I returned to Kosovo last spring. One day, over coffee and chocolate cake, he told me that we humans need the lessons God gave us in two holy books. God told us through the Bible, he said, to love each other and forgive each other. And God told us in the Koran to workthat our lives are "up to us." That is what the people of Kosovo will do, the Professor concluded. They will love and forgive each other, and they will get to work building a country. The Professor, as you can tell, is an optimist. I just hope he is right.

Have your students read your book?
Leonard has read the whole manuscript. My other students have read parts of it. Ed's assistant, Jehona, read the whole manuscript as well. Both Leonard and Jehona tell me they loved the book. I think they discovered how much I love their country, how much I love them. And they hope, as do I, that many Americans will read this book, and that there will be some kind of help for their country, maybe help for some of the students who so desperately yearn for a good education. We're all hoping that some good things can come from this book.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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