Ted Anthony ’95 grew up immersed in Thailand.
Before he was born, his parents—linguistics professors at the University of Pittsburgh—had lived and worked there. Their home was filled with Thai artifacts, so for Anthony, moving to Bangkok in 2014 as the Associated Press’s Asia-Pacific news director felt like “coming full circle”—all the more so because his parents had gone there with his recently widowed grandmother, and he with his wife and two children.
But Anthony—who was at University Park this week to receive an outstanding alumni award from the Department of History—landed in Bangkok at a tumultuous time. A mere three days after he took up his position, he told students in a history class on Tuesday, the Thai army staged a military coup against the government, suspending the constitution and imposing martial law. Naturally, the events left Anthony no time to indulge in the nostalgia of his family’s connection to Thailand.
Diane Ackerman, award-winning poet, essayist, and author, draws on the many wonders of the natural world to inspire her work. The movie version of her book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Golden Globe-winning actress Jessica Chastain, hits theaters today (you can watch the trailer at the top of this post).
The book recounts the story of Jan Zabinski, director of the Warsaw zoo in 1939, and his wife Antonina, who during the Nazi occupation of Poland, tirelessly worked with the Polish resistance to hide hundreds of Jewish people, and zoo animals, in their villa. The Zabinskis helped many Jews escape to safety and saved numerous animals.
We chatted with Ackerman ’70 via email. Here’s what she has to say about The Zookeeper’s Wife, about her work and about the power of nature:
It is extremely difficult for western journalists, American journalists in particular, to enter The Islamic Republic of Iran. But Laura Secor, journalist and author of Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran (Riverhead Books, 2016), was fortunate enough to be able to visit the country on several occasions between 2005 and 2012, and to gain unique insight into the hearts and minds of Iranians struggling against a harsh and repressive regime in their quest for a national and cultural identity.
Secor—daughter of retired Penn State English professors Bob and Marie Secor—spoke at a Penn State Forum luncheon on Friday. She’s written widely on Iran for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs, among others. Her book encapsulates the shifting political and intellectual tumult in Iran, and the ebbs and flows of dissent that have ensued since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
She was drawn to Iran, she says, “because as a journalist I loved the idea of going into something forbidden. And when I was growing up, Iran was so off-limits, it was so demonized.”
The time Secor spent in Iran brought her close to a wide array of dissenters: Philosophers. Bloggers. Student activists. Feminists. Intrepid journalists. She also got to know key Iranian dissenters living in exile in other countries and got their stories.
“I was blown away by the level of civic engagement and civic courage I encountered in Iran,” she told me after the luncheon. “By my second visit, I was completely engulfed by people I got close to, by their stories, and I admired the bravery, grace, and dignity with which they operated.”
Needless to say, the Iranian government kept strict tabs on Secor’s comings and goings (the people she interviewed were closely followed, too), and in 2012, she was detained and questioned by the authorities, asked to prove that she was indeed a journalist and not a spy.
She was released—but since then, Secor has been denied a visa to Iran and has not been able to return to the country.
Which saddens her greatly, she says, even as she plans to move onto covering other parts of the world.
Savita Iyer, senior editor
Alia Gant, a diversity resident librarian with the Penn State Libraries, had never shared her story in public. Being a lifelong, plus-size woman in a society obsessed with thinness is tough, to say the least, and the experiences—many of them hurtful—Gant has endured over the years are not easy to recount.
But Gant was inspired to come forward and share her story Wednesday as a “human book” at Pattee and Paterno Library. She was one of a number of people who took part in Penn State’s first Human Library project, a global initiative that originated in Copenhagen, Denmark, and uses dialogue and human interaction to counter stereotypes and preconceived notions that people have about others.
Typically, readers will “check out” a Human Library “book” for a one-on-one “read.” But Megan Gilpin, outreach coordinator for Library Learning Services, who spearheaded the effort at Penn State, felt that small, 45-minute storytelling sessions with no more than 10 people attending at a time, would be more conducive to encouraging the free flow of words, thoughts, and experiences between storytellers and their audiences.
That format appealed to Gant and encouraged her to participate in the project. “I really liked the setting—it was intimate in a way that allowed people to trust each other with their experiences in a safe space,” she said.
Allison Subasic ’09g, former director of Penn State’s LGBTQA Resource Center, felt the same way. “I’m a shy person,” said Subasic, who spoke candidly to a small group about her difficult childhood, her family, and being dyslexic. “This was good for me.”
Even experienced storytellers like Brian Davis (above), an undergrad majoring in African-American studies, criminology, and sociology who has spoken before large gatherings and given TED talks on his former life as a gang member in Philadelphia, favor the Human Book format. “I feel like I’m able to breathe and tell my story more intimately,” Davis said. “We all have certain prejudices, no matter what we think, but by sharing stories and listening to stories, I believe those prejudices do dissipate.”
Gilpin first heard about the Human Library project at a librarian’s conference last May and thought it would be perfect for Penn State. The event, part of the All In campaign launched last October to promote and commit to diversity and inclusion, featured 14 storytellers sharing often difficult-to-tell stories on race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation, among others.
“We wanted people to hear someone else’s stories and recognize that others have had barriers,” Gilpin said. “We wanted stories to be told in settings where people could ask questions, where everyone is reciprocal and everyone can learn something new about someone else.”
The Human Library concept has spread to more than 70 countries since its inception in 2000. Gilpin hopes it will be repeated at Penn State on a regular basis.
Savita Iyer, senior editor