On Wednesday, March 31, Indian Creek Upper School culminated Women’s History Month with an inspiring presentation entitled “Stories from the Front Line: Resilience, Grit, and Women Who Changed the World” by renowned author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Students in grades 7-12 gathered together in the Jack and Nancy Becker Center for Performing Arts and virtually for a moving talk with Ms. Lemmon, followed by a Q&A session facilitated by the school’s EMPOWER club.
Ms. Lemmon, who serves as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of three New York Times best sellers, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Ashley’s War and recently, The Daughters of Kobani. She has written since 2005 on entrepreneurship in conflict zones, U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and issues such as girls’ education, the imperative to spread economic opportunity, and the fight to end forced and child marriage. She holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and is a Fulbright Scholar, a Robert Bosch Fellow, and a member of the Bretton Woods Committee. Both Ashley’s War and The Daughters of Kobani are now in the process of screen adaptation. She speaks Spanish, German, and French and is conversant in Dari and Kurmanci.
During her time with the Upper School students, Ms. Lemmon shared the stories of remarkable women who are central to her books, as well as her own experiences, to illustrate that resilience, courage, and resourcefulness are vital to success no matter what one’s circumstances.
Ms. Lemmon opened her presentation by recognizing the high school students for forging a way ahead through these unique times. “You all are weathering something your parents never had to live through. I hope you all realize how special this is.” As she pointed out, the youth of today find themselves in less-than-optimal circumstances but are making it work every day. She then shared the stories of the women who were central to her books and described how they, too, found a way forward through difficult times.
Ms. Lemmon’s book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana shares the story of Kamila Sidiqi, a teenage girl who watched her city – and her life – become overrun by the Taliban. Kamila - and the other young women in her town - saw their lives dramatically change, their rights severely restricted, and their plans for the future suddenly disappear. Given this set of circumstances, Kamila took stock of her situation and found a way to work within the rules, bringing women together to sew and sell dresses. Through her resourcefulness, she created both opportunity and hope for herself and others. Ms. Lemmon shared that one’s real character is shown “through what you do when your back is against the wall.”
Ashley’s War is the story of a special ops team comprised of women across the United States who volunteered during a time when females were banned from ground combat. Ms. Lemmon shared with the students that after seeing a poster advertising this special team, these women wanted to test themselves against the best of the best, enduring “100 hours of hell” to make the cut. The soldiers united to form a cultural support team unit, describing this experience “like finally realizing there was more than one giraffe at the zoo.” In discussing Ashley’s War, Ms. Lemmon pointed out that there are history makers throughout the world whom nobody even knows exist. She shared that it is her passion to tell these stories.
“Every great story begins with a question you cannot answer,” Ms. Lemmon told the students. She then shared that The Daughters of Kobani was inspired through wondering how a group of women came to lead the ground force fighting ISIS in Syria. The novel centers around a group of fighters who fought against the Islamic state, defeating ISIS to the point where they no longer held territory, while at the same time promoting the causes of independence and women’s rights. Through the stories of these brave women, Daughters highlights how human moments occur in the midst of inhuman circumstances. As Ms. Lemmon shared, “In a world where brave women in combat are often described as exceptions and male soldiers described as heroes, this story reminds us that words matter, representation matters, and how we see and describe things matters.”
Ms. Lemmon’s works each describe the journey of questioning the rules, re-writing the rules, and then opening the door for others. Through her work, Ms. Lemmon seeks to tell the stories of people who reman brave during difficult times, and looks to tell stories that other people aren’t telling. She told the students about a conversation she had with other journalists about the girls featured in Dressmaker, where they described the story as a “cute” tale of some women sewing. But Ms. Lemmon was adamant that this was an important story about women who kept their communities going in the midst of inhuman circumstances. She emphasized to the students the importance of the narratives we create.
After Ms. Lemmon’s presentation, students were given the opportunity to ask questions, the first of which was who some of the author’s role models might be. Ms. Lemmon - who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a community of single moms who worked hard - shared that her role model is her mother. She learned from her mother to abhor self-pity and embrace optimism. “Be a happy warrior, especially when things are dark.”
Ms. Lemmon also iterated to the ICS students that failure is a huge and central part of success. She shared several stories of being rejected by publishers throughout her career. “You must be out there in the fray if you want to do great things.” Other advice to the students had to do with creating your own rules through difficult times. “Throw out the table, bring in a new one, and invite people who have never been there before,” she shared. “In the end, there is no other. It’s only us. We are in this together. At the end of the day, opportunity must not belong to any one of us. It must be available to all.”