SJSU Professor Cathleen Miller brings an amazing story to Cinequest

Liya Kebede plays Waris Dirie in the film

Many of us have heard of the book Desert Flower, the story of model Waris Dirie.  Just 12 years old when she ran away from Somali to avoid an arranged marriage, she eventually became an international model, but it was her experience with female genital mutilation that brought Dirie to the world’s attention.  Now her story has been made into a film that is showing at Cinequest tonight only, at the California Theater.  But did any of you realize the book was written with the help of our own Cathleen Miller, an English professor at San Jose State University?

I asked Professor Miller to give us her own story of how she became involved with Dirie.  Following are her own words about a series of events Professor Miller refers to as “destiny”.   The film DESERT FLOWER plays at the California Theater tonight at 7pm.  Buy your tickets early to assure a seat, and there will be a Q&A session after the film.

DESERT FLOWER at Cinequest

When I first heard of Waris Dirie I was living in rural Pennsylvania, and I’d just graduated from the MFA program at Penn State with a specialization in creative nonfiction. Like many people in the post-grad transition—especially in the arts—I had no idea what I was going to do next to earn money. I had moved from San Francisco to Zion, PA. Now I was living in an old farmhouse in the midst of Amish farms, surrounded by 300 acres of corn, and I’d written a memoir about this experience and shopped it around to some literary agents in NYC. To my surprise, one of them signed me on.

A couple of weeks later the agent called and said, “I have a strange proposition for you. How would you like to write the life story of a supermodel?” I thought, yeah, here’s Satan tempting me to see how committed I am to being a serious writer, but when she began to tell me Waris’s story—a Somali nomad who was circumcised as a little girl, runs away from her parents by walking across the desert alone, makes her way to London and works as a maid, is discovered and becomes a model—I thought, ‘my God, there’s no way I can write a bad book with this material.’

I also realized it was an opportunity to be involved in a great humanitarian effort, because Waris had decided she wanted to tell her story to publicize the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM). Then the agent broke the other news: “Oh, and you have a deadline to deliver the manuscript in six months.”

The next thing I knew I was on a train to Manhattan to meet Waris for the first time. During this visit the UN announced they were making Waris a special ambassador to speak out against FGM, and I went to the swearing in ceremony. This was how I met Dr. Nafis Sadik, head of the UN Population Fund—a meeting which would become very fortuitous for my career. In the coming days I interviewed Waris in my hotel room and taped our conversations; I learned I had to get a room on one of the top floors to muffle the sounds of the sirens on the recordings. This system was vastly complicated by the fact that Waris would invariably accept modeling assignments, which meant we got no work done. I invited her to come stay with me in my farmhouse so we could work without distraction, assuming there were not a lot of modeling jobs to tempt her in Zion. She was delighted by the opportunity, as the girl from the bush had missed seeing the horizon while cooped up in Manhattan.

Desert Flower

I should mention here two interesting facts about my Amish neighbors:   1) they had never seen a black person—may not even have known such a thing existed, since their world consists of the distance they can drive in their buggies and they have no TV, and 2) they are all hunters and therefore armed to the teeth. Into this strange reality I arrive with a six-foot tall Somali supermodel. Upon hopping out of my truck and seeing the cornfield stretching to the horizon, she clutches her hands to her chest, and says, “Oh, Mama, I just got to run!” and with that she was gone, streaking through the stalks like a cheetah closing in on its prey. She returned hours later to find one very anxious author sitting on the front porch. The next day we got down to work, and I didn’t let her out of my sight.

No one anticipated the impact of Desert Flower. It has been translated into 55 languages, selling 11 million copies. The UN told me that it has done more to help them explain the impact of FGM on girls than any tool at their disposal. For me, it has been a turning point in my work and led me to my current project: a biography of UN leader Nafis Sadik. Interspersed between the chapters of her life are short profiles of women at risk—stories similar to Waris’s—an illustration of how Dr. Sadik’s work has changed millions of lives. And as far as the heroine of Desert Flower, Waris started her own foundation with the proceeds from her life story, with a goal of saving other girls from mutilation.

I’m a firm believer in destiny, and while I could have never predicted that a white woman from Missouri would become involved in this work, I have been happy that my gift as a storyteller could aid in such a worthwhile mission.



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