1000 Pencils


    Neil Grant’s foreword

I very nearly didn’t go to Afghanistan.

As the Black Saturday bushfires tore apart lives on the mountain, my family huddled on the Yea oval like refugees. I arrived to soot-blackened faces and fear and bewilderment. It was like a war.

I had been writing my novel, about an Afghan refugee and his young Australian mate, for six years. It had begun as a fiery passion and dwindled to a slow burn. The Australia Council had given me a grant to go to Afghanistan and complete the research I badly needed. I would visit the places I had only seen in pictures. I would talk to people, smell the dusty air, the kebob smoke, stand in front of the remains of the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. I would complete the novel.

But the fires changed everything. It made me fearful. It made me question my reasons for going. It made me shave off the beard I had grown for the trip and give up my Dari lessons.

Then I watched a documentary about a tightrope walker called Philippe Petit. Called Man on a Wire, it told the story of a young man with a consuming ambition to walk a line strung between the Twin Towers in New York. In 1974, after many setbacks he finally stepped out into the early morning fog, balancing on a wire 417 metres from the street. It had taken him six years of determination and shutting his ears to the sceptics.

It inspired me to continue my journey. It had become larger than the physical boundaries, the danger, the logistical nightmare of landing

in Kabul as a stranger with no support network. I was sure I could do it.

Afghanistan is a country at war. It has been this way since the invasion by Russia in 1979 and the subsequent uprising; through civil war after the Russian withdrawal in 1989; and finally the war between the International Forces in alliance with the Afghan Army against the Taliban from 2001 until today. We in Australia have seen the product of this war. People have arrived as asylum seekers and stayed as refugees. They have given up their country because their hope had worn so thin. But I knew there was more to the story of Afghanistan than what we saw on the evening news. There had to be.

I arrived in Kabul at the end of July 2009, three and a half weeks out from the controversial elections. I arrived to bombed-out streets and erratic electricity. I sat in a taxi from the airport and felt landmines erupt inside me.

But there is something about the human spirit that allows it to continue even after the most devastating tragedy. In Kinglake and in Kabul, I saw people move beyond their circumstances. I bought books and gum from kids in Chicken Street trying to fund their English tuition. I watched friends from Kinglake, tell their stories of survival to the nation and the world. And I saw the power in all these stories because they show us something that remains after everything has been taken. Hope.

The project

Our final anthology is the best writing gleaned from students in two countries that have both experienced disaster. We had one terrible day in February 2009, Afghanistan has had 30 years of war. The students wrote of these things and of the hope and resilience, the binding of communities, that can result from such tragedy. It is not, therefore, a book of remembrance or a book that desires to shock, it is a book about what is best about human nature.

    Some of the works were based on Parvana, a novel by Deborah Ellis that relates the story of a young girl in Taliban controlled Kabul. Jane Overton worked with her students to recreate young Parvana’s first day at the market. The kids were able to include detail from talks I gave to them about Kabul market life.

We also did haiku in response to photos I had taken in Afghanistan and in Kinglake after the fires. Haiku are seventeen syllable, three line poems, that capture the very essence of what the poet has to say. The student work when combined with these images is very powerful indeed.

Short stories based on the fires were mostly recounts of what happened on the day of February 7, 2009. They are harrowing and poignant and overwhelmingly honest. I cannot help but be moved by My Nguyen’s story about arriving in Kinglake from Vietnam and then, less than a year later, her family experiencing Black Saturday. All these stories are presented with the utmost respect for those who lost friends, family and property on that terrible day.

There are also stories based purely on hope or on the ideas surrounding it. These are fictional pieces of great ingenuity and are carefully crafted and presented.

It was a great opportunity for David and me to work with a group of Year 7 and 8 students for almost two days. We showed them two videos: one a film called Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, the other a CNN documentary called Generation Islam. Both these films had a profound effect on the students and, armed with other background knowledge we gave them during the day, they wrote pieces in response, and then developed the project for which this anthology is named: 1000 Pencils.

I managed to contact the International School of Kabul and it was with tremendous excitement that we received their interest in joining our project. The pieces that you will read at the end of the book are written by students from years 7-10 at that school. When I opened the email with the stories attached, I sat up until midnight reading them – so great was their power and beauty. Many of the students’ last names have been omitted due to their families’ security concerns for their children – such is the nature of living in a place like Kabul where kidnapping is a very real, and all too common event.

Finally, I have included three of my blog entries from my Afghanistan trip. They are directly related to the pieces that the students have written or provide necessary background to them. If there is any further interest the blog can be found on (follow the links to Blog-i-stan).

This collection of stories is possible because of an Arts Victoria grant under their Artists in Schools program. It is possible because of the teachers who have given their students the tools to express themselves. It is possible because Greg Williams and David Williams care about words. But ultimately, it is possible because of the students themselves, who among us all should be closest to knowing what hope is.

Neil Grant

December 2009



David Williams

In late 2008, Arts Victoria sent word that our application for funding to employ writer, Neil Grant, had been successful. I burst into my principal’s office with excitement. The government grant had come off the back of the success of Lightning in Kuala Lumpur: a collection of student writing.

I was lucky on February 7. A sense of foreboding urged my wife and I to leave  our home a couple of hours before the fire claimed it. From the Kangaroo Ground lookout tower, we watched the mountain burn. I spent a lot of time calling friends, colleagues and students who lived on and around the mountain. Thankfully, everyone we knew had survived. Our home was just one of more than 2100 lost that afternoon. But we survived and coming to terms with our good fortune amidst such loss and suffering was hard.

It was only a month or so after the fires that the emotional toll started showing. I was sleeping on a mattress in my mum’s lounge room, but had to get back to work as I was a year 12 teacher. I was under pressure to perform as if nothing had happened. Some were understanding, some were not. That’s the truth. I almost resigned.

In my deepest despair, two people came to my aid: Malcolm Hackett and Neil Grant. They both witnessed first hand the effects of trauma. They had experienced their own but were kind enough to spare some kindness to me. I was a mess and they helped. The school community also gave me hope. Or maybe you all just made me realise that there was never a need nor reason to abandon it in the first place. I had a place in the school community and still had something to offer.

I spent term four with Neil producing this book. Neil has been very generous with his knowledge. I have been given great insight into the writer’s life and craft. I will share this too and it will strengthen Diamond Valley College’s bourgeoning creative writing program.

We are all fortunate our principal, Greg, believes in creative writing and thinking. He understands the value of creativity. Stephen King says ‘writing is just clarified thinking.’ When you work closely with students on their writing you can’t help but be inspired and optimistic about the quality of thought our young people possess.

Neil and I were initially stunned by the positive reception this book received. We were so focussed on it we didn’t stop to appreciate what we had done. Kathy Stewart from Kinglake thanked us for ‘giving the students permission to share their stories’.

It is only now that Neil and I realise the small, but significant, part we have played in all of our recovery.

David Williams

December 2009

Click to see more photos