The Writers of Oya release ‘Unmasked’

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Photo Courtesy of Ashanti Files

A promotional image tells viewers about the virtual release event “Unmasked.”

By Bridget Bastein, staff writer

The Writers of Oya has hosted a virtual release event through The Urbana Free Library to commemorate their first poetry collection, “Unmasked.” What is most notable about this work is that middle school girls wrote it. The Writers of Oya program got its start from Ashanti Files, who, not too long ago, was named City of Urbana’s Next Poet Laureate, under a grant by the Urbana Arts and Culture Program. Files teaches young girls how to deal with emotions, cope with daily challenges, relieve stress and ultimately develop confidence through the art of slam poetry. “Unmasked” is the culmination of the girls’ hard work in developing their writing throughout the program, which is only in its third year. It is a project that shows how skillful, hardworking and talented these girls are; they have published a book at a much younger age than society would expect.

Adults frequently underestimate youth challenges, and The Writers of Oya show that adults also underestimate young people’s capabilities. The girls have drawn on from all sorts of experiences like bullying, feeling lost, the daily experience of being a girl of color and the Black Lives Matter movement in their writing. Youths feel the times’ stressors just as much as adults do and are just as capable of expressing and addressing such serious themes in their work.

Unfortunately, the Writers of Oya did face some setbacks due to the pandemic. The group could not meet in person like they usually would. Files described the typical style of a Writers of Oya meeting as coming together in the classroom to eat and chat, processing stress from the day, and then taking their experiences and emotions and manifesting them in writing. Despite having their communication mainly reduced to texting, the hardworking group stayed motivated and kept up with their writing until they had a published book.

Files said the most rewarding aspect of undertaking this project was seeing the girls’ smiles the first time they held their published books and realized the fruits of their labor. From start to finish, writing and repeatedly editing until completion, they get to profit. Publishing a book has helped the girls realize their self-efficacy. What they have to say has value, and people will be there to listen.

When asking Files why the title “Unmasked” was chosen, she said it can be interpreted in two ways. The first meaning stems from the idea that everyone wears a mask to cope with life and get through the day, but the longer you wear a mask, the more you lose yourself while playing the role. When the girls of Oya unmask themselves and let their true selves out, they have the power to defy the expectations that society has of them as young girls. The second meaning is taken from the circumstances of COVID-19. Under the pandemic, for safety reasons, everyone needs to be masked and avoid meeting. These necessary restrictions make communicating harder and prevent people from being able to face each other. Despite any setbacks caused by the virus, the girls are determined to speak their truths, and they can get people to listen.

Files said that she hopes that this project will have a significant impact on the community. “Unmasked” can serve as a great teaching tool that gives perspective about the struggles that youths face in their daily lives. It can also be a helpful resource to other children that provides them with something to relate to and help them know that they are not alone in feeling the way they do. While the world is progressing, discussing mental health is still taboo. By the girls expressing their feelings so openly, they can understand and process what they are going through, and, hopefully, those who read their work will be able to understand their feelings and more honestly express them.

Those who would like to learn more about the Writers of Oya or buy a copy of “Unmasked” can go to the website http://www.mytruenorthartistry.com/writers-of-oya.html#/.

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