Friday, February 27, 2015

THE LIBYAN...Bridging Libya, Singapore and the U.S.

(Interviewed by Deborah Hefferon, ISH Board Associate, in August 2014.)

Esther Today

Esther Kofod grew up in Singapore which was her mother’s home country; her father was from Switzerland. After completing her studies in Singapore and then Switzerland, her family helped her choose Hood College (MD) for her higher education. On the small liberal arts campus, located in the charming, historic town of Frederick, Maryland, Esther was one of just four foreign students in 1965. At age 19, she was understandably very homesick for her family and Singapore, but also for her cosmopolitan lifestyle. She remembers being jolted when asked naïve questions, such as: Do you sit on chairs at home? Where in China are you from? (assuming that Singapore was in China).

After two years, she transferred to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. to major in commercial art. She moved into the International Student House in the fall of 1967 for six months, and returned again in January 1970. She was forever changed by living in I-House.

“My life at the I-House changed me as a person in that I now look at people from all over the world, including the U.S., differently. Living with different nationalities day after day, eating, sharing a room, partying, studying, arguing, loving, and so on…is living with family. Never again in my life after that have I met a “foreigner” – just different personalities and characters. That was my lesson and gift from the I-House. And yes, for me, I transformed from a girl to a woman over those years in D.C., hopefully more matured and more tolerant of the fascinating people and the world I live with and in.”

Details of her life at the House are generously included in her fictionalized memoir/roman a clef “The Libyan” which was recently self-published (available from AmazonUS and AmazonUK). She confides that most of the details of her story at the House in chapters three and four are true. When pressed for specifics, she coyly says: “I do play a mean game of chess.”

Soon after publication, “The Libyan” was spotted by the Asia Literary Agency, and is now on submission to major publishers. As you will see if you read the book, learning to play competitive chess was a key part of Esther’s life – it led to many close friendships, including with her future husband, the Libyan, who is the main character in her book with the pseudonym Kamal. In addition to the romance that led to marriage, she was transformed from a shy, naïve young woman into the designated social director for I-House. She cherished the location, the rich history of the residence, and the activities. Most fondly remembered are the teas and dances which are written about in loving detail.
Esther in 1970
Esther in 1970

During Esther’s time at the House, there were only 30 residents (today there are 100). She says it felt very much like family – intimate and supportive. The guys, like big brothers, were protective of the women, most of whom had never lived away from their families or outside of their home countries.
“I wish I could have sent my own children to live there,“ she sighs.

“In addition to meeting my future husband, I met students from all over the world. I never imagined, for example, that I’d become friends with someone from Japan given our countries’ histories. And I had never even heard of Libya before I-House!”

Esther began writing “The Libyan” on October 20th, 2011, the day the Revolution in Libya ended with the death of Muammar Gaddafi. She felt compelled to tell her story of life in Libya – she lived there for five years until she was forced to leave for political reasons. To protect her Libyan in-laws and the delicate situation, she opted to relate her experiences as fiction.

The publication, promotion and success of “The Libyan” exposed Esther to the wider world of social media (she has about 16,000 followers!) which in turn led to the rediscovery of many of her old friends from the House, including “Najwa” from Jordan, “Raj” from India and “Martin” from Canada (you will meet them if you read her book). She visited the real Najwa in Washington, DC last year after not having seen her for 30 years. They reminisced about the House and compared notes on the people they knew. Later Esther walked around the International Student House neighborhood – “It was unbelievable, like walking around in a dream.” Although she was very tempted to enter the House, she only looked at it from the outside. “I was afraid I might tear up.”

“Living at the I-House was one of the most amazing experiences in my life.”

“The Libyan” by Esther Kofod
Available on AmazonUS and AmazonUK