The Scheherazade Project: Q&A with founder Lisa Leibow

Black and white photograph of a protest. The only thing in focus is a woman's hands holding a sign that says "Resist."

You know how sometimes you hear about a project that really grabs your attention? That’s The Scheherazade Project for me. The brainchild of authors Julia Alvarez and Lisa Leibow, The Scheherazade Project’s #101Nights campaign is lifting up the voices of 101 women writers and artists in the 101 nights leading up to the 2020 election, a modern-day One Thousand and One Nights. Between July 25 and November 2, you can watch daily video streams from a diverse group of women writers, visual artists, and performing artists across the project’s social media channels.

I knew I had to learn more. Lisa Leibow was kind enough to chat with me about the campaign, the importance of women’s voices, and how she hopes the project inspires everyone to use their own voice at the polls this November.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did the Scheherazade Project come to be?

A: I had the privilege to meet Julia Alvarez at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. When I met her, it was just after a moderated discussion with her and another author. She was asked a question about what literary work influenced her, and she hearkened back to her childhood when her parents would read to her the classic tales of The One Thousand and One Nights, and how the narrator in that story, Scheherazade, really had a great influence on her. It stuck with her that there is power in telling stories and creating.

Scheherazade lived in a kingdom where the sultan was this evil, misogynistic man who took a different woman to his bed every night and then executed her in the morning. When this began to happen, Scheherazade’s father locked her away in his library, where she was alone with all of these books. But when she realizes what was going on outside her protected room—or in today’s lingo, I guess, outside of her bubble—she volunteers to be the next victim. When she is in the sultan’s room the very first night, she begins to recount to him the stories that she read while hiding away in this library and the ones she’d learned to make up on her own by being so well read. The sun rises and she has not finished the end of her first tale, and he allows her to live another day because he wants to hear the end of the story. This continues for 1,001 nights. These stories, as we know, can help to build empathy and open one’s mind and heart just by understanding a myriad of experiences, and so Scheherazade is able to save not only herself but her entire world just through the telling of these stories.

Lisa Leibow. Image courtesy of The Scheherazade Project.

The sharing of this touched me so much when Julia was telling me all about this, and when I talked to her after, she made some sort of flippant comment to me, “Oh, I wish we could do that for our current sultan! It would help a lot.” And then we just sort of started laughing and bouncing ideas like, “Oh, we could have one woman in front of the White House every night!” And she said, “It’s a great idea; I don’t have time for that.” And I said, “You know what? I would make time for that.” That was a Saturday when we had that conversation. By Monday, we were working on this together and she had connected me with her agent and we were reaching out to people and we were really geared up. Things were underway to have these live performances in front of the White House, and then of course the world began to shut down. We have completely shifted gears and we’re going to have this be primarily an online experience. We will be streaming at least one woman’s story every night for 101 nights beginning July 25 and ending on November 2, which is the eve of Election Day. 

I love the blossoming of this idea from the power of telling stories. What are you hoping that people take away from this project?

I really believe—and now it feels even more heightened with our isolation from one another and another level of uncertainty—that this kind of creativity is saving both the artist, by inspiring them to create and share their creations, and also the audience, who will be able to watch, hear, and just experience these stories. They will be not just spoken word or stories that are read to us, but we have dancers and visual artists of all kinds. It’s literary, performing, and visual arts. 

Can you share a little bit more about some of the participants that you have?

In essence, we have some very famous and well-known artists and storytellers, and we have artists and storytellers who like to recite poetry in their back yards and have agreed to share with us. We want diversity across all measures, and that includes how well known an artist might be, across ethnic backgrounds, sexual preferences, race, religion, you name it. We want everybody because there really is a power in the diversity of our voices, and to show that our voices matter. It’s important to show us as one people even though we come from very varied backgrounds. 

We need artists, we need an army of Scheherazades. 

Did you always know that this project was going to be just women’s voices, or did you ever consider opening it up to male authors as well?

I want to differentiate between The Scheherazade Project and this particular campaign, #101Nights. The organization The Scheherazade Project may amplify any number of voices in the long run because we plan for it to continue well beyond this particular campaign. This campaign in particular, because we are aligning with some really important anniversaries for women in the United States—the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave at least some women in our country the right to vote, and also the Voting Act of 1965, which it’s the 55th anniversary of, that ensures that women of color have the right to vote in our country—and in homage to Scheherazade, we are amplifying women’s voices as featured artists.

But we’re also going to invite, because we want these grassroots to spread, anyone of any gender who wishes to share as part of our movement to post their own story online and tag us at @1001USNights and use #101Nights. They can be part of the movement and also help spread the word so that ultimately we’ll all go on November 3, if we haven’t already mailed in our ballots, to use our voice in the most important way—to cast a vote.

You mentioned that you’d like to see this project live on after this particular campaign. What are the goals for its continuation?

We’re an activism through storytelling and arts movement, and we will use storytelling and all of those forms of art—all kinds of visual art, literary art, performing art—as activism. Future campaigns may focus on a particular issue, like climate change, or we may have other, broader storytelling events and support for artists to be able to create their art and provide a platform for it.

What is your central activist goal for the 101 Nights campaign that you’re running now?

It is to amplify women’s voices and strengthen our community, but ultimately it is really to encourage people to get out to vote. I think [it’s] drawing attention to these important anniversaries and how this right to vote for women has not been offered to us for very long in the scheme of things, and we cannot take it for granted.

It’s really extraordinary when you think…1920, 1965—incredibly recent history. 

Very. Very, very. I was born in 1966, so I am really among the first women to be born in a time where all women in our county were born with that right. Pretty extraordinary and pretty mind-boggling, actually.

I really believe that this kind of creativity is saving both the artist and also the audience.

How does The Scheherazade Project fit into your writing life?

I’m part of the DC Metro area literary community, and it is so vibrant and amazing. It’s been really wonderful to continue to watch that community grow and thrive and [to] be part of it in a lot of different ways. A big part of my writing life is teaching, as well. I teach at the undergraduate, graduate, and community-based writing courses. I’m a recovering attorney, as well, but it’s actually pretty interesting because my writing life encompasses both the creative writing and the critical thinking and legal writing, and that’s been really rewarding. I think all of that is also coming together in the Scheherazade Project because of course, we’re dealing with issues of justice by drawing attention to issues and by distracting us from these troubles and problems.

It’s really fascinating as we reach out to various artists—often at this moment in these interesting times we’re living in, people are very hesitant, forlorn. We’re all feeling a little lost. As I begin to allow someone to speak about what kind of work they’ve created or what they’d like to create, that spark just kind of comes alive and people seem so grateful to have a goal to work toward, to have a project in mind, to be able to revisit something that they have already created and look at it in a new way for this audience, or just some idea to create something new. It’s exciting and it warms my heart and it’s giving me a sense of purpose. This project is special and there are some benefits I hadn’t anticipated.

As is so often the case, right? You start putting ripples out there and you never know what’s going to come back to you. How can people get involved with The Scheherazade Project?

I want people to tune in. We will be streaming across multiple platforms—we’ll be on Facebook Live, we’ll be on Instagram Live. If they want updates, they can follow us on our social media or join our mailing list by going onto our website (there should be a form that pops up). Also, anybody can participate, even if they are not a featured artist, if you have a story to share or art to share. It does not need to be political in nature. In fact, almost anything goes as long as it’s not hateful. If your art distracts from the troubles of the day, that is really as important or maybe even more in some instances than drawing attention to the troubles of the day. We need both. We need artists, we need an army of Scheherazades. 

Lisa Leibow is a fiction writer, attorney, and teacher based in the Washington, DC area. Her novel The Plastic World of Ruthie Rosenblum was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s William Faulkner-William Wisdom Contest and is currently circulating. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Coe Review, CommuterLit, Crack the Spine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Five on the Fifth, Folly, Griffin, Mulberry Fork, Pisgah Review, Red Rose, Rougarou, Sand Hill Review, and Sanskrit. She’s the recipient of two Vermont Studio Center merit-based grants and residencies, as well as the winner of Pitchapalooza DC and an honorable mention in the John Gardner Award for Best Character Description. She teaches at the George Washington University, Northern Virginia Community College, and The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

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