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Monday, March 2, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 25.0° F  
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Madland: Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk says Wisconsin teens understand complex world issues
Wisconsin students surprised Pamuk with their depth of analysis.
Credit:James Gill/UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Teenagers are a little hard to understand sometimes.

I know you see them, usually in groups, with heads hanging down, pants sagging, and fingers whizzing across the omnipresent devices. But after watching a huge crowd of Wisconsin high school students interact with a Nobel prize-winning novelist yesterday, I've got a lot more hope for the future.

More than 1,300 Wisconsin high school students all read the same book, Snow, by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who visited Madison for a daylong conference with about 500 of the students on Monday.

Snow wrestles with political, cultural and religious tensions in modern-day Turkey. The book's protagonist, Ka, is a Turkish poet who lived in political exile for 12 years before coming back to his native land to investigate a series of suicides by Muslim women who have been forced to remove their head scarves.

At the conference, the students shared essays, paintings, collages, quilts, compositions, movie trailers, textiles and sculptures -- all related to themes from the novel. It was a mind-blowing experience to see all these teenagers excited about a book. And I don't know if it was due to Mayor Paul Soglin's challenge to stay off their phones for the day or teachers' directives, but the students seemed connected with the program.

The book was selected by the Great World Texts program, sponsored by UW-Madison's Center for the Humanities. The collaborative program provided training and support for Wisconsin teachers to create engaging curriculum connected to the book and aligned to Wisconsin's Common Core standards.

At a press conference, Pamuk told me the Wisconsin students surprised him with their depth of analysis, picking up on themes major international reviewers had missed. "Turkey is a complex country. It's not black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, but most of the country is in between," he said. "I am very happy to see that the high school students in Wisconsin are addressing these gray areas."

Aidan Falk, who attended with dozens of other students from East High School -- by far the largest contingent at the conference -- wrote an essay about the feeling of melancholy evoked by the book.

"A quote I really like from the book (or maybe I made it up) is that each human life is like a snowflake. Each is different from close up, but from far away they are all the same, they are uniform," said Falk.

At his keynote speech, Pamuk answered questions from student representatives from each of the 15 participating schools. When one of the students asked for advice for budding writers, Pamuk gave my favorite answer: "Don't take advice from anyone. Only read books. Books teach you the joy of spending time alone in a room with your thoughts and feelings. Please continue to do that."

"Prominent critiques don't get as much as you do," concluded Pamuk. "I'm amazed by your creativity and your joy."

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