As the 2015 winner of the Moth Grandslam and a judge in this year’s headline storytelling competition, Archy Jamjun knows how to move audiences.
But teaching someone who had been homeless how to tell his story? That’s not something Jamjun, who grew up in a middle-class home in suburban Lincolnwood, Ill. imagined he’d be doing.
“I’ve been listening a lot and learning,” said Jamjun, 36, a volunteer for the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) Speak Up Illinois project that pairs those who know how to tell stories with those who have a story but need to be empowered to tell it.
As a fiction and memoir writer, the Roosevelt graduate student has had winning stories about being kidnapped and raised by drag queens, the time his mother insisted he sing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” publicly and the death of his Siamese cat named JJ.
“He’s dedicated, funny and always willing to put in the work it takes to make his stories as good as they can be,” said Christian Tebordo, director of the creative writing program at Roosevelt University.
“Storytelling is the framework for my writing,” added Jamjun, who won the Moth Grandslam with “JJ,” which was published last year by Roosevelt’s award-winning literary magazine, The Oyez Review.
The Moth is a non profit organization promoting story telling across the nation.
Jamjun had no idea of the depth of loss and confusion that someone down on his luck experiences, until he met Ronald T. Ecklund of Woodstock, Ill. Ecklund spent about a dozen years sleeping on strangers’ couches and wandering across parts of the South before pulling his life together in a CSH-sponsored supportive housing apartment in Woodstock. “It’s been a phenomenal experience,” said Ecklund of his weekly storytelling and writing sessions that began in February with Jamjun.
“I’ve always deferred to people who know things,” said the community activist who volunteers with the Woodstock Bible Soup Kitchen, McHenry County Bicycle Advocates, Revolution Youth Center and the McHenry County Continuum of Care Against Homelessness, to name just a few of his activities. “Archy is intuitive, curious and a kindred spirit in terms of having a sense of artistic emotionalism – and I have to say, he really knows storytelling,” said Ecklund.
The aim is to craft a story so moving that it sways legislators, congressmen, foundations, grant writers, donors, etc. to expand affordable housing with access to support services.
“Supportive housing funding in Illinois hasn’t been good, and we hope by getting these two together that there will be a powerful story brought to the forefront that demonstrates the vital role that housing plays in overcoming homelessness,” said Samantha Michaels, project coordinator for CSH’s Speak Up Illinois.
Jamjun has helped Ecklund organize his story writing; he’s taught him how to rehearse; he’s given him tips on inflections to use while speaking; and he’s helped pinpoint that “Aha!” moment when an elderly African American man sat down next to Ecklund on a bus, looked him in the eye and said “I’ve seen a lot of things in my life … and I can see in your eyes, the way that you hold yourself, that you care … You’re going to keep going, right?”
“Something amazing happened when I told that part of the story to Archy,” said Ecklund. “It was like a light bulb went on. He looked at me and said: ‘That’s your turning point.’ It’s really been empowering.”
“I always thought I would just tell my own story,” said Jamjun. “I never really thought what I knew how to do would be a way of giving back to the community, but I am learning it is possible.”
Jamjun is currently writing a book of short stories for his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree. He expects to graduate from Roosevelt in 2017.