Gish Jen takes her position behind the podium with a book and two bananas and peers out at the group waiting to hear her speak.
Waving the bananas in the air she says laughing, "You'll have to excuse me, but I'm pregnant. Sometimes I just have to eat all of a sudden."
Author of two critically acclaimed books about the Chinese-American experience, Ms. Jen has spoken to many groups and knows how to put her audience at ease. She's here tonight to field questions and read passages from her debut novel, "A Typical American."
But she's not discussing weighty literary themes with university intellectuals. Jen is standing under the fluorescent lights of a Boston high school auditorium sharing her work with intellectuals of another sort - adults who have come back to school to prepare for the GED (General Educational Development) test.
And she loves it.
"It's an honor to be here," she says in an interview after the discussion. "It's intensely rewarding. You can see the desire in their eyes ... they're just on the edge of their seats."
Jen's visit to the Jamaica Plain Community Center Adult Learning Program is part of a literacy outreach effort sponsored by the PEN American Center, the US branch of an international organization of writers.
What makes this particular outreach program unique is that it sends working writers like Jen to educational programs where the participants haven't had much exposure to literary culture.
The students here are of low to moderate income, some are on welfare, and many are immigrants. Unlike many adults who take classes in their spare time to learn a new skill or pursue an interest, these students are working to complete their basic education.
For Robert Badgett, earning his GED means he'll be able to help his son with homework. "I knew I needed to get my GED," he says. "My son is 12, and if I don't further my education I won't be able to help him."
The vast majority of students enrolled in the Adult Learning Program are squeezing classes into a life already filled with work and family pressures.
"They're the kinds of people for whom coming back to school represents a huge sacrifice," says Jeremy Earp, a teacher in the program.
Despite their hefty responsibilities, the students aren't easily deterred from their goal according to Mr. Earp. "It's one of the few teaching experiences I've had where the students are self-motivated," he says. "These students come really ready to learn."
Take Julia Drayton, for example. A child-care worker, Ms. Drayton plans on studying early childhood development or travel and tourism in college after completing her GED. "To get into college you have to do this," she says. "I took that first step and I'm not going back."
So how does exposure to a nationally known author help these students with their immediate goal of passing the GED? In the midst of their weekly commitment to 10 hours of instruction in the basics of language and math, it may seem an unusual touch. Yet the students say it's easy to see how an understanding of literature fits in. "Literature will help me to think outside myself," says Sophie Webb, who wants to be a counselor of battered women and children. "It will help me to write and speak better, be better. Reading is your window to the world."
The PEN program tries to encourage students to recognize the relevance of literature to their lives. So sending Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, to visit this particular group wasn't a haphazard decision. PEN tries to find authors with whom students will connect. The majority of the students in this program are immigrants, and "A Typical American" tells the story of a Chinese family adapting to American life.
It's a story that resonates with Pierre Renaud, an immigrant from Haiti. "It wasn't easy coming here. It's a big country," he says. "But if people have a good education they have something. No education? Zero."
Some of the students are struggling with their own writing, Earp says, and it's important for the students to see a writer in "flesh and blood."
"It's kind of a surprise for them to see that these books are written by people just like them," says Jen. "Literature can be about living experiences, not just stories from the 17th century. Books can give us all perspective on our lives."
The common ground between author and students inspires a lively discussion and helps the fledgling writers gain confidence. "They could talk to her in a very knowledgeable way about her experience," says program director Shelly Ruocco.
For all the energy and hope generated by the Adult Learning Program, there are still needs it can't fulfill. With a waiting list for the English as a Second Language Program 300 people long, it can't meet the demand. And there are always a few students who don't start with the right approach, Ms. Ruocco says.
Even so, the atmosphere created by adult students makes the few setbacks well worth it. "This is not missionary work," says volunteer tutor Marie Hassett. "We do it because it's rewarding. It's a blast."
And Jen was dazzled by the students' enthusiasm. "There was this woman in the second row whose face was just lit up," she recalls. "You could just tell that she was going to be all right. You don't need to see a report card."
Behind the GED
The GED tests or tests of General Education Development were created in 1942 to give World War II veterans, who hadn't finished high school before joining the military, the chance to earn their diploma.
Candidates take a series of five tests in writing, social studies, science, interpreting literature and the arts, and mathematics. To pass, they must demonstrate academic skills and knowledge comparable to the top 66 percent of graduating high school seniors.
The test is administered by the GED Testing Service of the American Council on Education and each participating state department of education. It is also recognized in Canada.