Rightnowish Presents: Pen's Pals

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 (Ryce Stoughtenborough)

Dear Rightnowish listeners,

As you know by now, I love a good story.

Especially tales of Black folks experiencing intergalactic romance. Have you ever heard someone wax poetically about the significance of the sport of wrestling in Iran? Has anyone ever told you about the calls to prayer in Kuwait, and how they answer their spiritual sojourn?  What about the sound of new acquaintances dipping into a freezing pond on a crisp morning in England?

These slices of life are elements of our latest series of stories from the Rightnowish team, called Pen’s Pals.

We spent five weeks talking to people I know from different areas of my life, who’ve all spent formative years in the Bay Area but are now living outside of the United States. The idea started off as a cheeky joke when I pitched it to the Rightnowish team:

I’ll ask people what caused them to move, how their perspectives have changed and what they’d say if they could write letters to folks back home. And since my name is Pen, we’ll call it Pen’s Pals.  

The wry comedy ended just minutes into the first interview.

Christopher Nechodom poses for a photo while wearing a beanie hat on his head, and a mid-90s Warriors jersey under a jean jacket.
Christopher Nechodom poses for a photo while wearing a beanie hat on his head, and a mid-90s Warriors jersey under a jean jacket. (KOLA)

Christopher Nechodom, an East Bay photographer I’ve known for over a decade, opened up about some traumatic events he’s experienced and his current path toward healing. Before moving to Mexico, Nechodom, who was raised in Richmond, experienced armed robbery as a kid, and lost a close friend to homicide as a young adult. Nechodom is also a survivor of the Oakland Ghostship Fire, a tragedy that took the lives of 36 people in 2016. “I think the fire just opened the floodgates,” Nechodom tells me. “And it also forced me to finally get in touch with my own vulnerability and really address that trauma.”

Healing and transformation, family and art were present in every interview in this series. 

Aïdah Aaliyah Rasheed poses for a photo on a set of steps.
Aïdah Aaliyah Rasheed poses for a photo on a set of steps. (Aïdah Aaliyah Rasheed)

Aïdah Aaliyah Rasheed
, a photographer, filmmaker and curator for Sapelo Square, is an artist I’ve also known for about a decade. She shared with us what it’s like to live in Kuwait, where her workplace covers her rent. As a married mother of two and a high school educator, she says it’s a major game changer for someone who spent her whole adult life navigating the Northern Californian housing market.  “What’s nice about not having to think about that,” says Rasheed of living rent-free, “is that you can think about other things, you know, and investing money towards other experiences like traveling.”

Toby Brothers stops for a photo while standing on a bridge in England.
Toby Brothers stops for a photo while standing on a bridge in Paris. (Via Toby Brothers)

Toby Brothers is another person who has left the U.S. and fallen in love with traveling the world. After working as an educator at the East Bay high school I graduated from, she initially left for Paris before moving to the United Kingdom, where she became the founder and director of the London Literary Salon. The organization, in its simplest form, is a book club with a twist. They meet in-person or virtually, discuss classic works of literature and sometimes they take trips to locations mentioned in the stories. When asked what she’d share with people from her travels, Brothers advised: “Go not for the world to entertain you, but for you to understand how small your own experience is.”

Mohammad Gorjestani, a Bay Area filmmaker and head of Even/ Odd Studios, was raised in San Jose and now lives in San Francisco. But in his heart, his birthplace of Iran holds just as much significance as the place where he was raised. Although he hasn’t visited Iran since leaving in the early 2000s, Gorjestani has made it a practice to collect art and artifacts from Iran, some of which he goes to extensive measures to procure. 

Anwar Bey-Taylor was raised in Southern California before spending a significant amount of his adult life in San Francisco, where he worked as a video game designer. After a few trips to an assorted list of countries on the continent of Africa, Bey-Taylor says he’s found home in South Africa. While there, he’s using the inspiration to fuel his writing, as he works on a series of stories for his PLASMAWorlds platform, called the Book of WOLDU.

Again, I’m a fan of a good story. Especially one that broadens your worldview, localizes global issues, makes foreign places more familiar and allows you to get to know your neighbors– even if they live on the other side of the world. Yeah, that’s what these stories have brought forth for me, and I hope it provides the same service for you.


Pendarvis Harshaw

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.