Leslie Dunton-Downer

Daimler Fellow - Class of Spring 2014

Writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

American Academy Project: The Rumi Singer
Current Location: Massachusetts


Leslie Dunton-Downer holds a PhD with Distinction in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, where she was a lecturer and remains a member of the Society of Fellows. Her most recent book, The English Is Coming!: How One Language is Sweeping the World (Touchstone, 2011), examines the global roots and reach of the English language. Her previous work ranges from several opera librettos and a documentary about the Eiffel Tower for French television, to recordings of sacred and secular music from Tajikistan, produced for the Parisian record label Buda Musique. Additional travels have taken Dunton-Downer to Marrakesh, Morocco, to lead author residency workshops hosted by the Global Diversity Foundation to further the education of girls in the Atlas Mountains. In the fall of 2013 she completed the California Mission Ride, a horseback journey and documentary-film project connecting the 21 Native American and Spanish colonial missions of California. Back in Cambridge, where Dunton-Downer is based, she is a current trustee of the Harvard Advocate and a former trustee of the International School of Boston.

American Academy Project

The Rumi Singer

At the American Academy, Dunton-Downer plans to complete a memoir entitled The Rumi Singer: Journey After a Voice from Central Asia. On the eve of 9/11, she encountered the singing voice of a young Muslim man, Aqnazar, in the Autonomous Region of Gorno-Badakhshan, a mountainous area of Tajikistan bordering Afghanistan. In her project, she recounts the repercussions of the meeting: she learns classical Persian and Tajik, writes and directs a play for Aqnazar and others to perform in Paris, co-produces a documentary film, and accompanies him on tour in the US. In her attempts to understand a profoundly unfamiliar voice, person, and culture, she creates two intersecting (and sometimes disrupted) narratives that take place between 2000 and 2003. One thread is personal—the story of her life drawn off-course by lyrical forces; the other deals with larger historical trajectories overturned by global terrorism. “My project is mainly about listening and its consequences,” Dunton-Downer says, “particularly in a time of surging discord between the Islamic world and the West.”