HAYWARD -- For Richelle McClain, who grew up in the speak-your-truth 1960s, story-telling was a birthright.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why she landed, in July 2012, at the helm of the Afghan Women's Writing Project.
Dedicated to magnifying and multiplying the long-muzzled voices of Afghan women seeking expression despite personal peril, the nonprofit organization's freshly minted executive director has an ironic task.
"How do we grow, in secret?" McClain asked during an interview at an East Bay coffee shop.
The AWWP was founded in 2009 by author Masha Hamilton, a journalist and author who has taught in Afghanistan.
Ten years earlier, Zarmeena, a mother of seven, knelt in Kabul's Ghazi Stadium and was executed by the Taliban. A videotape showing the horrific shooting was smuggled out of the country. Zarmeena's story, having never even been heard by her executioners, was not.
That deafening silence screamed for justice in Hamilton's ears and lit the flame of the torch McClain now carries.
Four years after it began, AWWP has three U.S. staff members, six Afghan staff, 100 Afghan women writers, close to 60 mentors, a Kabul office and a new Writers' Café. Soon, it hopes to broadcast the stories via radio.
"There could be backlash, if the wrong people got information," McClain said. "We talk about this all the time: How far do we open the doors? It's our primary concern and challenge." Working within the confines of a male-dominated, always-at-war environment, McClain says word-of-mouth communications and keeping the meeting locations secret are critical. Women writers who contact AWWP are scrutinized. Once accepted, they're warned against sharing information with brothers, uncles, fathers.
"Most of our writers are English-speaking, which means they have some level of education, and their fathers have been supportive of their education," McClain said.
Meeting in small groups, with Internet access and laptops supplied by AWWP, the women are mentored by an international, volunteer collective of educators, writers and scholars.
"The mentors are the core of our program," McClain said. "We don't do much to recruit. People just come to us and ask, 'What can I do to help?'"
McClain started at AWWP as a workshop director. After a marketing career at The New York Times and The Contra Costa Times, and advocacy through a number of national writing initiatives, she said her new job is a culmination of her life experiences. Moving to the U.S. mainland from Hawaii, after growing up "brown skinned amid brown kids," she experienced culture shock and learned to navigate, largely, through writing.
"Women in Afghanistan are taught to be invisible. It's hard to talk about specifics; women have lost their children, they've rebelled against a marriage they didn't want and suffered tremendously. They can't go outside, drive, work, speak," she said. "The urge to be heard is a basic human right."
A woman's life in Afghanistan is largely controlled by location. In Taliban-controlled provinces, the picture McClain described is archaic, brutal. But in Kabul, women are journalists, lawyers, Parliament members.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say these women are living at risk, not just to themselves, but to their families," McClain said. "We don't use last names or give out addresses. If a piece of writing is particularly provocative, we go with 'anonymous.'"
The stories, published online and recently in "The Sky is a Nest of Swallows," a collection of essays and poems, are colored by their country's strife. Child marriages, confiscated children, the devastation of being uneducated, at war, or a refugee are frequent themes. But so is friendship, love, wonderful parents and celebrating nature.
"Even as they write about these things, they look at how to make it better, how to be kinder, how to change the government," McClain said.
Facing the expected withdrawal of American troops in 2014, she said the women are worried, but hoping for the best. And with an enormous percentage of the general population
illiterate -- McClain estimates 82 percent -- reaching nonliterate and disabled women is at the top of AWWP's list.
For more information, go to http://awwproject.org/.