“O-L-I-V-I-A!” A crowd of girls chants in unison, urging the shy 10-year-old hiding behind her jet-black bangs to approach the microphone. The DJ fingers a volume knob, and the speakers’ staccato pulsing falls to a muted thump. The pressure is overwhelming. Olivia Salmeron presses her piece of paper to her face, and the audience eases up. A string of readers brave the spotlight before the fifth-grader reluctantly steps back to the mike, clutching some verse by Lashika Hopper. But by the end of the night, Olivia’s borrowing my pen and tearing sheets from my notebook, reciting her work while the ink’s still drying. “I had it in my head, but just wrote it down now,” she says.

Without smoke, bad lighting, or outlandish hair, Oct. 29’s Safe Place Project-sponsored reading at Franklyn’s Cafe in Adams Morgan, “Listen Up,” delivers what many poetic gatherings lack: honest, unpretentious verse. In untied Adidas sneakers and a Tazmanian Devil T-shirt, 11-year-old Yesenia Argueta sails through her near-limerick “A Beautiful Flower Upon a Beautiful Tower.” Punching out simple images, she finds her muse in daily neighborhood phenomena. Taking a seat after her almost flawless reading, Yesenia discusses her fears of performing—and the mystery paperback she’s currently writing, Legend of the Blue Crystal.

Readers emerging from the full-house crowd range from preteens to high school grads, including a schoolteacher and a computer programmer with developed rhythmic styles. Nineteen-year-old Hopper quietly orchestrates the evening from a stool at the counter. Her smile nearly outstretching her face, Hopper writes with a wood burner, crafting lines that are spare and striking. “I see, I hear, I know/I don’t quite understand/But all I know is I feel safe knowing my name/Because it is my own and I could choose to tell you or keep it to myself,” she declares in the poem read by Olivia.

But Hopper’s most creative work doesn’t appear on paper. She got the idea for Safe Place Project while organizing her 18th birthday party. Originally interested in booking a live band, she worried about controlling rowdy partiers. “I wanted to provide safe places for teens and give youth a voice,” she says. “And show adults that we need to have partnerships in order to get things done.”

Tonight, Hopper and co-coordinator Claudia Melgar tag-team behind the mike, trading lines that probe the question “What is safety?” In the daytime, they team up to author grant proposals for their project, which has been developed through Sister to Sister/Hermana a Hermana, an arts-based leadership program for young women in Ward 1.

Maybe it’s just the collision of spoken word with the wafting aroma of coffee, but tonight’s participants seem sophisticated beyond their years. Melgar sips a colossal chocolate milkshake and downs a forkful of creamy chocolate cake while ironing out some technical difficulties on her cell phone. Walking out the door, I overhear a pair of preteens gossiping about a classmate. “She likes every boy she looks at,” snaps one. “I used to be like that.” —Dan Gilgoff

Island Life

“Dominica.” “Identity.” “Colonialism.” The words cascade easily off Gabriel J. Christian’s tongue as he weaves the names and dates of almost every major event in Caribbean history into his conversation. From the Cuban Revolution to Sammy Sosa, Christian can tell you just about everything about the Carib people—and somehow, despite all his historical allusions and unexpected tangents, it all makes sense. He is, after all, a lawyer. Your first impression of him is that he is a man well-suited to writing lengthy, carefully argued works of nonfiction. Not surprisingly, his first book, In Search of Eden, co-authored with Irving Andre and published in 1992, chronicles the history of the island nation Dominica.

But his latest endeavor, Rain on a Tin Roof, is a collection of short stories Christian calls “quirky.” It shows an unexpected side of a guy who works 12-hour shifts at his law firm, goes home to watch C-SPAN, and then settles into a political book before going to sleep at 1 a.m. Recently, instead of penning letters on behalf of his clients, Christian has been spending much of his time sitting at the computer in his “cubbyhole of a basement,” contemplating name changes for the characters he has drawn from childhood memories.

In his vibrant stories, Christian captures the complex realities of a people whose long history has been aching to be told, embellished with his own recollections and flair. Rain on a Tin Roof’s adventure-starved little boy, who dashes to the window to watch a hurricane swipe the galvanized-iron roofs off the island’s houses, is Christian. The hormonal adolescent who five-finger-discounts his mother’s kitchen rum to set the mood for a day of carnival, hoping to “wriggle on his classmate Tessa’s behind,” is Christian. And Christian is also the protective brother who gives the evil eye to a crowd of jeering kids hurling stones and insults at his developmentally challenged sister.

Christian is eager to focus attention on his home—and not to contribute to the brain drain that seems to plague most Caribbean countries, where children leave for education abroad but never return, physically or otherwise, to strengthen the islands that nurtured them. Pond Casse Press, Christian’s publishing company, has offices in Roseau, Dominica, as well as in Upper Marlboro, Md., and Brampton, Ontario. And his involvement in the Dominican Association of Washington D.C. and the Institute of Caribbean Studies makes Christian the perfect poster boy for Caribbean nationalism. But his approach to the role is subdued. Maybe it’s because, for him, entertainment is strapping on his satchel and heading down to Martin Luther King Memorial Library. Or perhaps it’s because, deep inside, he knows he cannot really return to Dominica, a place that has irrevocably changed since he left it 17 years ago. —Ayesha Morris