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Poet inspired by homeland

Thoughts of her native Nepal inspired Aasha Sunar to write poetry.

Sunar would write most any time she was moved to put her feelings to paper, she said Thursday. Sometimes when an idea came to her in the middle of the night, other times when she was with children from the day care she operates in her Ellsworth home. Even at a former outside job.

"I used to work at Wal-Mart in Hudson, in the cigarette line, at register 15," she said. "I told my boss when I wasn't serving customers, I wanted to do my writing."

In fact, most of the 54 poems which will appear in her new book, "The Untouchable Jivan," came to her while she was employed by the giant retailer, she said. The setting was as far away from her homeland, with its much simpler lifestyle, as can be imagined. The book is scheduled to be available this fall.

When she arrived in the U.S. in 1997, the author spoke very little English, her husband Pete Vitt said last week.

"I knew my ABCs," she agreed. Ironically, Vitt met her after he taught English as a second language over there.

The culture of Nepal, north of India, is reflected in her poems, which aren't structured nor necessarily lengthy, Sunar said. The caste system, affecting day-to-day life in that country, provides a common theme. She grew up in the low caste.

North Dakota native Vitt described the distant land as "beautiful" and "peaceful." A member of the Peace Corps from 1991-93, he taught at a school "up in the hills." There was no indoor plumbing, few supplies like chalk, virtually no conveniences. His classes of fourth through seventh graders ranged in size from 25 to 88 students.

They met when she came to school there and were engaged in '96, he said. Since then, the couple has lived in America at places where he's gotten teaching jobs, first in Nebraska and, most recently, at Ellsworth Middle School.

"We wanted to be closer to my family," he said about his parents, who now live in Minneapolis.

Meantime, his poet wife can't forget her roots and so she continues to write. She estimated there's at least 100 poems in her files. Four years ago, she returned to Nepal for a couple of days, long enough to bring her parents back here to live with them. Her family also includes two brothers and a sister.

Although she's written poetry for around five years, she's only considered a book in the past year, Sunar said. Encouraged by her spouse, who admitted her writing reminds him of that done by famed writer Langston Hughes, she submitted a poem to "Storyteller" magazine and had it published. That prompted her to start seeking book publishers.

She eventually sent her poetry to a book company and was contacted about supplying more, she said. Vitt was involved, too, e-mailing an author of books for adolescents, Ben Michaelson, for advice. Michaelson urged persistence as well as patience, advising it typically takes a long time to have this kind of work accepted, he said.

They were excited when the company she'd heard from, People's Press of Baltimore, took on her book.

"It's because she did a lot of research and found one to fit her style," Vitt said, noting it mainly targets a mature audience.

Sunar said she signed a contract with the company in January. The agreement calls for 500 copies of the paper-cover volume in its initial printing. Her photo will be featured up front; presently, she's writing an explanation of her writing for the back cover.

Both the company and the couple will participate in marketing "Jivan," which is named after the title of the first poem, she said. They envision the possibility of its use for teacher workshops, perhaps related to such issues as second languages and social studies focusing on discrimination.

Sunar can now foresee future books for her, maybe containing American poems she's yet to write.

"I once thought I'll write 50 poems and that will be it," she said.

As they weigh the future, the poet and her mate are preparing to move to Hudson, where he'll be a teacher at the middle school. Accompanying them will be their three children: Michael, age five, Marcus, three, and Maria, 17 months.