I Did It Wrong: How to be a Creative Person in the World, 2018 Mary Higgins Clark Chair

This past week, we were honored to host Lev Grossman as our 2018 Mary Higgins Clark Chair. Grossman is the New York Times bestselling author of the “Magicians” trilogy, now adapted into a Syfy original series. During his time in residence, Grossman delivered a lecture, conducted craft classes, advised students 1-on-1, and attended a High Tea with students and faculty at the St. Regis.

His presentation, titled “I Did It Wrong: How to be a Creative Person in the World,” addressed what he described as the “embarrassing or near-fatal mistakes” he made over the course of his writing career, as well as how such missteps could be avoided. In particular, he emphasized the importance of rejection, community, and knowing oneself as a writer.

“As much as [writing] is about finding your voice and honing your craft, it is about rejection,” said Grossman.

He spoke on his background as a writer, including growing up in a literature-loving household and his childhood enchantment with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Later, as an undergraduate, he repeatedly failed to be published in The Harvard Advocate, and after graduation, he traveled to Maine for an unsuccessful attempt at literary isolation.

“Art is rarely made by people on their own,” Grossman said of this episode.

It wasn’t until years later that he was able to find his voice, his genre, and his form: the humorous fantasy novel, as represented by The Magicians.

After the lecture, Grossman answered questions from the audience and signed books. Students such as Brielle Intorcia, FCLC ‘20, reacted positively to his presentation.

“I really resonated with the idea that writing is always together, with other people,” said Intorcia. “I had never thought about that before.”

Intorcia also expressed her appreciation for MHC events as an opportunity to glean insight from successful writers.

Over the two days that followed his presentation, Grossman continued offering insight in the form of craft classes and 1-on-1 advising at Rose Hill and Lincoln Center. In classes, he gave students practical tips on how to improve their writing, advising them to write like a reader, break rules, and remember that fiction isn’t rocket science.

Finally, on Wednesday, Lev Grossman attended High Tea at the St. Regis along with English department students, faculty, and prospective majors. Creative writing concentrator Ann Pekata, FCLC ‘20, enjoyed this chance to meet Grossman face-to-face after reading his novel.

“I read Lev Grossman’s book a couple years ago and thought it would be cool to meet him,” said Pekata.

She also appreciated the opportunity to network with other members of the English department, particularly in such a high-class setting.

“I gained some new friends at the table, so that was cool!” said Pekata. “I also discovered how much I love tarts.”

Going forward, the English Department and Creative Writing Program hope to continue to provide students with opportunities to learn from accomplished writers such as Grossman, as well as the chance to come together as a department and discuss the literature that inspires us.

 Students, faculty, and the MHC Chair enjoyed tea, desserts, and each other’s company during High Tea at the St. Regis.

Students, faculty, and the MHC Chair enjoyed tea, desserts, and each other’s company during High Tea at the St. Regis.

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 Lev Grossman signed copies of  The Magicians  for those in attendance of his lecture.

Lev Grossman signed copies of The Magicians for those in attendance of his lecture.

 After his presentation, Grossman addressed questions from students and faculty in attendance.

After his presentation, Grossman addressed questions from students and faculty in attendance.

 

Reid-Mullarkey Research and Teaching Forum--October 24th

You are invited to the next Reid-Mullarky Reseach and Teaching Forum—Writing and Teaching in the Age of the Unspeakable. Wednesday, October 24th from 2:30pm-6:30pm at Rose Hill’s Duane Library, Room 351 and videoconference to LL309. Please plan to attend. Tea will be served. For more info see below.

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Creating a Digital Sugar-Cane at Fordham & Columbia

In the summer of 2018, Fordham English graduate students Lina Jiang and Stephen Fragano, along with Associate Professor of English Julie Chun Kim, collaborated with Columbia faculty and graduate students on a project called Digital Grainger. The Fordham-Columbia team’s goal was to build an online, accessible edition of James Grainger’s 1764 poem The Sugar-Cane

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Grainger’s poem, which describes eighteenth-century plantations in the Caribbean, has increasingly been recognized for its important insights into what is sometimes referred to as the “Sugar Revolution.” The intensive monoculture of sugar cane in the Caribbean destroyed local ecologies and required the mass exploitation of enslaved laborers, who were forcibly transported from Africa. The Sugar-Cane addresses the Sugar Revolution in detail because Grainger experienced it firsthand: he lived in the British sugar colony of St. Kitts from 1759 to 1766, and because he also married into a planter family, he had a vested interest in defending the institution of slavery. But because Grainger also was a physician and hoped that The Sugar-Cane would prove his expert knowledge of Caribbean medicinal plants, he filled his poem with lengthy footnotes that made frequent mention of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous uses of plants and interactions with nature. As a result, as Professor Kim explains, the poem “is an invaluable resource for gaining a better understanding of how oppressed subjects survived and resisted the plantation system.” 

The collaboration between Fordham and Columbia Universities on Digital Grainger was made possible by the Fordham-Columbia Research Fellow and Research Intern Program. This initiative provides funding for faculty and graduate students to work together across campuses on a shared research project. For Digital Grainger, the program provided Lina and Stephen with summer stipends so that they could dedicate time to working on the project with other team members. The Columbia team included Cristobal Silva, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Kimberly Takahata and Ami Yoon, PhD candidates in English and Comparative Literature; and Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Columbia University Libraries. Elizabeth Cornell, Director of Communications for Fordham IT, also participated in the project. 

  Lina Jiang, Julie Kim, and Stephen Fragano

Lina Jiang, Julie Kim, and Stephen Fragano

In addition to giving participants from both universities the opportunity to expand their scholarly networks, the Digital Grainger project has resulted in the creation of a digital edition of The Sugar-Cane that contains multiple versions of the poem. First, the team created a “Full Text” edition that contains all 2561 lines of the original poem along with Grainger’s footnotes. It is accompanied by over 700 editorial footnotes co-written by the Digital Grainger team. Second, the edition features a scanned a copy of the 1764 poem in its “Page by Page” version, allowing readers ready access to the original edition. 

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Finally, each team member created what might be called a “thematic excerpt” of the poem: each excerpt contains a selection of passages from The Sugar-Cane, prefaced by a headnote that explains why they were chosen for inclusion. These excerpts, grouped under the heading “The Counter-Plantation,” are meant to help readers access the parts of the poem that describe survival, resistance, and rebellion on the plantation. Stephen focused his excerpt on “Animals,” which explores Grainger’s fearful troping of animals, including rats, as threats to the sugar cane crop.

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Lina focused her excerpts on the themes of “Fire” and “Sugar Work”: the former shows Grainger’s worries about enslaved laborers setting fire to cane fields, while the latter highlights both the mistreatment of enslaved workers and their extensive agricultural and technical knowledge of sugar refining (knowledge that planters relied upon). Lina first noticed these passages when she read The Sugar-Cane for Professor Kim’s fall 2017 graduate seminar, “Natural History and Ecology.” “I tried to provide deeper explanations for new readers of the poem,” Lina explains of her goal for the excerpts, “and ones that would help them challenge the poem’s support of the plantation system.” Digital Grainger demonstrates the English Department’s interest in continuing to pursue innovative scholarship: building on her experience with the project, Lina intends to include a digital project in her dissertation. 

 

Digital Grainger is almost complete and will go live later this semester. Meanwhile, scholarly collaboration between Fordham and Columbia continues to grow and develop. This semester, Lina is taking a course with Professor Silva at Columbia through the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium (IUDC), which allows PhD students at Fordham to take courses at Columbia, CUNY, NYU, Princeton, and Rutgers. Furthermore, members of the team will be presenting the results of their work at several conferences this coming year. In December 2018, Professor Kim will co-present a paper on the creation of Digital Grainger at the Caribbean Digital V conference at the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine. Together with Stephen, Professors Kim and Silva also have proposed a roundtable on using and teaching The Sugar-Canefor the February 2019 biennial meeting of the Society of Early Americanists. Just as their online edition of The Sugar-Cane will continue to inspire valuable new scholarship and rewarding experiences in classrooms, so the team’s work remains ongoing and productive, serving as a prime example of the kinds of exchanges that Fordham’s Graduate English students participate in on a regular basis. Click here for more information about Fordham’s Graduate English programs. 

 

By John Miele 

Professor's Music Performed at National Opera Center

Distinguished Professor of English and Music Lawrence Kramer's composition "Two Impressions" was featured in a violin concert by Claudia Schaer and Helen Lin at the National Opera Center on October 2.

 Lin and Schaer with Professor Kramer

Lin and Schaer with Professor Kramer

“Two Impressions” is comprised of two compositions — “Ripple and Gleam” and “Clowd Shadows.” About the latter, Professor Kramer explains, “Cloud shadows are best seen from the air. Travelers on the window seats of planes can often descend from a visual blank slate above the cloud cover to observe clouds drifting and casting their shadows over the landscape, revealing their shapes and producing a perfect mirror effect wedding light to darkness at a distance. The same phenomenon is occasionally visible from high ground--I'm thinking particularly of a hill with a panoramic view of the countryside a few miles from my home in New York’s Hudson Valley--when the clouds find the right shapes and the sun the right position and above and below once again mirror each other. The music gradually evolves toward such a moment, with its rich array of metaphorical suggestions, over the course of about ten minutes.”

Professor Kramer has won several music competitions, and his compositions have been performed all over the world. In addition to his work as a composer, Professor Kramer is the author of several volumes of music criticism, including The Thought of Music (2016), which won the 2017 ASCAP Virgil Thomson Award, and the forthcoming The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening (2019).

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Q&A with Fordham Alum, Naima Coster, Kirkus-nominated author of Halsey Street

Naima Coster (GSAS), acclaimed author of Halsey Street, isn’t interested in asking the easy questions. Her debut novel tackles gentrification, explores psychological complexity, and invites self-interrogation on the part of its readers. Halsey Street has brought Coster critical recognition, including a Kirkus Prize nomination and a place on the must-read lists of publications across the country.

This week the Creative Writing program spoke with Coster about the thought process underlying the novel and her experience of writing about flawed humans in a very real world.

Q: Your debut novel Halsey Street has been lauded for its skilled depiction of family, loss, and renewal. What motivated you to tackle the messiness of life and relationships and in the way that you did?

One of the reasons I love fiction is that it’s one of the only avenues we have for slipping into the consciousness of another person. We’re stuck inside our own heads, our perceptions, memories, and reactions the rest of the time. But while this is one of the pleasures of fiction, it’s also uncomfortable. It can be troubling, it can hurt, to inhabit someone’s mind, to become so well acquainted with the inner life of another. I knew that if I was going to be writing so close to my characters, the book would become difficult, charged with all the emotions and wounds and aspirations the characters are carrying. But there’s no other way I’m interested in writing. And the difficulty, the discomfort of being so close to these complicated characters, is fitting for the novel. Halsey Street is in part about unbearable emotions and the ways we attempt to cope. In the book, characters lose themselves in music, turn to gin, run, make art, garden, seek intimacy. Sometimes we’re not sure how to hold the messier facts of our lives, our difficult emotions, but fiction can hold it for us, and so can other literary forms.

Q: You alternate between the perspectives of Penelope and Mirella in Halsey Street. What was the experience of alternating consciousnesses like in writing the book, particularly for two characters in such different physical and mental states? What did you hope to reveal through these particular voices?

At the level of the prose, the two perspectives in the book sound quite a lot like one another. The perspectives differ chiefly in terms of the quality of mind of each of the characters. There were periods of time when I wrote solely in Penelope’s point of view for long stretches; there were times when I was looking only at the sections of the book that belonged to Mirella. The trickier moments were the ones where their points of view collide later in the book. I hoped that these voices would complicate and illuminate one another to tell a moving, fraught, sticky story of a broken family. Neither of their versions is quite right, but they’re both telling the truth from where they’re standing. And this truth telling is essential if the women are ever going to find their way back to one another.

Q: In your work you address gentrification in Brooklyn, an issue that has gained much attention and media coverage in recent years. How have your themes changed with and been influenced by the world around you?

I knew there was no way I could write a book that would tackle every potential facet of gentrification--it’s too huge. I also knew the pressure to represent the issue could squeeze out any nuance or depth from the book. Gentrification is the context pressing in on the lives of the characters, but the story told here is actually quite small: about one neighborhood record store that closes, about two families: one old and one new. I let the lives of the characters shape the fiction, although I was always collecting details from news stories, anecdotes from friends, my own time in New York City. Anytime I thought I’d perhaps gone too far in my depiction of gentrification, the real world corroborated my fiction. I wanted to make the book bold but not didactic; I wanted to raise questions for the reader, unsettle any easy ideas about gentrification and its impact.

Q: Halsey Street has been able to reach a wide and diverse audience as it has been on the must-read lists of publications including People, Bustle, and Kirkus Reviews. What kind of effect do you hope your work has on readers, and what would you like them to take away from the novel?

I hope that my readers will be able to locate themselves in my work. I think that’s a bit different than relating to the characters; rather, it’s about being able to see more clearly how you’re operating in the world, in your neighborhood, in your family, with respect to yourself, after spending time in the fiction. I’ve heard from fathers who told me they wanted to spend more time being emotionally attentive to their daughters after reading Halsey Street because they saw themselves playing the role of material provider above all in their families; I’ve heard from young transplants to Brooklyn that they’re reevaluating how they regard their neighborhood after reading about the newcomers to Bed-Stuy in the book. The richest books, to me, are the ones that in some way leave me thinking about myself, the people around me, and how I want to live. Fiction isn’t self-help, but it can lead to self-interrogation and self-reflection, which, I believe, are invaluable.


Q: You said in another interview that you probably wouldn't write about gentrification again. Going forward, what kind of themes, questions, and mediums are you looking to explore through your writing, and has the experience of writing your debut novel influenced how you address these topics?

I’m certain that I’ll continue to be interested in family and memory, race and belonging, place and how it forms us, and the interior lives of women. But even with these thematic commitments, anything is possible. I have two novels that I’m working on now. One is a story of how the integration of a local public high school in contemporary North Carolina brings together two different families and intertwines their lives and fates forever. The other is a work of speculative fiction, and it’s about a young woman’s quest to save her family. While she is on this journey, she’s learning how to be tender at the same time that the world requires that she be hard. In both of these works, I’m paying careful attention to the physical world, to the social forces that shape my characters’ lives, and to their interiors, their relationships.

Halsey Street is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 Author Naima Coster, pictured above, delves into themes of “family, loss, and renewal.“

Author Naima Coster, pictured above, delves into themes of “family, loss, and renewal.“

 Cover of  Halsey Street.

Cover of Halsey Street.

English Major Alums Give Back to Undergraduate Writers

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Mere months after her graduation, English major Ruby Buddemeyer FCLC’18, can afford her own apartment in Nolita, thanks to her job as a celebrity editor at Bustle.com. And Alanna Martine Kilkeary, FCLC’16, is now living on the Upper East, thanks to her job as a beauty writer and editor at PopSugar.com.

Both visited “Writing for Publication,” a new class taught by Professor Elizabeth Stone, to share their route from their English classes at Lincoln Center and involvement in campus publications to internships (Harper’s Bazaar for Alanna) and freelance writing (MarieClaire.com for Ruby) to full-time employment. 

“I didn’t know how to write a story at all,” says Alanna. “My adviser [Professor Mary Bly] told me to join The Observer, where I eventually became the Features editor.” 

Ruby began writing features at The Observer and then moved on to become editor in chief at Fordham’s Flash, finding mentors along the way, including Professor Bly, who told her to develop her own voice in her writing. 

Topics covered by the alums? The importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), informational coffees, and how to pass the “edit test” some publications give to potential employees. Oh, and the best way to get a foot in the door? Internships and networking, networking, networking.   

Fordham PhD Wins Distinguished Teaching Award

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Danica Sterud Miller, PhD ‘13, is the 2018 recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award at the University of Washington, Tacoma, where she is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies.

The Distinguished Teaching Award recognizes a faculty member who demonstrates a mastery of their subject matter, engages diverse students both within and outside of the classroom, and strives for innovation in course design.  Dr. Miller’s pedagogy emphasizes the Coast Salish approach to learning where experience, storytelling, repetition and application are elevated as critical and credible ways of knowing.

Dr. Miller developed the Lushootseed Language Institute in partnership with the Puyallup Tribe, allowing students to engage with the their cultural heritage on ancestral land. Her teaching not only highlights an underrepresented field of study but engages students in a search for deeper understanding of how their lives relate to their own and other cultures.