Alumni & Alumnae

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.   

Please consider a tax-deductible donation to the Lauer Scholarship

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In her 42 years of teaching at Fordham, Professor Kristin Lauer fostered the varied aspirations of her legions of devoted students--from dancers to those in law and law enforcement, from social workers to professional writers--by sharing her passionate belief in the great usefulness to life of writing well and studying the examples of great writers.

This scholarship will annually draw attention to a student who has embraced the major with a demonstrated sense of direction and purpose. She might have an internship where her music reviews are already appearing on-line.  He might be volunteering as a tutor of English at a local school and have begun work toward a teaching degree.  She may have written an account of her experience working in a hospital, or a lab, or aan animal preserve on her way to applying for a Fulbright or other prestigious fellowship. In putting a spotlight on examples like these (drawn from actual students), this prize will inspire majors and potential majors to connect their work in the classroom and the library with their ambitions in the world beyond.

Honoring Kris’s inspiring legacy, this scholarship looks to the future by recognizing and supporting students who see the English major as integral to a directed and meaningful life.

 

In honor of Professor Kristin O. Lauer's legacy, an anonymous donor will double all gifts, up to $100,000! For every $1 given, this generous donor will contribute $2 to the campaign! To donate,  please go to https://www.givecampus.com/schools/FordhamUniversity/kristin-o-lauer-scholarship

Words of Advice from Lauren Duca, Fordham English Alum

Teen Vogue contributing editor Lauren Duca, who graduated from Fordham with an English major in 2013, returned to campus on March 6 to speak to students at Rose Hill. Fordham News covered the event in the story below--which was written by Alexandra Loizzo-Desai, who got her MA in English in 2011 herself. Our former students are everywhere! 

For Lauren Duca, FCRH ’13, simply being a member of the media industry has become a form of political activism.

Duca, a contributing editor at Teen Vogue, came into the spotlight after one of her articles, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” went viral last December. Since then, she’s been praised on Chelsea Handler’s Netflix showberated on Tucker Carlson Tonight, trolled on Twitter, and profiled in The New York Times. So, many of the almost 50 students who gathered to hear her speak on the Rose Hill campus on March 6 nodded in agreement when she made the connection between their intended field and political engagement.

  Natalie Zisa introduced Duca

Natalie Zisa introduced Duca

Natalie Zisa, a Fordham senior and the outreach coordinator for Fordham’s branch of the communications honor society Lambda Pi Eta, said the way Duca has handled both her sudden fame and her responsibility as a journalist has sparked a fire in her.

“I see her as a role model for myself and for a lot of other young female writers,” she said. After Zisa discovered that Duca is a Fordham grad, she and a communications professor decided to invite her to campus to speak to students about the role of young people in politics and the future of journalism.

During her talk, Duca encouraged students to be dedicated to both the truth and their own voice, which she said she first started developing at the paper, a student publication at Fordham.

“The conversation online is often just about asserting things,” she said. “People do things like take each other’s anonymous sources. It spreads a contagion of unreliability. You have to remember that things are taken and distorted much quicker online, so think about your journalistic responsibility there. You want to be empowering the public with truthful information—especially now, when there’s so little trust in the media.”

But she reminded the students not to forget themselves in the process. “Be aware of the power in passionate idealism. As long as you’re informed, don’t let people tell you that you’re less than or separate from because of your youth. Just make sure your analysis is driven by the truth.”

Duca said that critics who assume that she and other young women can’t write about politics because they also write about celebrity culture are “denying me access to a political conversation and participating in this stealthy condescension that many women feel is familiar. You’re going to be taken less seriously because of your age as it is, free of gender. So insist on being taken seriously.”

That’s why Duca’s new Teen Vogue column is called “Thigh-High Politics.” She said she’s proud to work for a magazine that covers everything from shampoo commercials to the Pulse nightclub shooting, and that acknowledges that all of these are “just another piece of your world.”

“There’s this idea that women’s journalism isn’t serious journalism,” said Zisa, who admires the way Duca pushes against that misperception.

 Duca answered questions from the audience

Duca answered questions from the audience

Throughout the talk, Duca offered a wide range of practical advice to students interested in the media field—on everything from the benefits of finding a first job that allows for movement to the advantages and disadvantages of freelancing

She also urged students to start approaching contentious conversations differently and to develop a more nuanced view of both the media and the world.

“Call-out culture is unproductive. Everything is complex. Checking structures of power is important, but think about what the full story is. It’s easy to just be mad,” Duca said. “Nobody is unbiased. Only the facts are unbiased.”

Photos by Dana Maxson

English Major Claire Kim Profiled

Claire Kim graduated on February 1 with a double major in English and Art History. Her research was the subject of this profile in Fordham News. The article was written by Tom Stoelker. 

Discovering Korea Through the Talmud

When recent Fordham College at Rose Hill graduate Claire Kim took a class on ancient rabbinic texts with Sarit Kattan Gribetz, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, the last thing she thought she’d be learning about was her Korean culture.

But Kattan Gribetz had come across a curious fact: Many Koreans read the Talmud.

Kattan Gribetz had seen a news article and one television clip on the Talmud’s immense popularity in Korea. On a whim, she ordered copies of the Korean translation, even though she didn’t speak or read the language.

As chance would have it, Kim went to Kattan Gribetz’s office to pick up a paper from class, and Kattan Gribetz asked her if she had ever heard of the Korea-Talmud connection. Kim, who grew up in Southern California and went to a Korean school on the weekends, said she told her professor that the perception of popularity must be overblown.

Later that day, however, she called her mother and asked if she had heard of the Talmud.

“She told me that everyone in Korea has a copy of the Talmud, though she didn’t realize it was a religious text,” said Kim.

Thus began a two-year research project of translating and comparing the Korean versions to the Babylonian Talmud and other ancient rabbinic texts.

The project was fostered through the University’s Undergraduate Research Program (LINK). Together, Kim and Kattan Gribetz attended two conferences in two countries and produced a paper, “The Talmud in Korea: A Study in the Reception of Rabbinic Literature,” that will soon be published by the Association for Jewish Studies Review.

Along the way, Kim said the project also brought her closer to her parents and her culture.

“I called them a lot more because I had so many questions about certain words or nuances I couldn’t pick up on, because I wasn’t born and raised in Korea,” said Kim. “I pride myself on being a part of two different cultures, but this was definitely a wakeup call; there are a lot of things I don’t know about Korea.”

Kattan Gribetz said their research explored the roundabout journey of the Korean Talmud. In the late 1960s, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who had been stationed in Tokyo and Seoul as a chaplain with U.S. Air Force earlier in his career, returned to Japan as a rabbi.  There, a Japanese historian convinced him that a translation of the Talmud could be popular in Japan because people were curious about Judaism and Jewish history. In his book, Tokayer dispensed with the Talmud’s specifically Jewish laws and rules, and focused on themes that would resonate with a Japanese audience, such as hospitality, education, and kindness.

At some point, said Kattan Gribetz, Tokayer’s highly edited anthology of Talmudic stories found its way into a Korean translation. Illustrations and aphorisms were added, making the Korean version closer to Aesop’s Fables than to the rabbinic texts with which most Jews would be familiar.

“It’s strange that there’s such a small connection between the Babylonian Talmud and these books, and we were curious to see who was writing them and where they came from,” said Kim.

The two read through dozens of Korean versions and presented their findings at the 2016 international conference of the Society of Biblical Literature—which happened to be taking place in Seoul, South Korea. This past December they presented the research again in Kim’s hometown of San Diego at the Association for Jewish Studies conference.

“I couldn’t read the text without Claire, and she didn’t know enough about rabbinic sources to connect the two,” said Kattan Gribetz. “Ours was the perfect collaboration.”

Kim, who double majored in English and art history, graduated on Feb. 1. She is now interning in the education department at the Guggenheim Museum and at the Asian American Arts Alliance. She said the project was a highlight of her time at Fordham.

  An image from a children’s edition of a Korean translation of the Talmud .

An image from a children’s edition of a Korean translation of the Talmud.

“I know that it is rare for a university professor to be working with an undergraduate student on a research project like this, as well as to continue fostering me through submitting the article after graduation,” she said. “Being able to experience all of it with Dr. Kattan Gribetz and my parents was just lovely.”