Below is a sampling of updates from the Fall 2014 English Newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click on the thumbnail to the right.
Our first event in the Private Bodies/Public Encounters series occurred on Monday, October 6. The event featured novelist and playwright Susan Nussbaum from Chicago. Susan’s novel, Good Kings Bad Kings, details the lives and struggles of a multi-racial group of disabled youth institutionalized at the outskirts of the Windy City. The novel powerfully explores, as few others have done before it, the alternative subjectivities and lives of interdependency developed as survival mechanisms by the incarcerated characters. Last year the novel was awarded the prestigious PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
Susan Nussbaum is a longtime social justice and disability rights activist. She originally came onto the arts scene as a playwright and her work has been produced at influential performance venues such as: Second City, Victory Gardens and Live Bait Theaters. Her play Mishuganismo, first produced by Remains Theatre, is included in the disability arts anthology, Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out, and her play No One As Nasty is included in the anthology of disabled playwrights, Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Playwrights with Disabilities. In 2008 Susan was cited by the Utne Reader as one of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" for her work with girls and young women with disabilities. Her disability advocacy work started in 1980 at the Independent Living Center, Access Living, where she also created the Empowered Fe Fes (slang for female), a support sexuality, and disability identity group for girls, which over the years has included over 300 participants.
This event is co-sponsored by the GW Creative Writing Program, Disability Support Services, Women's Studies, Philosophy, the University Writing Program, the Digital Humanities Institute, the Vice Provost's Office for Diversity and Inclusion and Africana Studies.
Private Bodies/Public Encounters is the first in a series of Disability Studies programming for Fall 2014. The other events include a screening of the film Sins Invalid: An Unashamed Claim to Beauty in the Fact of Invisibility, with filmmakers Patty Berne and Leroy Moore (October 20) and short film, Disability Takes on the Arts by GW professors and filmmakers David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder (October 28).
(Photo: PEN/Bellweather Prize Winner Susan Nussbaum)
We are especially proud to host this year’s Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence Brando Skyhorse, who won both the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the 2011 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction for his novel The Madonnas of Echo Park. This year, Professor Skyhorse has published, to great acclaim, Take This Man: A Memoir, which tells the story of his "American Indian" heritage and childhood—a heritage that was in fact based on stories that his mother invented; Professor Skyhorse learned years later that in actuality he was not in fact the son of an American Indian activist but of a Mexican man who had left the family when his son was just three years old.
The Jenny McKean Moore Fund was established in honor of the late Jenny Moore, who was a playwrighting student at GW and who left in trust a fund that has, for almost 40 years, encouraged the teaching and study of Creative Writing in the English Department, allowing us to bring a poet, novelist, playwright, or creative non-fiction writer to campus each year. While in residence, the writer brings a unique experience to the GW community, teaching a free community workshop for adults along with Creative Writing classes for GW students.
Professor Skyhorse talked about and read from Take This Man over the course of Summer 2014. The GW community had the chance to hear him read from this work when he opened the Jenny McKean Moore reading series on September 11. We sent Professor Skyhorse some questions in anticipation of his arrival.
What attracted you to the position at GW, and as Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington?
For years my mother toiled away at a memoir called The Beginning that, sadly, never found an end. It was a privilege to edit some of her pages into a short excerpt that I included in my latest book but I wondered how much more she could have accomplished if she’d had taken writing courses. Knowing the JMM fellowship lets its recipients teach a free community based writing workshop made this position irresistible. What an incredible opportunity for both visiting writer and students alike! I hear new voices that I might not easily find on a college campus and they get writing experience without paying for an MFA course. This workshop could be the difference between a stack of pages that stays in someone’s drawer and a novel that goes on to be published and changes the lives of its readers and its author.
This applies just as much to college students eager to know more about the writing process. I decided to become a writer when I was in college which I owe to some incredible teachers. They helped me understand that writing is something that’s impossible to do well without constructive feedback and empathetic encouragement. Many writers aren’t taught how to deal with creative frustration and rejection. It will be my privilege this year—and it is indeed a privilege—to encourage writers both on and off campus to turn their creative baby steps into confident strides.
You arrive as this year’s Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington having just published Take This Man: A Memoir. It traces the life of “Brando Skyhorse,” the American Indian son of an incarcerated political activist. As it turns out, however, this life, your life, was based on a fabrication. Tell us a bit about what motivated this fabrication and how you felt when you learned about it.
My mother was a fantastical storyteller. I can only imagine how much more my students in DC would learn this year if she was their teacher instead! When I was three my Mexican father abandoned me so my Mexican mother reinvented us both as American Indians. She did this in part because she found a pen pal–slash-potential husband in prison who was willing to be my surrogate father and thought it’d be easier if I believed this man was my biological father. She also did this because she was greedy for a specific part of life that all of us take for granted via Facebook and Twitter: reinvention. We share just the parts of our life online that we want people to know about and can get instant affirmation about this fictional representation of ourselves. That affirmation is incredibly important to some people. It would have been important to my mother.
When I was 12 or 13, I discovered I was Mexican and continued the lie because I ran the risk of emotional and/or physical abuse if I contradicted my mother. There wasn’t much danger of that at first because my “Indian” upbringing was all I knew. Over time, my mother and I clashed over who and what I told people because I’d felt she’d forced me to live a life that was one massive lie. It took years more of processing and, in particular, writing, to come to an understanding of not only the life I lived but who I really am: a Mexican-American author with an American Indian name. Pretty exclusive club, that!
What are a few of the things you hoped to accomplish translating your story into creative non-fiction? What are some of the challenges of moving between fiction and creative non-fiction?
One of my best writing instructors was Geoffrey Wolff, who has likewise moved between fiction and non-fiction throughout his career. I took both a fiction and a separate memoir writing workshop with him and he was clear on what the rules were. Fiction is for the events we can change the moment they hit paper. The things we can’t change go in the non-fiction box. He was very specific that both these things be kept separate and wasn’t a believer in non-fiction books that take creative license with the truth. My problem was how to write a truthful account of a habitual raconteur and liar. I had to sift through my mother’s lies to find the one seedling of truth that inspired them. So I couldn’t just record my mother’s version of events because while that would have been a truthful recounting of what she said, everything she recounted was almost entirely made up.
When I tried writing fictionalized elements of my life it never worked because the events, ironically, seemed too unbelievable. In fiction, characters need motivations and you need to demonstrate the specific actions that shaped them into who they are. In non-fiction, if you record a person’s actions, sometimes it’s enough to say, “Well, she was just crazy.” This memoir might have been easier to write as a novel but I wanted this book to reach other survivors of dysfunctional families with a seal of approval that said, “This really happened and I survived. Maybe I’m not perfect but I’m here. You can survive, too.” That non-fiction seal should mean something. It should tell the reader that the writer lived through every painful event on the page and found the courage to share that pain so that you could learn something from it. That’s why it’s important to have two separate categories and that we respect what makes fiction different from non-fiction.
Tell us what you’ve been working on.
I’ve been promoting Take This Man for the past two months so there hasn’t been as much time for new writing as I’d have liked! I have some ideas for new novels but it could be a while before they’re ready for their public debuts. I hope to read some new material by the end of my visiting year at GW.
Who are some of the writers of creative non-fiction you have been reading lately?
Likewise, book promotion doesn’t leave you enough time for reading but I have set aside space on the “to-read” shelf for Russians: The People Behind The Power by Gregory Feifer, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Who Owns The Future by Jaron Lanier and Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. You can see from this list that creative non-fiction is a large enough bookshelf to accommodate works of every topic and flavor. What I want as a reader is for a writer’s empathy to equal their knowledge, passion or command of their subject. Empathy is the best tool in any writer’s arsenal—fiction or non-fiction—because it demonstrates you are an excellent listener. Empathy lets you observe the world and record your findings. That’s as good of a mission statement for “writer” as you’re going to get.
(Photo: Writer-in-Residence Brando Skyhorse)
GW's English Department is pleased to host Professor Simon Gikandi as this year's Wang Distinguished Professor-in-Residence. Simon Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University and editor of PMLA, the official journal of the Modern Languages Association (MLA). He is the author of many books and articles including Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature and Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism.
His latest book, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton University Press) was co-winner of the James Russell Lowell Prize for an outstanding scholarly work by a member of the MLA and the Melville Herskovits Award awarded by the African Studies Association for the most important scholarly work in African studies. The book won the 14th Annual Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship sponsored by Melbern Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, Texas A&M University, and was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for 2012.
On Tuesday, October 28, Prof. Gikandi will lecture on "Archives Without Subjects." Acknowledging the renewed centrality of archival work to literary studies, Professor Gikandi asks: What happens when reading comes face-to-face with an archive without subjects—the void in which the enslaved, the subalterns, the untouchable and the voiceless dwell? How do we go about reading texts that notate linguistic prohibition and cultural interdiction? What happens when we work in textual sites defined by silence? Co-sponsored by Africana Studies, this Distinguished Lecture in Literary and Cultural Studies will be held at 5:30 pm in Marvin Center 301, and is open to all.
Professor Gikandi will also offer a seminar to undergraduate students on a short story by the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta, entitled, “Yahoo, Yahoo.” For more on this seminar, which takes place on Thursday, October 30 in Rome 771 at 2:15 pm, please consult our blog. If you’re in the neighborhood and interested in participating in this seminar, please RSVP by e-mailing Professor Robert McRuer, Chair, Department of English at [email protected]. Once you’ve registered, Professor McRuer will forward you the reading for this event.
This visiting residency was created through a gift by Albert Wang and his family that has, since 2009, supported professors such as Edward P. Jones (now a member of the GW English Department), José Esteban Muñoz, J. Jack Halberstam and Michael Bérubé. The gift from the Wang family is one of the largest philanthropic commitments to GW's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences' Department of English.
(Photo: Simon Gikandi, Wang Distinguished Professor)
Tarek W. Al-Hariri, BA ’10, is working as an architectural designer and project manager at the Georgetown Design Group, Inc. in Washington, D.C. He was elected an associate member of the American Institute of Architects, Washington Chapter, last year and was named a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, London, two years ago. His general portfolio can be found through Thariri and some of his architectural works at ormatomic.com.
Kenny Ames, BA ’99, writes, "I have worked for Representatives Steny Hoyer and Barney Frank, CQ Roll Call and Fireside21. Recently, I graduated summa cum laude with an MA in government with a concentration in political communications from Johns Hopkins University. My thesis, “Social Media #FTW!: The Influence of Social Media on American Politics,” passed with honors and won the William F. Clinger, Jr. Award for outstanding thesis in institutional or representative government. I am living in Brookland and getting married in March 2015.
Mary-Kathryn Aranda, BA '00, just began working at John Snow, Inc, (a public health consulting firm) in Boston as a marketing and communications advisor. Previously, Mary-Kathryn was in the Marketing and Planning Department of Brigham and Women's Hospital working as a marketing manager.
Michael Y. Bennett, BA ’02, was recently granted tenure and was promoted to associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His fourth book, The Cambridge Introduction to the Absurd (Cambridge University Press), is scheduled to be published in 2015.
Carolee Brady, also known as Carolee Brady Hartman, MA ’73, MPHIL ’85, PhD ’87, lives in Oakland, Calif., and works in San Francisco as a psychotherapist. She writes, "I have fond memories of my time at GWU, meeting Amiri Baraka, for instance."
Jasmine Briggs, BA ’04, writes, "As a career coach in NYC, I support young professionals in career exploration, setting career goals, employment search techniques and creating resumes, cover letters and LinkedIn profiles. I am also a career counselor at Berkeley College working with their Fashion and Marketing students and grads."
George V. Britton, BA ’72 is currently managing director of InterHealth Associates in Washington, D.C.
Jenny Burkholder, BA ’93, writes, "For the last 11 years, I have been teaching English at Abington Friends School, a Quaker school in Jenkintown, Penn. My poems have appeared in New American Writing, Prose-Poem Project, The Spoon River Poetry Review and poemmemoirstory, among others."
Jennifer Butts, MPHIL ’06, writes, "I am currently in Alpharetta, Ga., running LexisNexis' Data Insight team. This team spans three states and is in charge of statistical and data research (including white papers) using LexisNexis data. My time in the GWU graduate program provided excellent experience for this role."
Esther Cohen, BA ’69, writes, “I have published five books and am working on two more. I am a book doctor (What is that? God knows. I help people with their books in all stages.) and send daily poems from my blog. Would be wonderful to have GWU subscribers! esthercohen.com. I teach Good Stories at Manhattanville College in the MFA program.” Esther was also featured on our blog recently.
Brittany Dibble, BA ’12, writes, “I was hired as the legislative and community affairs assistant for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a grant-funding agency of the government of the District of Columbia that establishes policy in the arts and humanities. I am also in my third semester of graduate school at George Mason University pursuing my master’s in arts management. I also continue to teach for Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md.
Eric H. Douglas, BA ’01, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, splits his time between New York and Florida. When in New York, Eric is an Economic Development Committee member working to create projects to improve and sustain their tribal economy. While in Florida, he has recently partnered with the Seminole Tribe of Florida on a restaurant concept called The Bol, located at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Eric enjoys working closely with Tribal Communities across the country to inspire entrepreneurialism.
Laura Feigin, BA ’10, MA ’11, writes, "Laura Feigin is living in Lambertville, N.J., working as a writer full time. She is working on her first novel, which she hopes to have completed by this fall."
Amit Goel, MA ’05, writes, "I am an instructional designer, and I design undergraduate and graduate courses for online learning at Kaplan University. I have also worked as a professor of business writing and rhetoric. I'm happy to mentor any current students or recent grads. My e-mail address is [email protected]."
Jackie Goldman-Schatell, BA ’90 is the owner and publisher of TAP into Livingston, TAP into West Orange and TAP into West Essex, which are online, award-winning, hyper local daily newspapers. www.tapinto.net.
Josh Hoberman, BA ’13, writes, "I've been roughing it in Los Angeles as a development associate at Larry Levinson Productions, using my English degree to poke holes in screenplays being developed. When not at work or on set, I've been hunting for good New York-style Chinese food, so any tips are welcome."
Colleen Hooper, BA ’01, is in her fourth year of a Temple University doctoral fellowship in the Dance Department and she is writing her dissertation on dancers who participated in the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) 1974-82. She also serves as the editorial assistant for the Dance Research Journal and is a graduate student representative on the Society of Dance History Scholars (SDHS) Board of Directors. She recently co-authored an article entitled "Faces, Close-ups and Choreography: A Deleuzian Critique of So You Think You Can Dance" for The International Journal of Screendance.
Joe Jareck, BA ’00, writes, "I was a journalism major with a creative writing minor and loved my classes in the English Department. I’m currently the Los Angeles Dodgers director of public relations in Los Angeles."
Mackenzie Lawrence, BA ’09, after graduating from GW and spending three years teaching special education for D.C, public schools, moved to New York to earn her master's degree in international educational development at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is now an education specialist at the International Rescue Committee, developing teacher training curricula for crisis- and conflict-affected areas around the world.
Cynthia Lawrie, BA ’85, writes, "I live in the Central Coast of California and am happy to report that my college-bound 18-year-old twin daughters have been commended time and time again for their exceptional writing skills. I learned to be a very good writer while at GWU and have passed this skill on to my daughters. Thank you GWU English Department!!!"
Kristen Luby, BA ’13, is living in New York and working as a marketing assistant at Penguin Random House.
Barbara Mayo-Wells, BA ’61, received her PhD at the University of Maryland. She is an adjunct faculty member at Howard Community College. In 2013, she presented an all-day seminar on Beowulf at HCC’s Senior Adult Summer Institute; earlier this year, she delivered a lecture on “Weird, Wild, Wonderful Words.” In September and October of 2014, she taught a course on Greek and Roman mythology. Barbara is also a certified lay speaker of the United Methodist Church, and has delivered half a dozen sermons this year.
Alexandra Moss, BA ’10, writes, "Spent three years living abroad in the U.K., completing an MLit in Victorian Literature and an LLB at the University of Glasgow. I have since moved back Stateside to complete an LLM in intellectual property with a focus on copyright law at GW. This in part to the tremendous help and support of Professors Maria Frawley, Antonio López and Jeffrey Cohen."
Annie Nguyen, BA ’00, writes, "I am currently an English professor (assistant rank), at the Community College of Baltimore County. I earned my MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana in 2007 and started at CCBC right after graduation. I'm now teaching English composition, creative writing and a special philosophy and writing course called "What is Happiness?" I recently just finished a NEH Bridging Cultures grant, where I focused on infusing Asian studies into the community college's core courses. This fall, I plan to apply for my PhD in world literature, with a focus on Southeast Asian writing."
Blayr Nias, BA ’04, is currently a nationally touring comedian. She was a finalist in 2013 for Comedy Central's Up Next Competition; performed in the Oddball Comedy Festival headlined by Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K. this summer; was voted Best Comedian by Charlotte Magazine 2014; and produces her own show at the Charlotte Comedy Zone called “Almost Famous.”
A. Veronica (Ronnie) Precup, BA ’67, writes, "I am at the top of my 40-plus years in publishing, as the editor-in-chief of Clinical Researcher, the award-winning flagship journal of the Association of Clinical Research Professionals. I live in Arlington, Va., and have three children, all happily married, and four grandchildren. I lost my husband to cancer last year after 48 years of marriage."
Chelsea Riley, BA ’05, has been an English teacher in Mexico since graduating from GW nine years ago. She also works in publishing and is now studying to obtain her master’s in teaching at USC.
The Rev. George O. Stapleton, BA ’61, writes, "I will be submitting my manuscript (Cephas) to my publisher (Booklocker Publishing) in the next few days for publication of my fourth book. This is my first attempt at fiction and deals with Israel and Palestine becoming two separate nations. The others are non-fiction—Sermons By George, Stapleton Chronicles and Lazarus: The Beloved Disciple. I live in Golden, Colo., with my wife Glenda Faye."
Kyaiera Tucker, BA ’03, writes, “So much of school reform is focused on struggling and failing schools, but what about schools that are doing just fine? What would five teachers at a good public school do if they could change the school day and the curriculum? These are the questions that were posed to me and my team last year. In answer, we created a set of foundational principles and this year we are building out the framework with curriculum. We are creating a learning environment that will allow for ‘deep learning, in and for the real world’ via interdisciplinary, project-based learning. It is our hope that the GHS Innovation Lab, will be up and running this time next year at Greenwich High School, in Greenwich, Ct. You can follow our progress at www.ghsnewschool.com.”
Pramila Venkateswaran, PhD ’88, who teaches at Nassau Community College, is currently poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island. Her appointment was recently announced in the Long Island Pulse. Congratulations, Dr. Venkateswaran!
Samantha Yakas, BA ’14, joined RAND Corporation's facilities team in July and absolutely loves being surrounded by crazy cutting-edge research. She hopes to continue at RAND and obtain her master's degree in public policy with a focus in health.
Marjan Yousefi, BA ’99, MD ’03, writes, "Since graduating from George Washington as an undergraduate, I finished medical school and dermatology residency and now practice as a dermatologist in Northern Virginia (Arlington and Vienna)."