It’s sometimes hard to feel successful at Hopkins, or for that matter, to feel that you will ever be successful. Assignments come and go, and you complete them with varying degrees of competency and effort invested in each. You’re supposed to be learning, but often you feel like you’re treading water. Even if you do learn something, and can recognize and feel fulfilled by that fact, where does that leave you?
Hopkins certainly gives us a leg up in the world, but we don’t need statistics to feel the social and economic precarity beneath our feet. One thing that doesn’t necessarily show us the way forward, but that does show us that a way forward exists while also highlighting the wonderful talent of Hopkins students who came before us, is alumni readings.
On Tuesday, March 26, the Hopkins Writing Seminars Department presented three such alumnae — two former graduate students and one former undergrad — to read some of their works to current undergraduate students. The first author to present her work was Andria Nacina Cole, a former student at Hopkins whose achievements include earning five grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, working as a special education teacher in Baltimore and co-directing “A Revolutionary Summer,” a reading and writing program whose website describes it as “dedicated to shifting harmful narratives about Black women and girls through both the meaningful study and creation of art and the deliberate application of self-inquiry.” During her presentation, Cole mostly read from her stories, including one set in the aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed black boy and another about a woman having an affair with an older married man. Each was full of great details and funny moments. The way she described the an old man as “Lev, 57, going on dead” was one moment that was particularly funny.
Before Cole began her readings, she briefly talked about how her stories were written in Black English, a vernacular she initially rejected but later embraced. She also talked about how doing so “represented growth for [her].” The hesitation was perhaps understandable. Many media uses of Black English are often used to demean and stereotype African-Americans (one of the worst examples I can think of is Ratchet from the Transformers movies). However, by using Black English empathetically, rather than shying away from it, Cole is deliberately rebuking those stereotypes, an act of bravery in its own right. Ultimately, given her list of achievements, Cole seems like a woman whose work and writing is intimately connected, and whose path is determined not only by her talents but by her core beliefs as a human being.
The second author to read was Suzanne Feldman, who has won a Nebula, an award recognizing the highest achievement in science fiction and fantasy writing in the U.S. Feldman is an amazing author who Writing Seminars Professor Alice McDermott introduced with many qualifiers about her former status as a science fiction writer and her overdue emergence into the presumably more prestigious and worthy realm of ‘literary fiction.’ Possibly resisting the urge to quote the late Ursula K. Le Guin, Feldman took the stage with a quip about how age necessitates the purchase of multiple pairs of glasses, both for different purposes and as insurance against their eventual misplacement.
The ‘literary’ novel Feldman read from was her 2016 release Absalom’s Daughters, which is a story about two half-sisters, one black and one white, who journey across America to find their family’s fortune. In both title and premise, the book rebukes William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, a book criticized for neglecting the inner lives of women. The excerpt Feldman read only passingly evokes Faulker, mostly in setting rather than Faulkner’s style. In the excerpt, Feldman describes the main character Cassie and her early life living at the laundry, leading up to her first encounter with Judith, her white half-sister. The excerpt was notable not only for how richly realized Cassie’s Mississippi community was, but also for how many character and plot details Feldman was able to compress into such a short passage.
The final author to present was Jessie Chaffee, a former undergraduate writing student who presented excerpts from her debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, a novel about a young woman who, after a bout with anorexia, travels to Florence, Italy. In the excerpt Jessie read, the main character, Hannah, talks about her encounter with a depiction of Saint Catherine, famed for her devotion to starving herself to death in the name of God. During an interview for the LA Review of Books, Chaffee talks about how Hannah feels a kinship with this saint because she feels that her anorexia was not only about not eating but also about some elusive higher purpose.
Part of her journey is rejecting the saints, and in essence rejecting that harmful higher purpose that drives her beyond the boundaries of her body. Chaffee says of Hannah, “[She] is trying, quite literally, to survive, and that means stepping out of her life and trying to find another path forward.” The excerpt Caffee read expertly weaves in Hannah’s own personal turmoil with descriptions of the saint, her life and the surrounding environment of Florence, as Hannah not only builds up a picture of the saint, but also the larger, somewhat ancient worlds she now inhabits.
If there’s one thing that unites all the writers, it is this: trying to take something of the mangled past, and shine it into something new.