Empowering People to Create Meaningful Stories: Alumni Feature by Chris O’Brien ’12

“Think of something you used to do, that you loved to do, that did something for you while you were doing it. Brought you something. Everybody thinking of one? 

Now think of that thing you gave up that you loved to do. You gave up because you were, yeah, not good enough. Wasn’t ‘good enough.’ Gave it up.

The only thing Americans don’t give up that they aren’t any good at it is golf.” 

This was the opening of a TedX talk called “Perfectly Imperfect” by the great Jack Ridl, retired Hope College professor. His talk is about reclaiming things you love to do – not to be the best in the world at it or even turning it into your full-time career – but simply for the love of the craft. 

My “something” has always been writing, all the way back to second grade. I followed this love to Hope College, graduating in 2012 with an English Creative Writing degree. I’ve been writing ever since. 

But most of it is done as a hobby. Takes place early in the morning before work. And the trouble is that, even as a hobby, I’ve found it’s hard to write only for the sake of writing. The goal of “I want to write a book” quickly morphs into “I want to write a bestseller.” With a blog, it’s tempting to keep checking the number of views, visitors, likes. 

Because we spend so many years aiming for a target – first in a land of letter grades, and then in a land of salaries, promotions, and “where do I rank” – it can be hard to work on a craft just for the sake of doing it, to have fun, and not rely on any external measurements. 

This impacts how writers feel about the publishing process too. One may think, “Well, if I can’t get a literary agent or traditional publisher, it’s not worth doing.” Or, if they self-publish, it becomes all about the rankings. Looking at the book sale bar graph.

The business I started in 2018, called Long Overdue, began as a way to bring more fun to the publishing process. Especially for first-time authors. It’s a way to encourage people to write and put meaningful stories out there, even if the audience is only friends, family, and some people in your local community.

Recently, we’ve expanded the idea to include recording family stories. For example, if you have a grandparent, mom, dad who has all of these great stories but they’ve never recorded them, we’re helping turn these stories into books. This was inspired by my own family. I have a book of poems from my great-grandpa. My dad wrote a children’s book about my nephew. My grandma is an artist and her sister has written a couple of novels. I’d love to help more families create these types of libraries that they can pass down to future generations. 

Long Overdue is run by me and three other friends. All of us have full-time jobs, so the work is done in the mornings and weekends, which can definitely be tough to balance. One time* in particular, I got so in the zone working on a book before work, I looked up and it was 8:55. Close the laptop, rush to the bathroom, switch from glasses to contacts. Slide out of the good ol’ writer’s sweatpants. Run to the bus then jog into the office around 9:20. 

I feel guilty on the walk to my desk. Everyone’s already there, and several colleagues have been working for an hour already. At this moment, I don’t feel a sense of pride in how hard I was working on Long Overdue, I feel like the late guy. Flaky. Letting people down. And wondering, “Why can’t I work as hard at the steady job that’s paying me more than this side business I’m trying to get off the ground?”   

*And by “one time,” I think this happened at least 10 different times. 

And yet… those before-work projects included helping an author in England (Joy M. Lilley) with her novel Strawberry Moon, an author in Illinois (David Warden) with a book of career advice called Don’t Be That Guy, and an author in Florida (David Ovitt) bringing a children’s book to life, Cecil the Centipede, which he first wrote 30 years ago. We’re working with fellow Hope College grad Jon Oldham (’12) on his Tackle the Library series, and we have several other books in progress.

The part I enjoy the most is when the author receives the final copy of their book. There’s a deep sense of accomplishment and distinct finish line to their project. Plus, all of the authors we’ve worked with so far have multiple book ideas in mind, so it’s been really cool to see Long Overdue ignite/re-ignite a passion for writing, not just a one-time project. 

In this process, I’ve found that starting a business feels a lot like writing a book. You have a vision for where you want things to go and you just keep chipping away at each new chapter. Writing and revising. In this way, I think writers and English majors are secretly well-positioned to be entrepreneurs, especially with startups. Year 1 of any business is more art than science.

And, just like writing a book, there’s never a perfect time to start a business. Life is busy. There are bills. Rent. Mortgages. But if we wait for the perfect time to get started, the project keeps getting pushed off until it becomes long overdue. 

Maybe someday, there will be more time to work on everything, less trial and error. 

But right now, it’s just fun to work on something I love to do. To have Long Overdue be perfectly imperfect. 

The Rap and Poetry Gods Broke It Down to this Stuttering Boy

Teaching Rap as Poetry

by Pablo Peschiera

In my poetry classes, I often teach the basic structures of poetic rhythms through rap music. I use rap songs from artists like Public Enemy, Run DMC, Fu Schnickens, Queen Latifah, Eminem, LL Cool J, Lizzo, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and many others. This no accident. Rap and poetry go together like Salt-N-Pepa.

I first heard Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five in the cafeteria at Hackett Catholic High School. I was 15, at the spaghetti dinner for the JV football team, and the Henagar brothers had their boom box on the table. “Music for crushing skulls,” one of them said, and I heard the MC King Lou rap “K is for Kool, running through my veins/I got ice water blood, so I show no shame.” I was hooked.

Hope College Professor Pablo Peschiera

I’d been a suburban b-boy for a couple of years, break dancing in the halls at school, at school dances across the city, and at a charity fair or two. I’d even been paid to do it—once. I’d seen the movies Breakin’ and Beat Street and loved them. And since these movies used hip-hop and rap as a background to the dancing, rap became a part of my social world. Break dancing hasn’t stuck with me—I mean, how could it?—but rap grew into the most popular genre of contemporary music in the world, and it never left my body and mind.

Rap took off nationally in the early 1980s. The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” charmed me to no end. Run DMC helped me think about the powers of community and neighborhood in ways a boy in suburban Michigan would never experience. Salt-N-Pepa exposed me to a new kind of strong female power. Public Enemy schooled me in anger and frustration at systemic racism. I wanted to understand all of it.

Witty, charming, silly, and angry, the lyrics that rappers created seemed to roll out of their mouths. Some were deeply experimental and intelligent, like Fu Schickens. Some were sweet and funny, like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. All were highly creative, and oozed youthful exuberance.

As a boy and young man, I stuttered when I spoke, sometimes terribly. Speaking in front of people, especially strangers, put me into a panic. I avoided it, hard. But rappers spoke in tight, improvisational patterns, eloquent and strong. I wanted that power, and rap showed me a path to achieving it.

Poetry had an ascendant respect in my family, and rap was my first poetry. I began writing poetry and rap at around the same time, in the 80s, but because I stuttered I never saw myself as a rapper. I had to learn to work with language in the quiet of a white page and a solitary room.

Over time, my poems became less auditory, shed their rhyme and tight rhythms controlled by the 4/4 bar structure of a rap song. But rap and poetry can never be fully separated—they are siblings, sisters in song, singing in their own overlapping spheres of influence. And you don’t have to love rap music to see the connections—it’s there in the deep analysis of rap’s poetic structure.

Among the best poets in the world is the rapper MF Doom. MF Doom has the ability to layer chains of sounds in seemingly endless overlapping links. Check out these lines from the second verse of “Rhymes Like Dimes”:

Better rhymes make for better songs, it matters not
If you got a lot of what it takes just to get along
Surrender now or suffer serious setbacks
Got get-back, connects wet-back, get stacks
Even if you gots to get jet-black, head to toe
To get the dough, battle for bottles of Mo’ or ‘dro
This fly flow take practice like Tae Bo with Billy Blanks
“Oh, you’re too kind!” “Really? Thanks!”

That verse goes on for ten more lines. It seems nonsensical, the references coming so fast you almost can’t track them. Rhymes weave across lines, sometimes only at the end of a line, sometimes appearing six times across three lines (lines five to seven). Alliteration—the technique of repeating the sounds at the beginnings of words—appears several times, occasional (line one) or rapid-fire (line three).

MF Doom by @gunpowdersky

Most interested in sound and association, MF Doom filters the world through his imagination and what comes out in his rap is a representation of what his memory can conjure at the moment. His raps are in the best tradition of poetic nonsense, like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” In nonsense poetry, sound structures take over to shape our understanding of the poet’s world. How the words sound is as important (more important?) as what they say; they flow together in a kind of language music.

That is why I love rap, and this kind especially. As a boy and young man—even in college—I could barely string together a spoken phrase. My speech hemmed and hawed, paused at the worst times, and I would lock up, my face twisting, my lips in a struggle to shape the sounds. Those who work and live with me have seen this happen even today in my middle age, especially when I’m tired. My everyday face sometimes feels like a mask about to transform.

But rappers like MF Doom display the transcendence of human speech as artistic expression. Their faces, however hidden, never falter, the muscles of their throats never seem to fail. In their poetries I feel transformed into a person with no limits to my language, no limits in my ability to express myself. I write poetry, but in the back of my creative mind, rap will always be pulling at the levers.

“A Lyric Never to be Forgotten”: A Day with Writers Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Lesley Nneka Arimah

As Marcelo Hernandez Castillo dug through the photo gallery on his phone, searching for a picture of his son, I realized that the thin man who sat before me didn’t quite match my idea of the poet I had envisioned behind Cenzontle. The beautiful and surreal lyrics Castillo weaved through his 2018 book had prepared me for a somber and stoic man, with a gravity that matched the incredible weight of his poetry. I certainly hadn’t expected a man who would stop in the middle of a conversation to point out a cute baby in a stroller outside the restaurant where we shared lunch.

However, as I had more chances to speak with Castillo, I began to see where Cenzontle came from. His thoughtful nature, his appreciation of beauty: these were the traits of an author who, as Brenda Shaughnessy puts it in her foreword to Cenzontle, “knows that blood is a lyric never to be forgotten.” As Castillo spoke with our Advanced Poetry class, I saw hints of the emotional burden that drove him to produce such a powerful book of poetry; as he said, “I had to write Cenzontle so I wasn’t the sole observer—it wasn’t just mine anymore.”

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Despite this, in our short time together, I couldn’t get over just how normal Castillo was. He could have been any college student, he conversed so well with my peers in class. He even shared a story of an interaction he had with another author, where they went swimming together and Castillo realized “he was just a normal guy in swim trunks.” I certainly shared this sentiment, and I wasn’t surprised to hear other students did as well; Thomas Stukey (’21) remarked: “We ask these authors what the secret is, but they’re just average people—they’re like us.”

This paradoxical image of Castillo continued throughout lunch and the Q&A session in the afternoon, where he and Lesley Nneka Arimah both displayed the warmth and humor one might expect from an old friend. Whether it was Castillo joking about how challenging he found writing, or Arimah making a witty observation about the magical realism inherent in her Evangelical upbringing, both authors handled themselves with a charming ease that felt distant from their own intense work. They even made conversations about the weather engaging, demonstrating the particular creativity that has made them such wonderful writers.

Lesley Nneka Arimah

The highlight of the day, however, was the evening reading. Though I had already devoured Cenzontle, hearing Castillo read his work gave each poem a new burst of energy. Beyond that, it gave Castillo himself new life. As he read his first selection, I saw him grow into the preconceived image I had held, his stature broader, his voice larger. This was the poet I had expected: tender and powerful at once, just as his own poetry was. He also took some time to read from his recent memoir, Children of the Land, and I was struck by the equal power of his prose. Despite the different format, the energy and emotion behind the words was the same.

Arimah, too, gripped the audience as she shared two of her own short stories. Though I wasn’t familiar with her work, it didn’t take long to decide I wanted to change that. The settings and characters she laid out practically demanded that I get to know them better. Even as she immersed the audience in the dark worlds she created, though, she made sure to pull us back out in equally short order. After she finished her first story, a quick joke was all it took to break the tension in the room.

These visiting authors impact Hope College and its students in a significant way. Castillo not only offered to meet with a few students to discuss their poetry over coffee—he actively went out of his way to squeeze in meetings with as many students as he could. Even students from outside the English Department left the reading with fuller hearts; Marcus Brinks (’20), a chemical engineering major who anticipated feeling lost during the event, said afterward: “Seeing the authors read their own work was cooler than I could have ever imagined… It really enhanced the meaning for me.”

I can personally echo his thoughts: it was a delightful day with incredible authors, and I cannot wait to read the work Arimah and Castillo surely have planned for the coming years.

Going Home: Its Complexities and Possibilities

by Ernest & Ernesta Cole

As the airplane began its final descent into Banjul International Airport, I was overcome by a feeling of nervous excitement. I was excited at the prospect of coming back to my adopted home, the place where my wife and I sought refuge at the height of the civil war in my native Sierra Leone 24 years ago. I was equally nervous at what to expect of The Gambia after all this time.

I was returning not as a Sierra Leonean, as I was during my 7-year period of refuge, but as an American. I was bringing with me a child (my younger daughter) born in the United States, who was coming to the continent for the first time. I was also anticipating the arrival of my elder daughter from study abroad in Liverpool: Hope junior Ernesta Cole, who was actually born in The Gambia, 20 years ago. And so, as Brussels Airlines navigated the final stretch of tarmac and taxied to the arrival gate, an incident that occurred 17 years earlier flashed through my mind.

I was leaving for the University of Connecticut in August 2003, and my family—Ernesta and my wife, Everetta—had accompanied me to the airport. After saying goodbye and going through customs and immigration, I could only make out the tiny hands of Ernesta waving goodbye to me in the crowded airport. She couldn’t actually see me, but from the farewells of family and friends, she knew daddy was going on a journey and it was important to wave goodbye.

I watched her for a very long time, transfixed to one spot, until the voice of the announcer over the PA system interrupted my thoughts. Ghana Airways was almost ready for boarding. When we were finally airborne, I broke down. I cried for a long time. The image of those tiny hands as they waved goodbye has never left my mind.

Six months later, Ernesta and Everetta joined me in Willimantic, Connecticut. But today, as I collected my thoughts, it was a different story. Time has elapsed and situations have changed. As we stepped out onto the tarmac and walked the few yards to the arrival lounge, my nervousness increased. I have always wanted to take my children home. For me it is not so much about them having a sense of cultural heritage and roots, with all its implications for identity and belonging, as important as these may be. Rather, it is an invitation for them to walk in our shoes and retrace history. I deem this as necessary in order for them to begin to understand the sacrifices made by us and the implications for our family.

I wanted them to understand that there is a cost to success: that a price was paid for being a professor at Hope College, and that there were people along the way who assisted us in a variety of ways and made it possible for my wife and I to be where we are today. They have to recognize, as my people say: “we never got to where we are by our own strength, and so, may we never forget the road we traveled.” I wanted to introduce them to some of the people who made this success possible.

In the same vein, I wanted them to know that there is a cost to migration: that migrants are continuously navigating the complexities of the in-between—the third space of being self and Other, African and American, insider and outsider, central and marginal. Importantly, they too as “first generation.” Americans would have to navigate the trickling effects of those complexities.

But, notwithstanding the costs, it is important to take time to give glory to God—for in spite of what we think of our journey, His hand upon our lives is clearly discernible. That is non-negotiable.

At this point, I will step back and allow Ernesta to give her impressions of her return to her birthplace, her homeland, the motherland, the continent of Africa. 

After 16 years in the United States, I went back home. A nearly overwhelming sense of belonging grew as each family member, each friendly neighbor, each nursery school teacher said “Welcome back.” I knew I was home, but I also knew that my being away for so long would change how I fit back into Gambian life and society. I would have to re-learn the new Gambia and re-teach the new Ernesta.

Both of my very musically talented uncles asked me if I played any instruments, like the piano or kora, or if I sang. I said no. Family friends asked if I spoke any Wolof or Mandika. I said no. Nearly everyone spoke of distant memories, and asked if I remembered them as fondly as they did. I said no. I began to feel like I might end up disappointing people, for changing too much and not being Gambian enough. After only a few days, I quickly realized that my anxieties were not necessary. Those who truly knew me did not care if I was partially this, raised here or there, and used to that. They loved me as Ernesta, and it was just that simple.

It’s true that, due to living in the United States for the majority of my life, I had become Americanized. But the amount of time spent in a location does not fundamentally change who you are, especially if your culture and sense of self are continuously encouraged and developing.

Waking up to the sound of ocean waves was the perfect way to start each day. The warmth of the 89-degree days was the same warmth and comfort I felt inside my chest being surrounded by people who looked just like me. Everything felt new and exciting: from shopping in the busy markets in the capital Banjul, to petting crocodiles in Katchikaly, where we stumbled across an elusive white crocodile, believed to have supernatural powers. (I’ve started considering that the white crocodile helped give me confidence for the rest of the trip, as well as for 2020.)

Adventures to different attractions brought more discussion about my identity as a Gambian. In most touristy places, like the National Museum of Gambia and Bijilo Forest Park (more commonly known as Monkey Park), the price for Gambians is less than the price for visiting tourists. Initially I thought, “Oh, sweet! I get to save a few dalasi”—but I quickly learned that those local discounts would not be applied to me. In the National Museum, the lady selling tickets looked me up and down and promptly amended the rules with: “well actually, the discount is for residential Gambians.” My uncle, his girlfriend, my mother, sister and I all exchanged looks and couldn’t help but share a laugh. My American was showing.

On a trip to the local Bakau fish market, I met a Jamaican man working there who ended up encouraging me in an exciting idea for what I want to do for the rest of my life. He started the conversation by asking my sister if she was a university student, due to the Liverpool Hope University shirt she had on. She smirked and told him it had been a gift from me. After spending much of our conversation laughing over the presumptions he had about where the two of us would end up, based on the “caring talkative vibes” I gave off in comparison to the more “strict and authoritative” ones of my sister—who is 13, by the way—gave off, he said something that will stick with me forever. He said that he was proud of and excited for us, for the things we would accomplish and how we would shape the future. He added, with a slight sad smile, that he was not educated. Then he said: “But, I speak Wolof, English, Spanish, French, Finnish…” and must have listed at least two more. How could this kind, multilingual person not define himself as educated? It settled on me that since he did not have a westernized, idealistic academic repertoire he had limited himself against those standards.

I decided at that moment that I would study sociolinguistics. What languages do people speak based on location? Why do they speak the way they do? Which languages or accents are seen as cooler, better, more intriguing than others and why? Should academics be, at minimum, bilingual?

Gambia was an amazing, tropical, relaxing and love-filled time for me. Going back home filled me up in so many positive ways—from my spirit to my stomach! I will never forget the impact our trip had on me and I cannot wait to get back.

“The Love of Bob”: A Faculty Feature from Curtis Gruenler

I went to hear the most recent American Nobel laureate in literature last fall. It wasn’t a reading. As has become his norm, Bob Dylan did not speak at all, even to introduce the members of his band (which is a shame, because they’re outstanding). All he did was sing, in that never-pretty voice that has become more gnarled and, if possible, more expressive with age.  

My 19-year-old son kept saying, as we watched from the top balcony of the historic Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, IN, “He seems so old.” At 78, Bob totters a bit, from his keyboard to a microphone on a stand, sometimes picking up a harmonica on the way (the audience goes wild). But mostly, he sings. He seems even more now, as I recall someone saying in No Direction Home—the excellent Martin Scorsese documentary about his early career—like a person concentrated into just a voice. And what he does with that voice is in some ways the most powerful example of literary experience I know.

Bob’s incomparable lyrics work well on the page, of course, and even better in recordings. Being able to reread and relisten allows us to appreciate, for instance, how densely interwoven his words are with traditions from American popular song (what the Nobel committee cited with its award), classics such as Virgil and Dante, and, above all, the Bible. But rather than discussing any particular songs (Pod Dylan is good on that), I want to explore how his live performances add further dimensions to his poetry and to what he is as a poet.

I’ve noticed a rough correlation between how old a song is and how hard it is to recognize when Bob sings it in concert. He not only slurs the words of the oldest hits a little more, but often changes the melody. Or, if the tune is the same, he shifts the rhythm and intonation (often drastically) from familiar recordings. I think he wants to make people listen harder.

The literary critic Northrop Frye locates poems on a continuum between two basic literary forms (well represented in Old English): charms on the one end, and riddles on the other. Charms lull an audience into a receptive state, whereas riddles elicit active engagement. Most songs tend toward the charm side and operate on a largely emotional level. Indeed, the word “charm” comes from the Latin carmen, meaning a song.

Bob is not charming. He doesn’t want his old songs to become mere incantations, occasions for nostalgia or any sort of cheap enthusiasm, much less a means of manipulation. He plays them—plays with them—so as to keep them riddling, enigmatic in the fullest sense: asking to be puzzled over in order to yield new insight into, and compassion for, the enduring mysteries of human experience.

With his newer, less familiar songs—which I tend to like even more—the lyrics and tunes are easier to recognize, but the instrumental arrangements are quite different from the recordings. Perhaps he picks the songs for each tour’s set list that he feels he has a better idea of how to play than when he recorded them. Perhaps he chooses the ones he thinks the band could have some fun with. Whatever the reason, the band’s inventiveness, far from making the lyrics just part of the sound, refreshes their meaning.

Plus, whether old or new, Bob might always change some words or try a new verse, which also keeps the audience on our toes. He is always stretching himself—even at 78—to honor the written words in new ways and draw more out of them.

When he plays other people’s songs—the 2017 show I saw in Grand Rapids included some Sinatra standards he has recorded in recent years—the words are even more recognizable. He clearly cares about the words of songs often known mainly for their tunes. On the album Christmas in the Heart, he plays songs worn smooth with time, both sacred and secular, in a way that makes me hear the words as I never have before. He sings them as poems, not just lyrics.

“Lyric” as a literary term comes from ancient Greek: a kind of poem sung or chanted to a lyre, marked by its first-person perspective, in contrast to the epic. Lyric poetry still, whether in the first person or not, tends to be seen as expressing the poet’s feelings, even more so when being sung. What, then, to make of Bob’s lyrics, especially when you are there with him in the room? I think it would be a mistake to go looking for Bob the man. He does not speak for himself. He gives voice to many, not as a mass but as a gallery of particular individuals—especially suffering individuals (the musical tradition he draws from most is probably the blues).

Somehow, even in concert, maybe especially in concert, Bob himself disappears. Instead, he projects richly textured, essentially human predicaments. He asks, to quote one of his most famous songs, “How does it feel…?” He calls out our own and each other’s experiences so that we can hear them better, learn to pay better attention. We need literature, we need songs, we need the voices of poets, to help us listen better to each other. To adapt the beautiful tribute that closes his most recent album of original songs, 2012’s amazing Tempest: roll on, Bob.

Wolves, Spartans, Mockingbirds, Falling From the Sky: Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series Spring 2020 Preview

by Keri Haddrill & Claire Buck

Snow and ice are threading their way into the atmosphere here in Holland, Michigan. That means it’s the season to curl up with a good book (or five), so let’s agree to only venture out from our Hobbit-holes, magical treehouses, or bedrooms under the stairs for bookstore runs and literary events. 

What literary events, you ask? Well, the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series (JRVWS) has four amazing writers coming this semester, so make sure to mark your calendars now! 

February 4th: Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Lesley Nneka Arimah

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Lesley Nneka Arimah are both writers who have crossed borders, not just between countries but across genres, voices, and traditions. 

Frequently moving throughout her childhood due to her father’s work in the military, Arimah grew up in Nigeria and the United States. Her debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, draws on her perspective of both cultures. Although her stories span a wide breadth of genres from realism to fantasy to science fiction, they hold similar tensions at their core. Whether she’s placed her characters in the U.S. or a post-apocalyptic dystopia, Arimah writes relational conflicts—especially conflicts between mothers and daughters—with skillful precision. Often dark, sometimes unsettling, and always sharply insightful, Arimah’s stories have earned her widespread critical recognition and the 2017 Kirkus Prize. 

At the age of five, Castillo emigrated from Mexico with his family, but his work is not solely about immigration. In his debut poetry collection, Cenzontle, Castillo uses evocative imagery and unique formatting to explore themes of marriage, fatherhood, parental abuse, immigration, race, and sexuality. For his work in Cenzontle, Castillo was awarded not only the 2017 A. Poulin Jr. prize, but also the 2018 Northern California Book Award. In addition to being a poet, Castillo is also an essayist, translator, and immigration advocate. 

And if you haven’t heard, Castillo’s debut memoir, Children of the Land (an Entertainment Weekly “Most Anticipated Book of 2020”), will be released on January 28th. We don’t know about you, but we’ll definitely be using the week before he arrives on campus to binge-read Children of the Land!

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Dawn Davies, Kaveh Akbar
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Dawn Davies, Kaveh Akbar

March 26th: Dawn Davies and Kaveh Akbar

Dawn Davies is another memoirist from Florida, just like our dear Heather Sellers. Davies’ debut book, Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces, was the recipient of the 2018 Florida Book Award. Despite the title, Davies’ debut is about more than being a mother; she also explores what it means to be a daughter, a child, a woman, a person repeatedly hindered by their physical body, and ultimately, a human. With a lively, snarky, and intelligent writing voice that sounds as if she is speaking directly to you, Davies doesn’t shy away from the raw, real, and intense moments of life.

Davies, along with Castillo and Arimah, are all winners of the 2019 GLCA New Writer Award in the categories of Creative Non-fiction, Poetry, and Fiction respectively. And did you know that our own Dr. Rhoda Burton was part of the panel that chose Davies for the award?

Iranian-born poet Kaveh Akbar is another writer whose work doesn’t shrink from radical honesty and vulnerability. Woven through his collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf are a series of “Portraits of the Alcoholic” in positions of recovery, temptation, struggle, and gratitude that emerge from Akbar’s long battle with addiction. His poems leap among surprising images and wrap wisdom in layers of lyrical language. Akbar’s writing is an invitation to press into uncertainty and confusion and strangeness, a call to reflect without needing to understand fully. As Akbar said in an interview with Lit Hub, “I really do sincerely feel that bewilderment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder.” 

You’re excited now, aren’t you? But hold up, don’t put on your coats yet! (That is, unless you haven’t read the works of these amazing writers — then definitely run out with your library card or credit card in hand!)

MARCELO HERNANDEZ CASTILLO and LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH will be here on Tuesday, February 4th for a 3:30PM Q&A in Fried-Hemenway Auditorium and a 7:15PM reading in the Jack Miller Recital Hall.

DAWN DAVIES and KAVEH AKBAR will be here on Thursday, March 26th for a 3:30PM Q&A in Fried-Hemenway Auditorium and a 7:00PM reading in the Jack Miller Recital Hall.

So, while you wait in anticipation, make sure to follow the JRVWS Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for more tantalizing sneak previews of these incredible writers!

In Search of Rich Soil: Alumni Feature by Annalise Klein ’14

In this post, we hear from alumna Annalise “Cici” Klein (’14) about how her cross-divisional majors sparked a global pursuit of vocation post-college.

On a humid Saturday morning in Serere, Uganda, three high school boys stood at the front of a large classroom, addressing a packed room of several hundred parents. One boy wrapped beef bones in aluminum foil. Another pounded a large wooden mortar and pestle. The third boy held a microphone, speaking to the crowd in English and Ateso. And there I was facing them all, in a cracked and faded blue plastic chair, sandwiched between the district commissioner and the school principal.

The boys were part of the Senior Five chemistry class at Serere Township Secondary School, a boarding school of 1,300 students in rural Eastern Uganda. I was there as a STEM education specialist on a six-week fellowship through the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching Program in the fall of 2019.

In my six weeks in Serere, I built a new vision for science education with local teachers, one that fostered 21st-century skills, including collaboration and critical thinking, and moved away from the colonial-rooted system of teacher lectures that lacked cultural relevance and real-world application.

We began with posing some questions to the Senior Five chemistry class around agricultural issues in the community. Over 90% of the students come from small subsistence farms, and agriculture plays an important role in their families’ well-being. While Uganda was once known for its highly fertile soil, it is losing valuable nutrients at an exponential rate not observed anywhere else in the world.1 We asked the students to research ways in which they could apply their knowledge of chemistry to address this problem.

The students made a goal of producing a fertilizer rich in NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) made from local materials. After scavenging some old cow bones from the butcher’s shop down the road, the students roasted them over a charcoal fire, ground it into a fine powder, mixed it with urine, and dried it in the sun. The fertilizer was tested on cowpea and maize seeds, which they planted on a plot in the corner of the school yard. On that Saturday morning, as they presented their initial findings to their parents, the room clung to each word, some parents leaning forward to catch every detail, others scribbling down notes.

Throughout this project, students and teachers began to witness the intoxicating effects of an education that empowers. In my planning workshops with the teachers, I used the following analogy to demonstrate the philosophical shift:

In the traditional model of education, if knowledge is water, our students’ heads are empty buckets. We expect them to fill up by compliantly copying notes, then we assess them by tipping the bucket and letting the contents spill out exactly how they entered. However, in a 21st-century skills model, if knowledge is water, our students are large, wooden water wheels used in rivers to power mills. When water is added, it creates movement, power, and energy. Likewise, by focusing a class on problem solving and community application, it facilitates original discussion, innovative ideas, and student ownership.

My own experience with waterwheel education traces back before my career in science education. At Hope, I was nurtured, surrounded by professors and staff who were brave enough and cared enough to speak into my vocation, not just my degree. As a Chemistry and English double major at Hope, I had many opportunities to apply the academic knowledge and skills that I was cultivating. Taking inorganic chemistry and TA-ing organic chemistry sharpened my analytical thinking and mental stamina, while courses like Latin American literature and poetry workshops taught me a deep appreciation for how detailed observations mold one’s perspective on life.

Any student of Heather Sellers will recall her frequent reference to Robert Olen Butler’s “compost pile” analogy on writing: our writing comes from our life compost pile, an ever-growing, ever-decomposing mound of experiences and memories. Our best writing comes from the white-hot center, and the older we get, the richer our compost pile becomes. The stories our class read came from authors who had massive compost piles with searing white-hot centers — people like Louise Erdrich, Amy Bloom, Tim O’Brien, Marion Winik, and Elizabeth Strout, just to name a few.

By the time junior year rolled around, I stood at a crossroads, thinking, “MCAT or real world?” and it was those lessons from my English degree that pulled me toward the latter. I gravitated towards a vocation that I felt would allow me to collect stories, building my own compost pile to produce richer soil.

After graduation, I joined Teach for America and taught eighth grade science in a small coffee farm community in South Kona, Hawai’i. I met bright students who struggled to translate that brilliance onto paper because of language barriers or instability at home. I taught a STEAM summer program for Native Hawaiian students and gathered valuable lessons on the importance of culturally relevant science curriculum that is accessible for all.

After three years on the island, I moved to the Bay Area to teach chemistry and AP Chemistry at a charter school in East San Jose and developed projects for my students connecting chemistry to social justice issues. The opportunity to work in Uganda last fall showed me new ways in which science can inspire innovation in a community.

On my last day in Serere, the students checked on the experimental plot and discovered with great pride that the plants in fertilizer had grown three times as fast as the control. They harvested the leaves, boiled them down over a charcoal fire, and together, we ate a final meal — hopefully the only time I will ever eat the products of an experiment!

As I said goodbye to the students of Serere and prepared to return to my students in San Jose, I left with new stories that enriched my perspective on educational equity and science instruction in the 21st-century. These experiences continue to cultivate my vocation, one that partners with students to hone their unique voices, influence change in their communities, and diversify representation in STEM. My compost pile overfloweth.

  1. http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/uga172925.pdf

Writer as Witness: Finding Our Common Humanity

Welcome back! In this week’s post, we want to share an incredible project that the students in Professor Susanne Davis’s Introduction to Creative Writing class completed last semester.

The English 253 class created podcasts as part of the course curriculum, aiming to delve into a range of common human experiences in order to deepen and enrich their creative writing practice. The resulting podcast series is called “Writer as Witness: Finding Our Common Humanity.” Prof. Davis asked students to enact the writer’s role to witness by giving a platform to a few of the many marginalized voices and populations within our culture.

Students chose their own podcast topics and who they wanted to interview. With titles like “Dance is Political,” “The Cultural Relevance of Christian Hip-Hop,” and “Healing From Head Trauma: A Patient’s Experience,” these 5-minute podcasts feature interviews that offer multiple perspectives on the chosen issue. Interviewees range from Hope students from under-represented groups to Holland community members to the broader society—for example, Detroit auto workers involved in a Women’s Alliance. Through this assignment, the students sought be become more observant witnesses and therefore better storytellers, but we as listeners also have much to gain from these impactful bursts of audio insight.

Check out their incredible work here. Happy listening & have an enlightened weekend!

Books to Curl Up With Over Winter Break

Happy (almost) winter break to our lovely students! We asked our faculty & staff to share a text that they would recommend for students on vacation looking to relax and take a break from scholarly pursuits. Be sure to stop by Van Wylen before you leave to check some of these out, and may your next three weeks be restful & renewing!

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, Image Courtesy of Counterpoint LLC

Dr. Curtis Gruenler’s Pick: Jayber Crow By Wendell Berry

Our first recommendation comes from Dr. Curtis Gruenler, who wholeheartedly recommends Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. “This is my favorite novel by my favorite living writer,” says Dr. Gruenler, “and it has everything: humor, coming-of-age story, insightful social commentary, love, friendship, and a subtle rewriting of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the genre of the realistic novel.”

Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, published by Harper Perennial

Dr. Stephen Hemenway’s Pick: Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Dr. Stephen Hemenway shares this about his selection: “I enthusiastically recommend Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos. The title is Yuletide seasonal, and the fictional story highlights faith and family in a ‘novel’ way.” According to GoodReads.com, it’s the story of a man “trying to put his life in perspective. In the expert hands of Oscar Hijuelos, the novel speaks eloquently to the most basic and fulfilling aspects of life for all of us.”

An excerpt of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn By Mark Twain, currently published by Peguin Classics

Dr. Mike Owens’ Pick: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

This one’s a classic, but transcends time and is applicable at any age. Dr. Mike Owens recommends The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain as an enjoyable read for over the holidays. “It is not a boy’s book — everyone should read it as an adult, and Chapter XXXI contains, arguably, the greatest sentence in American literature.” Think you know what sentence Prof. Owens is referring to? (Hint: it’s 7 words long.)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Image courtesy of Ballantine Books

Alison Lechner, English Dept. Office Manager, selects The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

This one’s for all our our literary & history buffs out there! Our Office Manager, Alison Lechner, recommends The Paris Wife by Paula McLain as a great historical fiction read for your holiday break. She writes: “I love hearing old stories told in new ways. This is a fictionalized account of the real Hadley Richardson, who was Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. It explores gender roles and inter-marital relations in the context of 1920’s Paris amidst the rise of Hemingway’s now infamous literary career. The Paris Wife is a fantastic read that sheds new light on one of literature’s most famous authors — I couldn’t put it down!”

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, published by Random House

Dr. Rhoda Burton’s Pick: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Dr. Rhoda Burton’s recommendation for winter break is nothing short of a life-changing read: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. She explains that “so many memoirs show us how — how we live, how we reflect, how we make meaning. But this one shows us why.” This book tells the story of a brain surgeon who is diagnosed with terminal cancer — make sure you’ve got some tissues on hand.

Noche Buena edited by Nicolás Kanellos, published by Oxford University Press

Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño’s pick: Noche Buena edited by Nicolás Kanellos

Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño shares her choice for some fun reading for over break: Noche Buena: Hispanic American Christmas Stories, edited by Nicolás Kanellos. As she puts it: “I love picking up Kanellos’ book each year during Christmas break. It invites readers into the fullness of the season as seen through Latinx eyes. In this collection of stories, songs, poems, and a play, we experience Christmas as a season spanning from the Festival of the Virgen de Guadalupe (December 12th) to Three Kings Day (January 6th). ¡Felices fiestas!”

Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers

Our New Voices Young Adult Book Club chose Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Last but certainly not least, we have an excellent choice for all you YA fiction fans out there: Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Winter break is the perfect time to dig into this month’s selection from New Voices. This is a dark and riveting tale of magic, family, and adventure, a breathlessly fast-paced read inspired by West African mythic tradition. New Voices will meet on Thursday, Jan. 23rd in Van Wylen to discuss the book, so mark your calendars!

Happy Reading!

Is Literature a Vehicle for Learning Empathy?

As the fall semester draws to a close, two students — Paige Nelson and Isadora Baughman — offer their thought-provoking reflections on how they came to study literature and how it can enhance knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

More Than Fiction: How Stories Make Us Better People

by Paige Nielsen

My first exposure to literature was self-driven but not exactly intentional. After I learned to read, I consumed anything that I could get my hands on. I not only loved the words, but I also loved how those words conjured up pictures and led me to places I had never been. 

Story is something that binds us all together—it is the first way that knowledge was passed down orally, and it continues to be central to how we learn about the world around us. We use our own kind of stories to explain the natural processes of our planet and species when we conduct science experiments and write hypotheses and lab reports. We grow up with bedtime stories and the stories that our parents and grandparents tell us about their days in our place. And besides that, story is how we communicate every day. Books opened up my world beyond the streets of my small suburb into a vast country of spy schools and city apartments, with new countries and planets just past the horizon.

More than anything, I value literature because it teaches empathy in a way that no other discipline can because it allows you to step into someone else’s shoes. I decided to study English because I love the way that books reflect life back to the reader and in turn teach us more about ourselves and each other. I think that if you can gain a greater understanding of the people around you then you can be a better friend, employee, student, and community member. Literature is a bridge that we can use to learn more about dimensions of life that we have never experienced.

For me, literature is both a vehicle for finding our own voices and a way to hone our listening skills so that we can learn from our comrades on this walk we call life. These words we study all strung together on pages are not just created for amusement—they hold wisdom and guidance for all who come searching.

My approach to literature is not defined by a theory. Instead, I approach it with a pen in hand and search for how it resonates in my head and in my chest with the discourse of my life. I focus in on how people struggle and recover—mostly, I think, because I am fascinated by resilience and the lack thereof. I love learning about how people function, and in a way literature is all about how we function and overcome. 

Another thing I often find myself noticing is how literature connects us all together through shared experiences, because if it happened in a book then it happened to someone else too.  When studying literature in high school, besides the assigned questions for readings, I remember always wanting to know how to avoid the pitfalls in my path like the ones I read about in our texts. We focused on societal issues and explored them through our texts, so I wanted to figure out how to solve world peace through one giant book club. 

I have encountered a lot of poetry, plays, and novels, spanning from Beowulf to King Lear to Never Let Me Go to A Light in August to The Brothers Karamazov, and I have never walked away from a book without being reminded that we all have an individual experience that is far too valuable to be muted or ignored. The books I was privileged to encounter taught me about more than their characters and their plot lines. Literature, to my mind, is the best vehicle for teaching empathy because it allows total strangers to encounter issues they could never fathom with clarity.

Yes, Literature Is as Powerful as You Think: My Journey as an English Major

by Isadora Baughman

My study of English literature so far has always been ongoing and natural. Growing up, reading was a favorite pastime. Books were not only a source of entertainment for me, they provided security and safety from sometimes too-loud fifth grade classmates. Moreover, books and the stories they told captured my attention and imagination. I remember being glued to the pages of the children’s versions of Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Jane Eyre, enthralled by the journeys of the main characters and wishing I could join them.

My passion for books and reading followed me through high school, where we had an English class each semester. At first, we studied American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Glass Castle in Freshman English before moving on to upper-level topics such as British Literature, Greek Myths, and even Literature and Film. As much as I enjoyed these classes, I was hesitant to continue to pursue English when I reached college. With loving books and enjoying English classes for so long, I thought I should take the time to explore other disciplines before doing anything more with English. 

Fortunately, my English 113 class second-semester freshman year reminded me of my lifelong passion for literature and researching ideas. Ever since, I have not stopped taking classes. At first I was just an English minor, but I soon declared English literature as another major when I realized I would miss English classes if I stopped taking them. I enjoyed the freedom of interpreting texts from my perspective and then presenting my points in the form of papers too much to resist.

In college, I have taken a variety of courses: beginning with examining ancient Greek and Roman works, I have also studied literature from World War I, African American literature, and the works of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway. From my courses, I have learned how much history and society shape the literature we read. Likewise, I have also learned how much literature can shape history and society in return.

While I am reading, I value entering characters’ worldviews and in that way broadening my own. I believe that reading, especially about cultures or characters different from your own, helps you develop empathy and acceptance for others.

I believe literature has this power not only based off my own feelings, but the research I conducted this past summer. As well as being an English major, I am also a Psychology major, and I helped conduct research about the effects of literature on readers’ social cognitive abilities. We had participants read excerpts from fiction or nonfiction pieces and then respond to an article about an international conflict. We measured for different aspects of the social cognitive ability “wise reasoning” (which involves humility and perspective-taking).

While we did not find that the different types of reading affected the participants’ levels of wise reasoning in the short-term, there was correlational evidence that reading in the long-term might affect intellectual humility and aspects of wise reasoning. Reading, then, could aid us in developing wise reasoning and empathy towards others in the long-term.

Although the relationship between reader and text still has to be fully teased apart scientifically, intuitively, literature changes you as it has changed me. It is an all-encompassing, interdisciplinary way to not only express and receive words but learn about yourself and others. How lucky are we to be a part of it.