Friday, December 20, 2019

December Reflections

As we approach our holiday break, I find myself thinking again about the role of literature during a time of gift-giving, feasting, and cheer. For some, holidays are pure celebration, with stories and poems and songs that remind us of delight, of loving and spiritual promise. For others, holidays are complicated. Memories of past holidays rise up like ornamented ghosts, telling stories of family conflict or loss. Literature has a role here, too, even (maybe especially), the literature that unlocks the attic door and invites us in. Those stories tell us we’re not alone. That sadness can be present along with joy and that, in fact, sometimes the way to joy is through the darkness. “Grab my hand,” the best books tell us. “Hold on and I’ll walk you through.”
We might need to reach out for a helping hand right now. As we strive for peace and understanding—the greatest message of the holiday season—in the midst of political upheaval, we find it in good books, in the support of our writing community, in our own creative work, and in this exciting news from the MFA: a new certificate program in 
narrative medicine. Set to launch in January of 2021, the program will offer four courses focusing on trauma writing, writing about illness and recovery, and leading writing circles for those who need to tell their hard stories. Healing is the focus along with craft and artistry, which is the best response to the hurts we carry: making something beautiful out of human struggle. The courses can be taken as part of the MFA or on their own; either way, they offer yet another avenue of expression, another way to tell the stories that matter.

Speaking of stories that matter: what books are you most looking forward to reading in 2020? We asked our faculty that question, and got these answers (any of them on your list?):

*Mel Allen: Every break I get the Best American Essays 2019 and The Best American Magazine Writing 2019, and I see which new pieces and writers I can introduce to students. For pure pleasure I am reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.
*Leanna James BlackwellGirl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob, All This Can be Yours by Jami Attenberg
*Sari BottonThe Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom and Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing by Elissa Altman. (And recently loved Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Núñez and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado)
*Adam Braver: So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Grand Union by Zadie Smith, Last Witness: An Oral History of the Children of World War II  by Svetlana Alexievich, Rusty Brown by Chris Ware
*Shahnaz HabibRiver by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith
*Susan ItoOn Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
*Karol JackowskiThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood, Psychic Energy: Its Source and Its Transformation by Mary Esther Harding, A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
*Lisa RomeoThe Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. I share a love of all things Bryson with one of my sons, and the plan is for the two of us will read a chunk of it at the same time, compare notes, laugh and learn something. Also, Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir by former student Meredith O’Brien.  
*Suzanne Shea: Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir by graduate Meredith O’Brien MFA ’17, Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Grief by Susan E. Casey, Reimagining the Gospels by graduate Melina Rudman MFA ’19, The Book Keeper: A Memoir of Race, Love, and Legacy by Julia McKenxie Munemo
*Kate WhouleyEverything Here is Beautiful by Mira Lee and Annelies by David Gillham

Ask an MFA faculty member about books, and you’ll be in conversation for a long, long time. Which reminds me: we have a new faculty member to welcome to our MFA community. She is California writer and editor Yi Shun Lai, founding nonfiction editor of the Tahoma Literary Review, where she now edits fiction and is co-publisher. Her forthcoming memoir on her relationship to outdoors sports and representation in the outdoors will be published in August 2020 by Homebound Publications; her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor. 
Yi Shun's essays have appeared in The Hairpin, The Toast, Bustle, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and has worked as a writing coach, editor, and teacher for colleges, individuals, nonprofits, and businesses. Yi Shun is also a volunteer for ShelterBox, an international disaster-relief organization, about which she blogs and writes "tiny books," including Your Country is Beautiful: Notes from an Aid Worker. Find her on Twitter @gooddirt and on the web at  Yi Shun will be teaching Writing Contemporary Women’s Stories this spring, and we are excited to have her with us

But let’s not jump to spring just yet. It’s December, snow is on the ground here in New England, and we’re all looking forward to a beautiful winter holiday. I wish for you, too, the warmest and happiest of holidays, with time to think, dream, write, read (always), and enjoy the company of people you love, including yourself. Be well, and we’ll see you in the new year.