[Last week was one of the busiest of my professional career, featuring a series of great Boston events, culminating in the 51st Northeast MLA convention. So this week I’ll recap that convention and those other events, leading up to a special weekend post on what’s next for NeMLA and how you can get involved!]
On the inspiring, vital words of wisdom from our keynote speaker.
NeMLA conferences have long featured both a scholarly opening address and a creative keynote speaker, as illustrated by the presentations by Jelani Cobb and Monique Truong respectively at my 2016 conference in Hartford. But over the last few years the creative address in particular has evolved in a couple significant ways: first with the NeMLA Reads Together initiative, where we choose a particular book by our chosen author at the prior conference and thus are able to read it together during that year ahead of his or her talk; and now with the Humanities on the Road program, where the goal is that the chosen author be deeply connected to each conference’s host city/area (and, I believe, that we will eventually highlight other such local authors as part of each conference as well). The inaugural choice for that latter initiative was the writer (and UMass Lowell professor) Andre Dubus III, whose compelling newest novel, Gone So Long, was our NeMLA Reads Together book this year.
Dubus’ event featured a Q&A with both NeMLA’s inaugural Creative Writing Area Director Cristina Milletti, an award-winning novelist in her own right and the creator of the Humanities on the Road program, and audience members/conference attendees. But first he gave a stunning address (more told a story, really, in the best senses that I talked about in yesterday’s post on Serena Zabin’s book talk) drawn in part from his memoir, Townie (2011). Dubus’ subject was nothing short of how writing saved his life, which he meant in a very literal sense—after a series of events in his profoundly difficult childhood and young adulthood led him into a life of violence (righteous violence, as his chosen targets were men who physically abused women, but brutal violence nonetheless), one which he knew full well would eventually end with his death, a single, unexpected, immersive period of writing opened up to him that new world within which he has lived ever since.
Every part of Dubus’ story and address was both moving and wonderfully well-crafted, but I want to emphasize here an aspect of his writing advice (about which he talked more in the Q&As with Milletti and the audience) that I believe stems directly from his particular way into the world of writing and words. Dubus described writing as a profoundly empathetic endeavor, one in which the key is to open one’s self up entirely to the characters and allow them to reveal themselves and their identities and perspectives to you; as he put it, if you judge your characters in any way, they will know that and turn away from you. In some ways this idea might seem ironic, as Dubus’ earlier violence had exemplified his judgment against men who abuse women (an overarching perspective he still holds, albeit without the violent component, and one which I share with him). But if anything, I believe a man who has experienced such a striking example of that judgmental side of life and identity is particularly equipped to speak about the difficult, vital alternative, about the idea of empathy and true openness to others—and while there are places in this world for judgment to be sure, Dubus made a compelling and convincing case that in the world of writing and words, it is empathy which provides the crucial core.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. If you were at NeMLA 2020, I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways as well!
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