Creativity and Community

Public Discourse in America, the new book co-edited by Penn president Judith Rodin CW’66 and Dr. Stephen Steinberg Gr’89, is full of surprising discoveries about the way we communicate with each other. But the most interesting finding had to do with community.

As Steinberg told his audience, gathered in a Van Pelt Library classroom on Homecoming Weekend, he went into
his research with an idea about community that was eventually disproved. A community isn’t comprised of people with similar backgrounds and values, as he had thought. What its members actually have in common is a shared situation, a vested interest in helping each other and making things work.

Steinberg lectured as part of “Penn in Print,” a series of events celebrating Penn authors at this year’s Homecoming. Under the circumstances, his comments were especially fitting: all the events of the weekend served as reminders of the role community plays in creativity.

The new Homecoming tradition was developed to draw more and different alumni to campus. “We wanted to think of something that was very Penn but not just about football,” said Amy Garawitz, director of alumni education. In collaboration with Van Pelt Library and Kelly Writers House, Garawitz invited writers to participate in a variety of programs.

One of the bigger events, also held in Van Pelt Library, featured three alumni authors—Dan Rottenberg C’64, Leslie Esdaile-Banks W’80, and Caroline Hwang C’91—all of whom had new books out.

In Hwang’s case, it’s also her first book. The former English major—she wanted to spend her junior year in England, so it was either that field of study, or history, she joked—is the author of In Full Bloom, the story of a young fashion editor trying to make a success of herself while thwarting her Korean-born mother’s attempts to marry her off [“All Things Ornamental,” September/October].

Hwang was recently hailed by the Los Angeles Times as part of a new wave of Asian American fiction writers, and she has her own idea about what that means: “I’m trying to be the hyphen in Korean-American.”

Rottenberg talked about bringing 40 years of journalism experience to his nonfiction books. “The basic challenge of a journalist is to ask, ‘Why is the world so screwed up?’” he said. “The irony is that the most unimportant things are the most sexy, but people often overlook the things that really make society move—you know, things like financial markets, common law, indoor plumbing.”

And coal, as it turns out. In the Kingdom of Coal, Rottenberg’s latest book, is a cultural history of the fuel that the author humanized by weaving together the stories of two families in West Virginia—one that ran the mines, and one that worked them.

After hearing Rottenberg speak, Leslie Esdaile-Banks noted that the book sounded like a perfect basis for a mini-series—and she knows a good story when she hears it, having written, at last count, some 16 popular novels herself.

Most of her works have been romances featuring African-American and other minority characters, which Esdaile-Banks, a marketing major at Wharton, recognized as an underserved audience for fiction [“Profiles,” November/December 2002]. Her latest work, Minion, is something different—the first in a projected series of vampire novels featuring Damali Richards, an African-American “Spoken Word artist” who, come nightfall, “hunts vampires and the other night demons that others dismiss as myth or fantasy,” according to the book jacket.

Esdaile-Banks’s discovery of the writing profession has a touch of the fairy tale about it. After graduation from Penn, she entered a career as a marketing manager in the high-tech industry. But her climb up the corporate ladder was interrupted when her six-month-old daughter was badly injured in an accident. As she kept a round-the-clock vigil over her daughter—who is now 13 years old, happy and healthy—Banks decided to enter a fiction contest on a lark. “Writing kept me awake at night as I watched my daughter, and it was inexpensive therapy. It kept me sane.”

While the Penn in Print events were designed with alumni in mind, turnout wasn’t limited to the University’s graduates. “There were even students at some events, which I loved,” said Garawitz.

She was referring specifically to Dr. Tukufu Zuberi’s stirring lecture about race in America. The sociology professor and director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies discussed his book, Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie. His forthcoming collection of essays will also break down the myths inherent in the way we understand race. “Race is not about shared biological features, but about shared situations,” he told a packed room in Van Pelt Library.

Another goal of Homecoming planning was to do more to include families. That’s where Shakespeare fanatic Diane Herr CW’67 GEd’68 entered the picture. Her unique program, “Much Ado About Something,” brings the language of Shakespeare’s plays to kids many teachers consider too young to understand him [“Profiles,” May/June]. After her event at the Penn Bookstore Saturday morning, Herr said it was “amazing” to see how easily kids as young as six can absorb the information.

And they did seem to grasp the finer points. When Herr asked the group why a painting of Shakespeare showed him holding a quill pen, one small voice offered: “’cause he had to write some stuff down!”

The weekend’s writerly events concluded in the warm atmosphere of Kelly Writers House, where four generations of Penn authors shared their work. House director Jennifer Snead C’94 said the program was easy to put together: “The readers were all such obvious choices.”

As the most recent grad, poet Allie D’Augustine C’02 had the good fortune to spend all four of her undergraduate years soaking up the atmosphere of the Writers House; her poems had the startling insight of someone who’s hit the ground running. Four students in the theater arts program brought to life two scenes from playwright Suzanne Maynard Miller C’89’s delightful comedy, Flirting With the Deep End. And Dr. Paul Fussell, the Regan Emeritus Professor of English, read from a humor piece on what he called one of the 20th century’s two inventions in short prose: letters to the editor by disgruntled authors whose books got lousy reviews. (The other invention? The equally self-aggrandizing classified sex-ad.)

But there was also a bit of serendipity that made the evening sparkle. Director of the creative writing program Greg Djanikian C’71 was slated to read from his book of poems Years Later, but was unable to make it at the last minute.

Snead, who majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, had invited her former poetry professor, Daniel Hoffman, to the event months ago. Hoffman, the Felix Schelling Emeritus Professor of English, assured her he wouldn’t miss it—had inscribed the date on “tablets of jade.” The first professor to teach poetry workshops at the University, Hoffman volunteered to do the reading himself. Later, he said he was delighted to read the poems of Djanikian, one of the very first students he taught at Penn, as a favor to Snead, one of his very last.

How’s that for community?

Katie Haegele C’98 last wrote for the Gazette on her love of linguistics in “Alumni Voices” in the March/April 2002 issue.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/19/04

Homecoming 2003
Photography by Stuart Watson,
Jacques-Jean Tiziou, and Tommy Leonardi

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