This year’s Living Writers series kicked off in the month of September with three diverse authors: Jenny Zhang, whose interconnected short story collection, Sour Heart, chronicles the lives of Chinese American immigrant daughters; John Banville, whose beautiful language tackles human consciousness in a story about grief, The Sea; and Dan Slater ’00 whose gritty work of narrative nonfiction, Wolf Boys, showcases the intricacy of the War on Drugs through the lives of two American teens recruited into the Mexican cartel.
Zhang, a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, spoke first on Sept. 12. Before reading some of her poetry, she read from one of the stories in her collection, “My Days and Nights of Terror,” which explores the headspace of a middle school student who cannot live up to her parents’ expectations. All of her work feels intimate and brutally honest in its exploration of capitalism, sexual assault, and calamitous family dynamics, the details of which she often draws from her own life.
“I incorporated a collective experience, because I grew up in this tight-knit community of Chinese American immigrants,” Zhang said. “It felt like we all had our own stories, and we had stories that felt unattributed that were just floating around. [Sour Heart] was a swirl of memories that I sifted through and then a lot that I imagined.”
Sour Heart has been praised for its refusal to look away from the body of immigrants — the hunger, humiliation, and harm that they so often face. When asked why she does not censor graphic and grotesque descriptions, Zhang discussed her obligation to portray the truth.
“It is shocking,” she said. “Poverty and violence to the body is shocking.”
On Sept. 19, Jennifer Brice, associate professor of English and current leader of the Living Writing series, introduced Banville as “one of the greatest writers in the world.” He read from his 2005 Booker Prize–winning novel, describing a still seaside cloaked in grief and a stale doctor's office brimming with anxiety as a man confronts the death of his beloved.
Banville explored his conceptions of himself and his writing through humorous anecdotes, depicting his attempts to avoid attending the Booker Prize reveal, his wish to make all of his books blank to start over and improve them, and his confession that he would give away his children for a good paragraph. His paragraphs are, indeed, impeccable, and he claims to take pride in his dense writing, unapologetic at the frequency with which readers must turn to a dictionary.
“I try to press so hard upon language that it glows,” he said. “I think that’s the function of a literary artist: to require the language to become aware of itself.”
Later in the month, Slater was welcomed back to campus. After graduating from Colgate, he attended Brooklyn Law School and worked as a corporate lawyer and legal affairs reporter before transitioning into full-time writing. He took the Living Writers class in the fall of 1998, and he spoke of the anxiety about the future he felt at the time. Rather than reading from Wolf Boys, Slater chose to detail his path to becoming a professional storyteller.
From interning at a literary agency while in college, to being directionless after graduating and settling for law school, to discovering his love of reporting only to be laid off and hit what he describes as rock-bottom, Slater’s journey was chock-full of conflict. He recognized the ways in which conflict is central to storytelling and began writing about his own struggles, first publishing a story about his stuttering in the Washington Post.
“I realized, when you address your conflict and reveal your struggle, you’re going to connect with people,” he said. “Looking back on my career as a journalist, that was a really big turning point for me.”
Ever since then, Slater has been working on longer narrative projects, connecting with people and attempting to understand complicated conflicts through his stories.
Now that three readings and Q&A sessions are in the books, October welcomes three more writers to campus, all of whom you can watch online or live stream during the event itself. More information about the series can be found at colgate.edu/livingwriters.