Alumni authors discuss works during New Student Orientation

JAKE OKTAWIEC Roundtable

This year's New Student Orientation featured a roundtable discussion moderated by Professor Steven Zipperstein, left, with leading alumni writers Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Rodriguez and Danzy Senna.

A first-ever orientation event that brought together the acclaimed authors of three books that freshmen were assigned to read over the summer would have made even the most jaded librarian smile.

At the "Three Books" discussion in Memorial Auditorium on Sept. 21, the writers said they were truly humbled by the many questions about how they created complex characters and how much influence their personal viewpoints had on the stories. The discussion ended at 8:30 p.m., but some students waited almost an hour afterward to talk to the guests.

"You held my life in your hands," said Richard Rodriguez (A.B. '67), whose memoir, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, was one of the assigned books. "You have read my life, and I thank you for that."

Students had to read either Brown; Caucasia, by Danzy Senna (A.B. '92); or Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (A.M. '86), who also wrote the book The Virgin Suicides. Brown uses bold metaphors and historical references to attack conventions of race, while the fictional characters in Caucasia struggle with identity because of their biracial roots. Middlesex, also a fiction, is fueled by a hermaphrodite's struggles with sexual orientation and a sordid family history.

In years past, resident fellows at each dorm decided which books freshmen would read-resulting in a list of almost 30 different works among all those assigned. For this year, New Student Orientation staff and the Office of Freshmen and Transfer Students centralized the decision, while Professor Steve Zipperstein, faculty director of undergraduate advising, arranged for the authors to speak.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of the Office of Freshmen and Transfer Students, said orientation in recent memory has not included personal appearances by the books assigned to freshmen-although authors have visited in years past to discuss their works with freshmen for the Introduction to the Humanities Program.

"We somehow felt that it was tremendously more meaningful to see an author in person than to merely read the book," said Lythcott-Haims. "The event was so well received that we are definitely planning to do it again."

At "Three Books," Eugenides began his remarks by tracing his love for words to the backseat of his parents' station wagon, where he laid as a toddler one day and repeatedly shouted a word that no one heard. That's because he yelled the word in his head.

Later in life, "I realized that my head was full of words," said Eugenides, crediting clergy from many centuries back for promoting reading in silence. "The language inside our head is what makes us the most sentient beings."

Rodriguez echoed the point by offering what may have sounded like advice from a grandfather but that nonetheless elicited nods of affirmation from the shorts-clad students-as well as faculty and staff sitting in the front row.

"There's a lot of noise in the world today. Don't let the voice in your head be an accident," Rodriguez said. "Don't let it be the last text message you got."

The event's organizers set out to pick coming-of-age stories that the average freshman could relate to, and just by coincidence, three of the top choices were written by alumni, Lythcott-Haims said. But the students were just as eager to learn about the writers' lives and their craft.

Senna, who earned a degree in American studies, said she started at Stanford as a pre-med student in part to pursue a completely different career path than her mother, who wrote poetry.

But failed forays into calculus and chemistry sent her down the road of written works. At last week's discussion, she said good literature is increasingly essential at a time when people in this country are hearing about other nations and cultures in terms of being simply "good or bad" or "black and white."

"In my writing, I want to complicate the picture," Senna said. "People ask me what was my point in writing Caucasia. If I had a point, I probably wouldn't have had to write the book."

Rodriguez, who earned an English degree at Stanford, said his start was also a confusing time. He recalled growing up in a household where little value was assigned to reading. Later in college, he felt some of that same alienation, which is reflected in his personal essays today.

"I didn't know I wanted to be a writer when I was at Stanford," he said. "The only thing I trusted at Stanford was that I was a reader."

However, recalling their days on the Farm also gave the authors a chance to be more light-hearted, as when Eugenides shared his doubts whether students at Stanford could possibly get a good education and a perfect tan at the same time. His master's degree was in English and creative writing.

Asked if writing was therapeutic, the authors did not pull punches about their profession. "I spent about three years writing this novel, and it was pure hell," Senna said. "Writing is the opposite of therapeutic. … It's a very messy and unhealthy process."