Stanford freshmen hear stories of hope and anguish from Joyce Carol Oates, Tracy Kidder and Anne Fadiman
Tracy Kidder says the best writers "make the world new. They make it new again."
They confessed to an element of surprise and serendipity. And their books, sometimes describing unimaginable tragedy, leave readers with hope and joy.
The occasion was this year's "Three Books" roundtable for Stanford's entire freshman class, held in a packed and noisy Memorial Auditorium on Sunday afternoon. Stanford mailed the books – actually two books and a pamphlet – to all incoming freshmen for summer reading.
The works under discussion were 2009's Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder; Anne Fadiman's 1997 book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; and Joyce Carol Oates' 1996 short story "The Undesirable Table," from her collection Will You Always Love Me?
"I got into the subject by accident – I'm convinced that the most important things are happy accident," said Fadiman. That's the way we fall in love, she said, noting that it was also probably "a happy accident" that brought the students to Stanford.
In the late 1980s, she had prepared a list of four proposals for her New Yorker editor when an old college friend from Merced called to tell her the story of "the tragic conflicts between Hmong patients and their doctors."
"I thought I'd add that one as number five," she said. The editor picked it.
A clash of cultures
Her work took her into a human catastrophe involving an epileptic Hmong girl. Well-meaning Western medical professionals and a loving family with longstanding tribal traditions clashed about the meaning of her condition and what a cure might be.
Fadiman said that when she arrived in California, "I had no idea what I was going to find." Her first surprise was that, although she feared she would be unable to bridge the cultural gaps, both sides opened up to her immediately.
"One of the surprises was that medicine was in fact a culture" as palpable as the culture of the Hmong, which "over time, seemed less exotic; medical culture seemed more exotic."
"The erroneous assumptions on (the) part of doctors about Hmong was perfectly symmetrical with the assumptions the Hmong had about the doctors," she said.
"Each side underestimated the other. It made me wonder whether we all underestimate each other most of the time."
Her New Yorker editor left, and the new editor wanted more of a celebrity focus in the magazine's features.
"The interest in an epileptic toddler was – to put it charitably – modest." The letter formally killing the story "managed to misspell my first and last name."
"I could not let the story go," she said. In the end, she found that writing 300 pages was "so much easier" than disappointing the people who had shared their anguished stories with her.
Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine and Mountains Beyond Mountains, said, "I like going into a story with preconceptions and having them shattered." He also admitted, "I came about this story by accident."
His book follows a refugee who had been a medical intern in a rural African hospital. "Deogratias" fled the Burundi and Rwanda massacres in 1994 for the streets of New York City, where he was homeless. He eventually dropped out of Dartmouth Medical School to open a medical clinic in Burundi.
Kidder said that Deogratias is now pursuing medical studies at Columbia University.
"I'm surprised in general when I come across people like this," said Kidder. Reading the newspaper every day, he said, "Sometimes I think chaos and violence run the world."
Finding hope in others' courage
People like Deogratias provide him with hope: "The fact that they're there, as enemies of chaos, I find extremely reassuring – every morning," he said.
Describing his book, he said, "It's a story about courage, it's a story about the kindness of strangers, a story about war and genocide."
"What I wanted to do is to make you experience those things again, not as truisms, but as parts of our lives," he said. "This is what all the writers I most admire do. They make the world new. They make it new again."
Debra Satz, director of Stanford's Center for Ethics in Society and moderator of the event, opened the discussion by recalling how, outside her local grocery store near Stanford, she encountered people with "frayed trousers and buttonless shirts, asking for money."
"My journey daily to (the) grocery store raises a couple of questions: How can you understand the lives of others? It's a challenge and an imperative."
Oates is the acclaimed author of 56 novels, more than 30 collections of short stories and eight volumes of poetry, as well as plays, essays, book reviews and nonfiction works. She is the recipient of dozens of awards, including a National Book Award and a Guggenheim.
Yet, she said, "I'm from a working class family, perhaps below that." She found herself writing about "the conflict between classes, and the denial that there are classes."
Her story describes an upper-middle-class group seated at a second-rate table in a first-rate restaurant, as something unnamed and terrible happens on the street outside the window.
Her piece was inspired by dinners that go "on and on and on – night after night – an obsession with gourmet food in a world of starvation."
Oates spoke of the role of writers to "bear witness" and the need to tell the stories of those who are otherwise voiceless.
"It's up to you to provide the language and allow their stories to be told," she told the freshmen. She urged the audience to grab such stories like a rope: "They pull you someplace you never thought you would go."
Oates, frequently named as a Nobel hopeful, will remain on campus for "An Evening with Joyce Carol Oates" at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Sept. 20) in Cubberley Auditorium on the Stanford campus.