Debut authors discuss writing and race in on-campus talk

Addie Beach, Senior Staff Writer

The weather outside may have been chilly, but last Wednesday the Sugar Maple Ballroom was filled with warm tea, comfy chairs and spirited conversation.

Authors Lisa Ko and Kaitlyn Greenidge visited campus Nov. 8 to discuss their debut novels, “The Leavers” and “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” respectively.

They also spoke about race in literature, the creative writing process and assimilation.

The authors discussed how debates surrounding assimilation and immigration are often treated as new, when they have a long history in the U.S.

People tend to consider discussions about assimilation as something timely, “but it’s always a big topic,” Ko said.

Greenidge said that this “conversation has happened over and over again through generations.”

Greenidge’s novel addresses the problem of assimilation.

The story is told through the eyes of the Freemans, an African-American family hired to teach American Sign Language to chimpanzees as part of an experiment.

Greenidge said the book deals with history as well as the difficulties minorities face when integrating into a new community.

“It’s interesting to me where we choose our allegiances, where our sympathies lie when we read narratives,” she said.

I think a lot of people at UVM are not as good as living up to what we promise in terms of race relations. You’ve got to live what you preach

— Josh Rothenberg

Greenidge said that it’s often the job of the author to complicate these allegiances.

Ko explored similar conflicts in her book “The Leavers,” which she said deals with forced separation of an American-born boy and his Chinese mother.

The novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Ko explained that she was inspired by both her own experience as a child of immigrants and news stories about similar events.

Much of her work on the novel has forced her to consider “who writes about race and what it means,” she said.

The desire to see more characters who were Chinese like herself in literature was one of the things that motivated Ko to start writing, she said.

Wednesday night, she urged the audience to write the books they wish existed.

Both Ko and Greenidge also mentioned the idea of home as key to their writing. Ko cited the question “what is home” as a key to her work.

Greenidge said she considers the matter central to what it means to be American.

“One of the great things about America is the ability for people to make towns and neighborhoods in their own image,” she said, while also emphasizing the importance of remembering our history.

Senior Josh Rothenberg said he attended the discussion to learn more about writing and social justice.

“We need to surround ourselves in better diversity,” he said.

Rothenberg expressed a desire to see more events supporting marginalized artists, pointing out that it could benefit the UVM community.

“I think a lot of people at UVM are not as good as living up to what we promise in terms of race relations,” Rothenberg said. “You’ve got to live what you preach.”