Professor emeritus Toni Morrison
When professor emeritus Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, the award committee described her writing as “characterized by visionary force and poetic import” and said that her novels give “life to an essential aspect of American reality.” In her latest book, God Help the Child, she explores the complex effect that racism has on the psyche, echoing the themes of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, about an African American girl who desperately wants blue eyes. God Help the Child tells the story of a woman called Sweetness and her daughter, Lula Ann, whose “midnight-black” skin horrifies her mother from the moment of her birth.
It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color.
As a child, Lula Ann tells a lie to gain her mother’s approval and ends up sending an innocent woman to jail. Years later, plagued by the guilt and half-veiled insecurities of her past, Lula Ann abandons everything that reminds her of her childhood and remakes herself — changing her name to Bride and wearing only white — but her childhood cannot be escaped so easily. Sweetness says in the novel, “I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”
Publisher’s Weekly writes, “This haunting novel displays a profound understanding of American culture and an unwavering sense of justice and forgiveness.”
Jane Hirshfield ’73
“A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem — protean, elusive, alive in its own right,” Jane Hirshfield ’73 writes in the opening of her essay collection Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. But what factors make a poem move its readers? In her essays, Hirshfield answers these questions by walking readers through a series of classic poems. Of Seamus Heaney’s Oysters, for example, Hirschfield writes, “We stand in this poem with a master of shaking things together — the personal with the historical, the local with the large .… Part of this poem’s specific gravity is its confident leaving out of the inessential.”
A member of the first undergraduate class to admit women as freshmen, Hirschfield is herself a poet, renowned for her spare language and spiritually infused verse. As a companion to Ten Windows, she released a collection of poetry, The Beauty, which explores the physical body interacting with the sensory world. In the poem Like Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain, she begins:
Lie down, you are horizontal.
Stand up, you are not.
I wanted my fate to be human.
Like a perfume
that does not choose the direction it travels,
that cannot be straight or crooked, kept out or kept.
Of her poetry, The Washington Post wrote, “Very quietly, Jane Hirshfield has been producing work that is earning her a place in the pantheon of those modern masters of simplicity.” This is Hirshfield’s third essay collection and her eighth collection of poetry. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Christian Sahner ’07 GS
When Christian Sahner ’07 GS visited Syria for the first time, he expected to find the country that he had seen on the news: a police state that would neatly fit its categorization as part of the axis of evil. What he found was far more complex. “There was this constant sense of being watched, of feeling that you were being monitored,” he says. “At the same time, there was this very rich, beautiful culture and wonderful people.” Sahner visited several times over three years, living with a Syrian family, learning to say Mass in Arabic, and experiencing life under an authoritarian regime that would crumble just months after he left for the final time in 2010.
In Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, Sahner, who currently is earning his Ph.D. in history at Princeton, interlaces his experiences with a history of Syria extending back to ancient times. He wanted to “introduce a new aspect of Syria into public conversation,” he says. “There is much justified focus on militants and Islamic groups, but there’s another plotline — the cultural and religious diversity. A lot of people don’t realize that for many centuries Christians were the majority of the population.” Continue reading
Emily Gray Tedrowe ’95
When Emily Gray Tedrowe ’95’s brother, a Marine, was serving in Iraq in 2006, she ignored news of the war and tried to stay focused on caring for her newborn baby: “I was just so focused on getting through the experience that for a long time I didn’t want to read or write about war at all,” she says.
But after her brother’s safe return, she found herself thinking about the lives of those who remain behind when their loved ones go to war. Drawing on her own experiences and extensive research about military families and veterans, Tedrowe wrote Blue Stars, a novel about the struggles of families coping with a wounded soldier returning from war.
Tedrowe introduces readers to two women: Ellen, a bookish literature professor who sends short stories to her adopted son during his deployment; and Lacey, a wayward young mother who marries a soldier for stability and struggles to play the dutiful Army wife. When both soldiers are injured, the women relocate to apartments near Walter Reed Army Medical Center, enduring months of unresponsive doctors and bureaucratic mismanagement as they fight for better care for the men, who have psychological wounds. Continue reading
Michael Kardos ’92
In 2012, The New York Times Book Review wrote, “Michael Kardos’ first novel, The Three Day Affair, is so disturbing it makes you wonder what he might have in mind for his second book.” That novel, Before He Finds Her, takes readers to a small town on the Jersey Shore where, 15 years before, Ramsey Miller murdered his wife and three-year-old daughter. Everyone in the town of Silver Bay knows the story, but the story they know isn’t correct. Ramsey’s daughter, Melanie Denison, wasn’t murdered. She is living in a witness-protection program and, at 17, is pregnant.
Driven by the hope of providing a normal life for her child, Melanie returns to Silver Bay to find her father before he finds her. Kardos intertwines the story of Melanie’s search with an account of the days leading up to the murder. Probing the complex psychology of his characters, Kardos investigates a fundamental question: Can people really change? Filled with characters who have gone down dangerous paths, the novel explores relationships distorted by blind faith. Continue reading
Michael Brown ’72
As a fledgling anthropologist just four years out of Princeton, Michael Brown ’72 spent 21 months living among the Awajún, an indigenous tribe located in the upper reaches of the rainforests of Peru. He was forced to leave when political turmoil erupted, but decades later he returned to his field notes and rediscovered a world whose complexity and significance he says he had failed to appreciate as a younger, less experienced man.
In Upriver: The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People, Brown recalls that during his initial fieldwork, he encountered what seemed an exuberant and resourceful culture. But as he dug deeper into the Awajún’s way of life, Brown discovered the prevalence of violent, often murderous, vendettas among the tribe members. Even more disturbing were the rates of suicide from wives who tried to exercise control over their husbands with the threat of their own death.
Brown, who is the president of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe and a professor emeritus at Williams College, returned to Awajún in 2012 to write Upriver, which is part memoir, part ethnography. It chronicles Brown’s struggle to make sense of the tensions and conflicts in Awajún life and explores the nature of civilization and independence.