This week marks the launch of Marina Keegan’s ’12 first and last book, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” While an undergraduate at Yale, Keegan was a frequent contributor to these very pages. Her work varied from reported features to personal essays, but sustained a clear faith in her audience’s ability to be more than what was expected of them. Keegan’s life was tragically cut short in a car accident days after her graduation. Her writing and her memory survive.
In this issue, we have reprinted excerpts from pieces by Keegan that ran in the News, along with reflections on her enduring spirit from those who met her, read her and knew her from afar.
The “Ferrocarril” Test
// GABRIEL BARCIA
I am still at The Lynwood. Marina had hired movers to transport her furniture to New York on June 2. K came in this past week to leave her own furniture in Marina’s apartment. T, the rising senior taking over her place next year, bought all my furniture. I had arranged with Marina to move my stuff into her apartment by the time I move out on May 31, as it now belongs to T. She was going to ask her movers to take my bed downstairs to her place. It’s really heavy for me to move on my own.
Marina approached me the first week of freshman year, at a party. She spoke to me in resolute Spanish. I remember asking her to say the word “ferrocarril,” jokingly, as a test. I also remember, and with strange accuracy, how well she pronounced it. She was wearing a very pretty white dress that night. White looked so good on her, but the color she really liked to wear was green.
I asked Marina to write the last WEEKEND cover of my tenure as editor because I wanted it to be memorable. She told me she was honored that I asked. I was only thankful that Marina would even consider devoting the time to write a long piece for the News; I knew she was working on “Cold Pastoral” and “Independents” at the same time.
I initially wanted that story to be about the Yale chapter of DKE, which had been banned from campus but was still fully operating, underground. She didn’t think that was interesting and suggested writing about the popularity of finance and consulting jobs among recent college graduates. She came up with “Even artichokes have doubts.”
The story was the most viewed of the year, and one of the most viewed in the history of the News’ website.
Marina would email me every time she got a mention anywhere on the Internet. She’d thank me for asking her, for editing with her, for giving her “so much freedom.”
Marina and I were not friends by either of our definitions of the term, and that never bothered us. I would tell her how much I admired her all the time. I’d say, How are you so talented? How do you do so much? I’d compliment her hair.
“Is it dirty? Are you making fun of me?” She was always suspicious.
Some have to work hard and some are extremely talented. Marina was an extremely talented person who worked hard.
I still become paralyzed every time I think about how angry she would have been if she’d known that that was it, that so much of her potential would remain unrealized.
I spent the summer after her death trying to rationalize what had happened to no avail. I only found some comfort in the thought of my own death.
One more time, Marina had made the unimaginable feel proximate and less scary.
Gabriel Barcia was a WEEKEND editor in 2011.
“I want to watch Shloe’s movies and I want to see Mark’s musicals and I want to volunteer with Joe’s non-profit and eat at Annie’s restaurant and send my kids to schools Jeff’s reformed and I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear — at 23, 24, 25 — we might forget.”
// RATNA GILL
The first and only time I saw Marina was when I visited Yale as a senior in high school, giddily excited about the prospect of being in college but also experimenting with my newly found nonchalance toward societal expectation, authority, and respect. I was only half-listening. I sat on the floor in a corner with the friend whom I’d come to see perform, and we whispered over her spoken word poem. When Marina apologized for the fact that she hadn’t practiced it in a while and would be reading it off of her laptop, he and I grinned at each other. But somewhere in there, I started listening. Her words about all of the glee and nostalgia associated with being a junior in college were stunningly similar to what I was going through as an almost-high school-graduate, and I had to silence my cynical friend to have more of a listen. By the end of it, I was touched, but I still hadn’t heard it all.
But the poem stuck with me for months. I emailed my friend at Yale quite a while later and asked him to find out her name for me and send me her email address. I got in touch with her and asked her to send me a copy of “Bygones.” She responded right away with the poem, and asked me if I was coming to Yale the following year. I told her I was choosing between Yale and Harvard, and her immediate response was, “What’s your phone number? I’m going to call you and convince you to come to Yale.” I made the usual excuses of homework and no time but sent her my number and asked her to call me over the weekend. She called right away.
What followed was a breathless two-minute call of Marina energy and listen-I’m-walking-to-class-and-I’m-in-college-so-I-don’t-have-time-to-talk-either-but-if-you-care-at-all-about-the-arts-or-poetry-or-having-fun-you-HAVE-to-come-here-and-NOT-Harvard talk. She blew me away. She was the single factor that made it hardest to pick Harvard. When I emailed her to let her know I’d made my choice, she responded with a beautiful, “Harvard is despicable, but perhaps less so for your attainment. GOOD LUCK!” In the same email, I’d told her how “Bygones” continued to inspire and illuminate even the most confusing emotional crises and she replied, “I can’t tell you sincerely enough how much it means to me that my poetry has helped you. It’s really an ultimate goal of mine and I’m so happy you can relate to some of my concerns and anxieties and quandaries and happiness’!”
By some wacky coincidence, I was reading the same poem again, many months later, when I got the news. It was my tried-and-tested pick-me-up, and I was going through a rough patch during my gap year. I pasted a link to a video of Marina reciting the poem at the end of a blog post I was writing, and my friend sent me a link to the article about the end of her life. If someone had told Marina three years ago that her first book would be coming out in April of 2014, I’m sure she’d have been overjoyed. If someone had told me three years ago that I’d know Marina’s mother so well today, and that I’d be working with her on a project to publicize that book, I would have been happy and honored. I am happy and honored. This isn’t the way I would have chosen to read Marina’s words, but she reminds me every day to stamp out some of that too-cool-for-college nonchalance and be thankful, so that someday when the sun dies and the human race ends I won’t still be texting to see if that other party’s better. Thank you, Marina.
Ratna Gill is a sophomore at Harvard.
“We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement…
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.”
–from “The Opposite of Loneliness,” May 27, 2012
// ANDREW GIAMBRONE
There’s a line in Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” that will make you stop in your tracks. “We’re so young,” she writes. Then again, for emphasis: “We’re so young. We’re 22 years old. We have so much time.”
Keegan died shortly after the piece was published, in a car accident made all the more tragic by her recent graduation from Yale. I was studying abroad in Paris at the time, between my sophomore and junior years, and had just received some bad news myself: My Italian grandfather and namesake, Andrew, had suffered a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital, the night after I arrived in France. My parents contacted me via Skype to let me know. Grandpa was 77. His last words to me, before my departure, were: “Parlez-vous français?” I still remember him waving goodbye with his usual toothy grin as our car pulled out of his driveway.
The news of these deaths hit me like a one-two punch. On our first day of class, a friend enrolled in the same French program told me about Keegan’s passing (she had learned of it online) and explained that she didn’t know how to feel. Neither of us had gotten the chance to say goodbye. And both of us, I suspect, felt guilty for essentially being on vacation while our loved ones grieved at home.
I never met Keegan but her name had been among those Yale upperclassmen who you know will find success in life. She seemed capable of so much: She led the Yale College Democrats, wrote various pieces and plays and interned at The New Yorker the summer before she died. How did she do it all? How could she? Keegan was one of those Yalies who make you feel inadequate and impressed at the same time. She appeared “effortlessly excellent” in every sense of those words.
Still, Keegan’s story forces us to confront a reality that many of us tend to avoid — we just don’t know how much time we have. Keegan didn’t, my grandfather didn’t, and I certainly don’t either.
This is a terrifying thought, and one which Keegan — a true intellectual — probably confronted often. But it didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions, and it shouldn’t stop us from pursuing ours. I, for one, aspire to be an author, and Keegan’s memory serves as a model. Her writing haunted the halls of The New Yorker office, where I interned last summer, and it haunts me now as I wrap up my senior thesis on the French author Albert Camus.
He also died in a car crash too young, at the age of 47, and is widely remembered for his lucid, moral voice. In the wreckage was the manuscript of Camus’s unfinished memoir, which now survives as “The First Man.” It’s a beautiful and tender story of the author’s childhood and the forces that shaped it.
Over fifty years later, although the accident that ended Keegan’s life smashed her laptop, it didn’t destroy the hard drive containing her most precious writings. These are now preserved in a book available on Amazon and in stores nationwide, for those who knew her and those who didn’t.
I can only dream of such success. But Keegan — as much as she makes me feel both inadequate and impressed — continues to be a source of hope.
“We talk into these scratchy microphones and take extra photographs but I still feel like there are just SO MANY PEOPLE. 1035.6 books are published every day; 66 million people update their status each morning. At night, aimlessly scrolling, I remind myself of elementary school murals. One person can make a difference! But the people asking me what I want to be when I grow up don’t want me to make a poster anymore. They want me to fill out forms and hand them rectangular cards that say Hello This is What I Do…
I read somewhere that radio waves just keep traveling outwards, flying into the universe with eternal vibrations. Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower. I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top. Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card.”
— from “Song for the Special,” September 9, 2011
// NICOLE HOBBS
I don’t quite remember where I first met Marina. The only thing I can say with certainty is that we met at an event for the Yale College Democrats. I joined the Yale Dems the first semester of my freshman year, when Marina was serving as the Elections Coordinator. Though I was hesitant to get involved—I had never done elections work before—Marina’s enthusiasm was infectious. I found myself regularly attending Yale Dems meetings.
At the end of the semester, Marina asked me to grab coffee and told me I should run for a board position. I was hesitant to run, and I didn’t feel qualified, but Marina told me that I had been one of the most involved freshmen. With her urging, I ran and was elected for Communications Director. Over the next year, while Marina served as President, I worked closely with her on different projects including repealing the death penalty, passing the DREAM Act here in Connecticut, and registering students to vote for the aldermanic election.
In her most famous essay, Marina wrote that she had found the opposite of loneliness at Yale. But Marina didn’t just find the opposite of loneliness, she created it. Under her leadership, the Yale Dems was a community that embodied what she wrote about. I will always be grateful to her, not only for welcoming me to Yale, but also for reaching out and encouraging me to take a leadership role with the Yale Dems.
The last time I saw Marina was at an event for the Yale Dems at the end of her senior year. She told us how excited she was for us to get involved during the 2012 election cycle, and she promised to take the train back from New York some weekends to help out, never wanting to miss an opportunity for elections work. Sadly that never happened, as she died a few weeks later.
Looking at my copy of “The Opposite of Loneliness,” I know we lost a brilliant writer who spoke for our generation in a way few others could. But we also lost someone who was a fierce advocate for the causes she believed in. Marina was a progressive, not just in thought but in action, unapologetically working for progress, for change, and for hope. It is that spirit, that belief that change could happen, that I miss the most.