Author John Edgar Wideman issued a challenge to students yesterday, urging them not to confine their thoughts to the closed world of academia, even in “this tumultuous time.”
Speaking to about 40 students and professors at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea, Wideman spoke about the oral tradition that sparked his interest in stories, the value of writing, and the constant need for new writers to emerge and speak to the nation.
“A country always needs writers, a country always needs voices,” Wideman said. “If we lose them, then we’re not a country; we’re just a power that’s dying.”
Wideman, the first writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award twice, read an excerpt from one of his books, “The Cattle Killing,” which some audience members are reading in Elizabeth Alexander’s “African American Literature III: 1970 to the Present” class.
Wideman also performed his work at a reading later in the evening.
As part of the tea, Wideman spoke about the elusive qualities of authors.
“You could say that writers let it all hang out more than other people, but that’s an illusion,” Wideman said. “Maybe the impulse to write is partly an impulse to disguise.”
Crystal Pemberton ’04, who is in Alexander’s class, agreed.
“I definitely think that there’s more to him than he’s letting us in on and that’s almost unfair, in a way,” Pemberton said, referring to Wideman’s remarks about the illusion of intimacy and personal disclosure created by writers. “I wish there was a way to know really who he really is. He’s a very interesting person.”
Wideman called both the silent space in which he writes and the world of academia “cells,” and encouraged students to move beyond these confines.
“Where are our students, the ones who are trying to create their own world?” he asked rhetorically. “Is there any way that your voices can be heard outside of your small cells?”
Wideman said he thought new voices are constantly needed to make sense of the past in terms of the present.
“Each generation has to invent all this business over again for itself, has to filter and mediate the past. [Writing] is a vehicle by which the ones who came before meet your peers,” he said.
Wideman said he was affected by hearing Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch-22,” speak when Wideman was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. He said he hoped his words would similarly inspire at least one person in the audience to write.
Wideman also reflected on meeting Heller 25 years later at a reading in Britain.
“Maybe one of these days in 20 years on a platform in Timbuktu or Venus I’ll meet you,” he said.
Wideman talked about how the “oral collective form” of storytelling interested him as a child.
“I guess that’s the beginning — it was power, for one thing, and I wanted to share that,” he said.
Although Wideman said he is not a good oral storyteller, he likened the back-and-forth exchange of telling stories at a family gathering to writing novels.
“When I’m writing well sometimes the room is full of voices,” he said.