The Ethics of Now: Novelist Marlon James in Conversation

The Kenan Institute for Ethics kicks off its 2018 discussion series, “The Ethics of Now,” with a dialogue between renowned contemporary novelist Marlon James and Duke professor of history Adriane Lentz-Smith.

**This talk is free and open to the public.
**Use Uber code edz9m1r and get a ride to and from the talk! (Limit $10/ride.)

Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings received the 2015 Man Booker Prize, making him the first Jamaican author to win the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. The novel also received the 2015 American Book Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a New York Times Notable Book, and was named a “best book of the year” by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Time and numerous other publications.

As described by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, A Brief History of Seven Killings “launched Marlon James into the world of literary stardom, drawing comparisons to William Faulkner by way of Tarantino.”

Marlon James is also the author of The Book of Night Women, a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, as well as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. In 2018, James received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.

“With powerful writerly vision and genius for creating voices that speak to the painful intensity of human experience, James crafts worlds that illuminate the brutal beauty of past and present,” says Lentz-Smith.

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in language and literature, and from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006 with an MA in creative writing. Since 2007, he has been teaching English and creative writing at Macalester College; he divides his time between Minnesota and New York.

In his presentations, James addresses topics related to writing and the writing process, as well as issues pertaining to the history of the Caribbean, race and gender in the U.S. and U.K., and youth subcultures as expressed in literature and music such as hip-hop and reggae.

His book Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first novel in his fantasy Dark Star Trilogy series, will be published in February 2019.


The Leslie Jamison Do Lunch.

Author Leslie Jamison’s visit to Duke as the second Kenan-CDS Visiting Writer in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art was a two-day whirlwind that engaged undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and Triangle community members. Taken on face value, this description would suit just about any campus residency involving a high-profile practitioner, artist, or scholar. But this one felt singular, in a way; as a professor and mentor of mine said, Jamison’s visit, which centered on her much-awarded, lauded, and widely read essay collection The Empathy Exams, “touche[d] so many needs and nerves across campus.” I think this was due, in part, to the issue at the heart of her work—empathy—which prompts (and prompted) such wide-ranging micro and macro reverberations.

A Team Kenan Do Lunch on Wednesday brought Jamison and 20+ students together to explore questions surrounding the anxiety of expertise in storytelling, gender and writing, and the challenges of crafting a healthy relationship between creative work and everyday living. Staff book club, which convened on Thursday morning with Kenan and Center for Documentary Studies staff members, prompted a lively conversation about the metrics of empathy—When do we give? How do we position ourselves in terms of the needs of others?

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison’s panel discussion at the Forum for Scholars and Publics on Thursday, for which she was joined by Jehanne Gheith (Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and MSW), and Lauren Henschel (Duke senior and documentary photographer), was, in one audience member’s words, “awesome, moving, powerful, transformative.” The panel, entitled “Ghost Pain: Caregiving, Documentary, and Radical Empathy,” allowed the trio to share their experiences encountering pain and engendering empathy in their respective practices. Another audience member praised the discussion’s “grounded personal moments of vulnerability.” Their reflections on each others’ work felt electric and connective (and they said as much afterward).

At her public reading on Wednesday night, Jamison read “The Broken Heart of James Agee,” a short essay from a small collection of essays—”Pain Tours II”—within The Empathy Exams (a version of “Agee” was published in The Believer in 2012). About Agee’s infamous Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a 400+-page genre-bending, hulking textual thing that attempts to write about sharecroppers in the Deep South but instead writes about how hard it is to write about, and therefore document, anything, Jamison writes:

Empathy is contagion. Agee wants his words to stay in us as “deepest and most iron anguish and guilt.” They have stayed; they do stay; they catch as splinters, still, in the open, supplicating palms of this essay. If it were possible, Agee claims, he wouldn’t have used words at all: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” In this way, we are prepared for the four hundred pages of writing that follow. “A piece of the body torn out by the roots,” he continues, “might be more to the point.”

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison’s visit was about writing, but it was also, and fundamentally, about so much more. It was about presence: it was about different folks coming out to one or more of her events, and connecting with each other—I had no idea I’d see you here!—and connecting with Jamison in turn (she wrote personal notes in the books of attendees, and they signed her copy of The Empathy Exams). It created a space where global health students met English students; where scholarship became public and personal; where Triangle community members mingled in academic building, talking about what they do, where they work, and how they encountered Jamison’s work. This visit, much like Eula Biss’s in the fall, had a pulse, and that pulse had—has—indentations. Those indentations will live on in our shared conversation, in our shared air—the latter of which, as Jamison said, is as ubiquitous as instances of, and possibilities for, empathy.


A New Book Club, and Perhaps a Journey into the Literal Heart of Ethics

By Michaela Dwyer

“The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to [Support Group Leader] Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story…

Then we introduced ourselves: Name. Age. Diagnosis. And how we’re doing today. I’m Hazel, I’d say when they’d get to me. Sixteen. Thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled colony in my lungs. And I’m doing okay.”

These are the words of Hazel Grace Lancaster, via John Green, describing for the first several pages of The Fault in Our Stars the cancer support group she is newly required to attend (reasons: isolation, depression—the latter of which she calls, like everything else, including cancer, “a side effect of dying”). Hazel’s (and Green’s) narrative voice is clear from the start: she tells it—her world—like it is to her, sans airbrushing or sentimentality. She is skeptical in a quintessentially teenager-y way, but she is not unempathetic (even with the somewhat ridiculous Patrick). She understands the function of the Support Group, the organization of individuals and their connections to each other; she knows that their experience of cancer is shared, albeit not homogeneous. The group assembled in the “Literal Heart of Jesus,” as Hazel begins to cheekily refer to it, produces the characters we (and Hazel) gradually get to know and, against its “depressing as hell” odds, it serves as an important setting for several events over the course of the novel.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, now available for check-out in Kenan’s library.

Hazel would probably shrug and chuckle at my fear of crudeness in using her Support Group as an entry point to talk about Kenan’s new staff-wide ethics book club (for which we read and discussed Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars this past Monday). The differences here are obvious: the Kenan book club is not, ostensibly, a support group, and certainly not one oriented around an illness (or books “about” illness). And Hazel, of course, is not a real person—as Green makes plenty clear on his website’s FAQ page [1] for The Fault in Our Stars, as well as his author’s note: “Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.” The delivery of such words feels a little tongue-in-cheek, but I can fully envision Green saying them, as if it’s the most natural sentiment in the world. I can also envision Hazel saying them in a similar tone: undetached, straight-up real-talk, cut from the same humor and nuance that governs our living days (Hazel’s, and all the other characters’, in the novel; ours, in this so-called “real world”).

On Monday, our staff huddled around a conference call with Green and listened to him talk about why he writes books about teenagers, aimed at a teenage audience (thus the category Young Adult, or “YA”). He explained that this was always his intent as a writer, from his early days studying English and Religion and then working as a chaplain in a children’s hospital to now, writing and selling millions of copies of his several books, producing an enormously popular YouTube series with his brother, Hank, and directing a large-scale web-based fundraiser for charities around the world called Project for Awesome. For Green, writing from an adolescent voice feels closest to life itself. “I don’t like to talk about the meaning of life with artifice,” he said. (And neither does Hazel, whose acerbic tone crafts both her and our understanding of her life with cancer, and shuns an over-sentimentalized language of illness. Artifice isn’t really her thing.)

And so the image of all of us—all grown-ups, in a way, or at least all past the age of 21—clutching copies of Green’s book and discussing it with greater openness and emotional engagement than I’ve experienced in many undergraduate English classes felt a little ironic. Adults reading Young Adult literature—this unusual dynamic is something I feel every time I read Rookie, a “website for teenage girls” edited by 17-year-old wunderkind Tavi Gevinson (and one of my favorite sources of reading material online). I regularly devour Rookie’s content much in the way that I devoured Green’s novel. Both seem to move at the same pace life does, both eschew abstraction and pretension (but not quirkiness and intelligence) and are relatable by nature.

A good narrative voice does this regardless of subject matter—but what if the subject matter concerns cancer, and not seductive vampires or high school hallway drama? I hear Hazel once again: well, what if? I doubt Hazel would privilege her particular story over any other one; if you read or have read the book, you’ll see how conscientious she is about trying to reduce what she believes is the harm she—via her disease—inflicts on everyone she’s close to. It’s easy to attribute this philosophy to things like her superior understanding of the gravity of cancer, a burgeoning adolescent self-awareness, or her alignment with realism over romance. But none of these isolated qualities define Hazel, and much like a “real” teenager—or person of any age—her desires and viewpoints shift and expand as the story progresses, and as we see other characters compelled to be close to her. (We’re compelled, too).

And this is not “despite” her cancer, because to say so subtracts an element of her blazing, complex, Literal-Heart-of-Jesus-spunky humanity. The popularity of The Fault in Our Stars is a declaration—from its inception to its immense worldwide readership to our choice to read it for our inaugural book club meeting—that its made-up story matters. The power of this story, and stories like it, lies in its ability to matter, to resonate, to belong differently for and to everyone who reads it—as we learned, in real-time, on Monday, when each of us described our experience of the book with each other and with Green. Getting to know Green’s characters in this novel and then talking about them together felt, in a way, like a step toward visualizing what ethics looks like, or could look like, in everyday life—even, and perhaps especially, when everyday life is greater attuned to our physical circumstances. Part of me (the part of me that chose this book for us to read) feels like YA literature sometimes accesses a fuller vision of everydayness than capital-L “Literature”: or, the books we’re told, as “adults,” best reflect our lives and our concerns. (But, we’ll see—next up is journalist Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity—a recent landmark work of nonfiction, and, I’m predicting, no less complex or immediate.) Either way, being a part of this book club at this point in my life feels like a move toward reclaiming literature that really speaks and sings, regardless of genre or intended age group. And I’m thrilled to keep huddling together each month to do so.

[1] It is my Literal-Heart-of-Jesus-sacred-duty to advise you not read this spoiler page if you have not read, and plan on reading, this novel.

Spinning the Great World: On Failure, Empathy, and the Life of the Humanities

By Michaela Dwyer

“There was a dip before the laughter, a second before it sank in among the watchers, a reverence for the man’s irreverence, because secretly that’s what so many of them felt–Do it, for chrissake! Do it!–and then a torrent of chatter was released, a call and response, and it seemed to ripple all the way from the windowsill down to the sidewalk and along the cracked pavement to the corner of Fulton, down the block along Broadway, where it zigzagged down John, hooked around to Nassau, and went on, a domino of laughter, but with an edge to it, a longing, an awe, and many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground, and give the Wednesday an electricity, a meaning, that all they needed to become a family was one millisecond of slippage, while the others–those who wanted him to stay, to hold the line, to become the brink, but no farther–felt viable now with disgust for the shouters: they wanted the man to save himself, step backward into the arms of the cops instead of the sky. 

The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before. 

Out he went.”

(Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin, 5-7)

Two weeks ago, the writer Colum McCann perched at a podium in the renovated Baldwin Auditorium and invoked an audience of about 200. The bulk of the crowd were members of Duke’s Class of 2017, for whom McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin was chosen as their summer reading book. The other contingent was a hodgepodge: community members, older students, interlopers like me who either read the book and liked it or wanted to hear a good speaker or both.

McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin.

McCann commanded the room with an essence that slowly unfurled itself in the same way his writing does. His arrangement of words—as in the excerpt above, which preludes Let the Great World Spin—has a movement unlike any other I know. This quality makes it difficult to adequately excerpt sections of his text: each word, phrase, and sentence is both syntactically and semantically reliant on every other one. Descriptions and sentiments don’t end; they tumble together in the spin of his great [literary] world, in a way that feels at once magical and so natural as to be obvious, even mundane.

It makes sense, then, that McCann would incorporate a word game— Hangman—into his talk (“it’s four letters, it begins with an ‘F,’ and it’s not what you’re thinking,” he said as the students snickered). The word was “fail,” an especially uncomfortable term for Duke students. And especially for incoming Duke students, who barely know what life looks like, or could look like, at this university, but who are already attuned to the ways in which their efforts toward that end could “fail.”

Ironically, every aspect of this event felt successful. McCann established just the right rapport with his audience. The students had faithfully read and dog-eared the novel. They dialogued thoughtfully both with McCann and with each other, asking questions that often reflected complex considerations of his characters: What if so-and-so hadn’t died? Would he have taken his interest in social justice to South America, to advocate for others there? Why write the novel through multiple protagonists in the first place?

Irrespective of the specific text, the summer reading book is an institutional practice. It’s designed as a “shared intellectual experience” outside of, and in fact preceding, curricular learning. It’s strategically placed alongside other Orientation Week events like Southern-style dinners, wellness advice, and pre-X-future-career open houses. The hoopla surrounding a summer reading book is emblematic of what a Duke education could—even, perhaps, should—look like, before students slide into normative behaviors and patterned ways of engaging in university culture both in and outside the classroom.

McCann precautioned that he wasn’t there “to make grand pronouncements,” but went on to enumerate the three components of what, for him, make a “good” education: vision, justice, and charity. And…failure? I’ve noticed that Duke students often conceptualize failure in terms of performance outcomes: a poor grade on a test, a rejection from a summer internship, an unextended party invitation. In the opening lines of Let the Great World Spin, McCann posits failure in a similar way: the crowd gathered below the man on wire wants to witness a “great fall,” an action they’ve already determined to be “wrong.” When reading, we feel as though we’re there, on the streets, in the sweaty human hodgepodge of late-summer New York City circa 1974. We’re trapped, along with everyone else, within the immense tension between desire and action: we want the walker to fail, to fall, because that’s a very concrete and easily imaginable physical possibility. Little do they (we) realize, McCann implies, that the crowd’s collective imagination of failure—of the walker falling—has already bonded them (us). There’s still the imagined action of the walker, but now there’s also the action of us, together, breathing, watching, on the precipice of continuing the rest of our lives. “Out he went”; out we went, out we go.

McCann. Image courtesy of Irish Writing Blog.

There’s a lot of discussion (emphasis on “discussion”) right now about the humanities existing on a similar precipice. The humanities are in “crisis,” life-or-death mode. Does literature make us better people? Does teaching the humanities make us better people? Does assigning a summer reading book—Let the Great World Spin, to be specific—make us better people?

These are enormous ethical questions, steeped in abstracted assumptions of what is “good” and “bad,” what is “better” or “worse,” what is “success” and what is “failure.” To begin to answer them requires a complex moral imagination, the same one we begin to reach when we read a book like McCann’s, feel the characters as real people and empathize with them, and sit with each other on the edge of plush seats in a swanky college auditorium as an Irish writer tells us we all need to fail more. When we are able to “inhabit new geographies,” as McCann said in his talk, we expand our notion of what’s possible. Expansion is action, and, as in all matters of life, we have to act—perhaps with the intention, or assumption, of failure—in order to survive. Similarly, today more than ever, the humanities must act, and must be treated as actionable—in order for them to survive. Treating literature as “equipment for living,” as a great English professor at this university once said. This fall, as Kenan embarks on Duke-wide initiatives explicitly targeting ethics and the humanities, I’m excited to put this approach into play. The university campus is our space to experiment, act, and, yes, fail—and keep going. Besides, there’s a reason McCann’s book isn’t called “Let the Great World Rest in Perfect Order.” Life doesn’t look like that—whether within or outside the university—and I’ll dare to make the ethical leap and demand that it should not.