Last week, I attended TnCIS’s annual study abroad conference in Memphis.
The keynote speaker was Ira Sukrungruang, recent winner of the American Book Award. He gave a fantastic keynote address, presenting a comic, intricate, heartfelt nine-part essay.
When a reading is really good, a special kind of atmosphere fills the room. It’s a kind of intensity which is completely absent in a bad or average reading — you could go to 1,000 blah readings and never know it was possible. Many listeners in the audience experience it in a hush of disbelief, bewildered that such a thing could happen, merely from a person reading a piece of writing at a lectern.
In a bad reading, you end up focusing on the writer. Your attention, bored by the actual work, finds itself hooked by the writer’s own tics and tendencies. You wonder how he wrote the piece; you wonder what he hoped you would get from it, and if he knows you are not getting it. In a great reading, however, the presence of the writer seems to fall away, and the energies of the piece itself take over.
About halfway through Ira’s reading, the audience was absolutely silent, hoping, anticipating, that the desires that we had for the essay’s conclusion — the resolution that we wanted — would be presented to us. And as, in the final two sections, it became clear that those desires would be met, that we would be given the resolution of the plot thread we cared about (even if it would not quite be how we might have guessed), there was a kind of release of tension among the crowd, a satisfaction — as though we were writing the piece ourselves, choosing to have it turn out just how we wanted, and we had made it go right.
A great piece of writing makes every single reader feel like its author.
You may not know this, but Tennessee’s community college system runs a very substantial and successful study abroad program. Through the co-ordination of the state-wide TnCIS organisation (where my wife works), every year hundreds of Tennessee students take for-credit courses around the world, and a large number of those students receive travel scholarships. It’s a genuinely impressive achievement.
(The success of Tennessee’s community college system led, in January, to President Obama choosing Pellissippi community college, in my city of Knoxville, to be the stage for the announcement of his America’s Promise initiative, itself modelled on the state’s own “Tennessee Promise.”)
Because I’m the editor of Ira’s next book, I was asked to moderate his panel on “creativity in the international classroom.” Ira quickly rescued the audience from my poorly thought out opening remarks.
When the conference was over, my wife and I took him to lunch at Hog and Hominy, an Italian-Southern restaurant with great food.
Over garlic-y crab claws and pizza, we finalised the details for his next book, which we are publishing under our Burlesque Press imprint. The Melting Season is a collection of short stories about cultural divides, troubled, magical families, and the difficulties of communicating with other human beings. As the books editor of the press, I have been fortunate enough to work with Ira on edits and revisions: the title story, amongst others, is absolutely exquisite.
Advance review copies will be available around January 1st, and the book itself drops on March 1st.
Then we drove the whole way home. If you aren’t familiar with Tennessee, the trip from Memphis to Knoxville is really long. It’s more than six-hours, even if you barely stop on the way, and Jeni and I arrived back home completely exhausted.
Tennessee is an absurdly long finger of a state. Knoxville, in the east, sits in the Appalachian foothills, close to the mountains of North Carolina and the rolling hills of Virginia — it’s a city with a lively Scots-Irish folk music scene; one vaguely feels still on the east coast. But Memphis is so far west (further west than Chicago) that it looks culturally to New Orleans and the Mississippi delta; physically, it borders Arkansas and, to the north, Missouri. Driving back to East Tennessee, one is conscious of having made a considerable journey.