Last month, two beloved writers, Meena Alexander and Louise DeSalvo, made their transitions into a fully spiritual existence. Meena was 67. Louise was 76. Both, in addition to authoring numerous books, were Distinguished Professors at Hunter College, CUNY. Each, in their own way, helped to shape my path as a writer.

Hunter College in NYC in the late 80s was an inspiring place. Donna Shalala was the College president. Audre Lorde was a professor (although at the time I enrolled, she was on medical leave with cancer). The Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department was vibrant. The Women’s Studies Department was cutting edge. Collectively, the undergraduate student body represented 45 languages. And I vividly recall the day when Johnetta Cole, who had once been a Hunter professor, returned in her new capacity as the first black female president of Spelman College, to deliver the only conference keynote that has ever made me cry. And all of this, a 40-minute subway ride from my home in Brooklyn. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

I had returned to school after a decade or so of trying to keep a roof over my head as a dancer. Approaching my 30s, I knew I had to get myself a “marketable skill,” so I enrolled at Hunter with the longterm goal of a degree in Social Work. All first-semester undergraduate students, however, were required to take an English Composition class, and out of pure luck I was put in a class with Audre Lorde’s replacement—Melinda Goodman. Melinda is a poet as well, and so she would sneak poems—contemporary poems, written by living women, women she knew!—into her comp. class. All my previous education had been in England. For my English A level examinations, I’d spent two years studying only dead male poets. I took one look at a poem written by a living woman and I thought, Oh, I can do that!

“The ultimate expression of generosity is not in giving of what you have, but in giving of who you are.”

It was the end of my future with a marketable skill, but it was the beginning of a life devoted to creative writing.

After Melinda planted the seed of poetry, I took a fiction class with Louise DeSalvo. After that, I took a seminar on decolonial literature with Meena Alexander. Louise helped to plant the seed of fiction in me, and Meena helped to put creative writing under a decolonial lens.

To honor Louise’s and Meena’s lives, below are two tiny stories that had a big influence on me:

Louise DeSalvo. Photo by Deborah DeSalvo. Published in The New York Times.

Tiny Story #1: It was a tea stain on a manuscript page that transformed Louise into a creative writer. When Louise was doing research for her PhD on Virginia Woolf, she was in the archives, leafing through an original Woolf manuscript, when she came upon a page with a cup-shaped, tea-colored stain on it. This tea stain transformed Virginia Woolf from an abstract icon into an ordinary woman, someone who drank tea as she wrote. It was this tea stain that made Louise think, for the first time: Oh, I can do that.

Louise was important to me because despite her success as a writer and academic she had working-class roots. She was proud of the fact that even though she was a Distinguished Professor she still did all of her own housework. In her own words, “I still clean my own toilets.” At the time, no one in my extended family had gone to college. At the time, to pay my rent, I had to work during the day and take most of my undergraduate classes at night. Then and now, I cleaned my own toilets. In other words, Louise allowed me to think that perhaps it was possible for me to be who I am and to write as well.

Meena Alexander in front of that window. Photo by Deb Caponera. Published in The New York Times.

Tiny Story #2: The English Department at Hunter was home to the James Wright Library. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But it was just a skinny room that could barely fit 10 students around a grey Formica table, surrounded by personality-less bookshelves. The walls were an institutional grey, except for one, which was mostly a big picture window, offering a view of 68th Street & Lexington Avenue. This window was both an obstacle and an invitation: it could block one’s ability to focus, but it could inspire endless daydreaming. During class, Meena would stare out of this window for long moments — sometimes midsentence — as if the rest of us didn’t exist. Instead of taking offense, I felt liberated and amused by her distraction. As someone who had spent a lot of my childhood being told off for not listening, for daydreaming, it was in this library and because of Meena that I thought, Oh, daydreaming is working . . . I can do that . . .

In the words of Johnetta Cole, “The ultimate expression of generosity is not in giving of what you have, but in giving of who you are.” Louise and Meena filled book upon book, and imagination upon imagination, by writing and teaching—in giving of who they were.

Stories don’t have to be big to influence lives; in my life most of the stories have been tiny—a poem, a tea stain, a toilet, a window.

The featured image is of Johnetta Cole, first black female president of Spelman College.

Tiny Stories, Big Influence
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Elena Georgiou

Elena Georgiou is the author of the short-story collection The Immigrant’s Refrigerator (GenPop Books, 2018), and the poetry collections Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants (Harbor Mountain Press) and mercy mercy me (University of Wisconsin), which won a Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Award. She is also co-editor (with Michael Lassell) of the poetry anthology, The World In Us (St. Martin’s Press). Georgiou has won an Astraea Emerging Writers Award, a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work appears in journals such as BOMB, Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, Gargoyle, Lumina, MiPoesia, and Spoon River Review. She is an editor at Tarpaulin Sky Press and the Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College. Georgiou is an English-Cypriot originally from London, where she spent the first twenty-seven years of her life. Since then, she has lived in the US — first in New York, now in Vermont. She maintains a website at elenageorgiou.com.

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7 thoughts on “Tiny Stories, Big Influence

  • December 8, 2018 at 7:43 pm
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    Elena, thank you for passing on the inspiring words of Johnetta, Meena and Louise. I’m ready now: to start the laundry and get back to my writing.

    Reply
  • December 4, 2018 at 4:19 pm
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    Thanks for this!
    Lovely!
    Now ~ off to clean the toilet, and the floors, and then vacuum and de-flea the pets and oh yes! the dog shit waiting in the yard to be picked up before the rains come and forget to stop … all while giving thanks to the likes of you and those who inspired you and to those who inspired them and it just doesn’t stop.

    Reply
  • December 4, 2018 at 1:46 am
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    we are told in our Native stories, that when you see yourself in another, you are teaching. I too, can see my reflection in the memories you share, Elena, of the window, the dream and the tea cup, spilling onto my wares.

    Reply
  • December 3, 2018 at 5:25 pm
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    Oh, thank you Elena. Warmth and kindness and sadness and such a tender sharing of your tiny stories. That’s what writing is, really.

    Reply
  • December 3, 2018 at 4:11 pm
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    What a beautiful and inspiring piece. Thank you, Elena.

    Reply
  • December 3, 2018 at 1:18 pm
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    Thank you, Elena! This is inspiring in a quiet yet powerful way.

    Reply
  • December 3, 2018 at 12:32 pm
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    This is lovely, moving, and inspiring, Elena. Thank you!

    Reply

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