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:
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.
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.