Keene Prize Play Goes on to U.S. & U.K. Premieres

FCSnowThe Keene Prize selection committee of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts may have been among the first to recognize the power of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s work when they awarded her their $50,000 literary prize.  But they are far from the last. Her prize-winning play “Lidless” will soon be seen on stages both in the United States and abroad.

The 27-year old Cowhig has been in an eddy of career opportunities and artistic accolades since winning the Keene Prize and completing her Master of Fine Arts with the university’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW) in 2009.  “Lidless” which powerfully and poetically tells the story of a Guantanamo detainee who confronts his female interrogator 15 years later — was also selected by David Hare for the 2009 Yale Drama Prize and published by Yale University Press.

In readings and workshops at theatres across the country — among them Yale Rep, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, Houston’s Alley Theatre, and L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre — “Lidless” has captivated audiences.  Over the past year it has also been produced at two major playwriting festivals, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and the High Tide Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won the Fringe First Award.  Reviewing the play, The Scotsman said, “If Henrik Ibsen had been alive in the era of Guantanamo, he’d surely have written a play every bit as scintillating as ‘Lidless.’  Reframing global politics on a domestic scale, [Cowhig] turns headline news into a modern-day tragedy.”

This coming year, though, “Lidless” has its fully staged regional U.S. premiere at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia—city of the playwright’s birth—running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 13.  Then only weeks later, it opens on the London stage at Trafalgar Studios 2 Theatre, a noted venue for new work, running from March 15 through April 2.

Cowhig has lived largely out of her backpack since leaving Austin eighteen months ago. For several months, she moved between distinguished writers’ residencies—Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale and the Santa Fe Art Institute — then spent another half a year traveling throughout China, Taiwan and Mongolia. The daughter of an Irish-Catholic U.S. diplomat and a Taiwanese-Daoist, Cowhig credits her cross-cultural, transient childhood for the fluidity of her work, which always seeks to push boundaries and examine the personal in light of the political.

She is currently settled in Oakland and in January begins a stint as Playwright-in-Residence at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) in Mill Valley, Calif., as recipient of its 2010 David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize. There, she will judge MTC’s writing prizes and shape the company’s upcoming season, and her newest play, “Sunspots,” will get a workshop treatment.

It’s no less than anyone who knows her work from the university expected of her.  “Frances’s talent was apparent immediately,” MCW director James Magnuson says.  “Because she’d gone to Brown and had done a lot of work in experimental theater, I was concerned about her being a little on the ethereal side. But once I started seeing her work in class, I was blown away by how bold and gusty she is. And she’s such a craftsman!  She works as hard as any young writer I know.  Honestly, the sky is the limit for her.”

Arias to Present at Guadalajara International Book Fair

arturoThe 1960s in Central America, as in most parts of the world, was a period of intense political mobilization and social change. In “Arias de don Giovanni” (F&G Editores, June 2010) Arturo Arias, professor of Latin American literature in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, explores the consequences of the Central American diaspora in both the United States and Europe during this time of great transition.

Tracing a series of pivotal events during the 1960s – from the Cuban Revolution to mass exile – Arias describes how Central Americans abandoned all hope of ever living again in an idealized community in their homeland. He also examines how those experiences loosened their inner demons and transformed their social behavior in radical ways.

“The ensuing despair leads to a loss of perspective, with catastrophic consequences for the main characters,” Arias says. “Since it is a diasporic novel, it takes us to California, Spain, Brazil and Mexico, but all sentimental yearnings for stability and lost innocence are rooted in Guatemala.”

Arias will present “Arias de don Giovanni” (Spanish edition) on Nov. 29 at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, the second largest book expo in the world.

“Beyond El Barrio” Symposium and Book Signing

847881Despite the hyper-visibility of Latinos and Latin American immigrants in recent political debates and popular culture, the daily lives of America’s new “majority minority” remain largely invisible and mischaracterized. Editors Frank Guridy (University of Texas at Austin), Gina Pérez (Oberlin College) and Adrian Burgos, Jr. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) assemble a collection of essays in “Beyond El Barrio” (NYU Press, Oct. 2010) — that together, provide analyses that not only defy stubborn stereotypes, but also present novel narratives of Latina/o communities.

The book has a lot of University of Texas at Austin ties. Four of its 10 scholars who contributed essays are from the university and the cover art is inspired by Rhthmo del Pueblo, a print in the Serie line run by the university’s Center for Mexican American Studies.

The Center for Mexican American Studies, and the Departments of American Studies and History will host a symposium and book signing for “Beyond El Barrio: Everyday Life in Latina/o America.” The panel will include contributors Gina Pérez (Oberlin College), Frank Guridy, Cary Cordova and John Mckiernan-González (University of Texas at Austin).  Contributor Deborah Paredez (University of Texas at Austin) will moderate.

The event will be from 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, November 16, at the San Jacinto Conference Center, Room 207 AB, located on the first floor of the San Jacinto Residence Hall (SJH), at the corner of 21st Street and San Jacinto Boulevard.  Entrances can be found on 21st Street and facing the Brazos Parking Garage. Public parking is available in the Brazos Parking Garage (BRG), 210 East Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

To Build My Shadow A Fire

David Wevill

David Wevill

On November 10, our community will get a rare chance to hear the work of one of our most beloved yet enigmatic poets.  David Wevill has spent the last 40 years in Austin as a teacher, translator and editor.  He retired in 2007 from the University, where he was the heart and soul of the poetry programs of the Department of English and, later, the Michener Center for Writers.

Over the decades, Wevill has mentored scores of students who have gone on win some of the country’s most visible awards for young poets: Lilly Fellowships, the National Poetry Series, Stegner Fellowships, and the like.  Famously soft-spoken and self-effacing, though, he has not been one to call attention to his own distinguished career, which includes seminal works of translation and more than a dozen volumes of poetry.

Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1935 to Canadian parents, Wevill graduated from Cambridge University in England in 1957 and over the next decade was part of a groundbreaking collective of young poets in London known as The Group.  His first two books established him as an important new voice, already weaving together his distinctive mix of dark introspection and image-rich attention to the natural world. Wevill moved to Texas in 1970 to pursue his interest in translation — and stayed to join the University of Texas faculty — but British and Canadian presses continued to bring out the lion’s share of his published work, and he has become known as one of the best-kept secrets of our national literary landscape.

Michael McGriff

Michael McGriff

One former student of his, Michael McGriff, decided to remedy that situation. Through McGriff’s efforts as editor and with Wevill’s collaboration, a new edition of

Wevill’s selected works came out from Truman State University Press last spring, “To Build My Shadow a Fire.” “This is a wonderful book — a rare harvest of a lifetime’s truth-telling,” poet Eavan Boland says of the book.

A 2006 MFA graduate of the Michener Center, editor McGriff has already chalked up one remarkable accolade after another — the Lilly, a Stegner, a prize-winning debut “Dismantling the Hills,” a second collection forthcoming from the esteemed Copper Canyon Press, a book of translations, and now his own small press — Tavern Books — made possible in part by a generous 2010 Lannan Foundation Fellowship.

The Michener Center for Writers and Department of English will host a reading by Wevill and McGriff on Wednesday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ransom Center’s Prothro Theatre.   They’ll also discuss the process of collaborating on the book, about which we recently spoke with both of them:

WevillCollHow did this project come into being and what was the process like?

MM: The roots of it are pretty simple:  I wanted — and wanted to share with others — a sort of “essential” Wevill anthology, and I asked David if he’d be willing to let me take it on. Once he agreed, I began selecting the representative work, including his books of translations and prose poems.  We agreed on a table of contents pretty quickly . . . after a few vetoes on David’s part.  Then I set out to transcribe the 300-odd page manuscript.  It became clear that this volume would be suggestive and not comprehensive, because so much had to be left out.

David, how did it feel to have your former student as your editor?

DW: I have a profound respect for Mike’s talent and intelligence.  I was grateful that he’d take the time to do this.  There was no resistance on my part, but a friendly caution that the effort might prove hard.

Mike, what was your chief motivation?

MM: Most poetry goes out of print as quickly as it’s published.  If you’re not an avid book collector, you’re going to miss out on some of the greatest books of poetry ever written.  I felt an ethical call to arms, and decided to make the book that I wanted to read.

The work collected in the volume wasn’t previously published — or therefore widely available — in the United States?

DW: The work came from British and Canadian collections, so there was no U.S. collection until this.  And now Mike has, with his fellow poet Carl Adamshick, started a new small press, Tavern Books.  They’re reissuing an earlier book of mine, “Casual Ties.”

MM: The spirit of Tavern Books and the spirit of editing “Shadow” are one in the same.  I feel a responsibility to the books that I love, to do my part to get them into the hands of other readers. When I was editing”Shadow,” I was yearning to include the entire text of “Casual Ties,” a book of linked prose poems. It’s utterly brilliant, experimental, and shape-shifting — I’ve never read another book like it.  So, “Casual Ties” became the obvious choice for Tavern’s first full-length book. Our forthcoming books include works by Charles Simic, Yannis Ritsos, Leonardo Sinisgalli and Gwyneth Lewis.

What did you each learn about the other in the process?  What surprised you?

DW: I learnt what I already recognized:  Mike’s extraordinary diligence, judgment, imagination and practical ability.  It’s the degree to which he took this that is surprising. I’ve dedicated to the book to Mike, and to Britta his wife, as a small gesture of astonishment.

MM: What surprised me most is just how incredible David’s career as a poet has been so far. I had read all of his books before taking on the project, but I’d never read them one after the other in chronological order. The more I read, then more I kept thinking to myself, “it’s a crime that there’s no selected edition of David’s poetry and translations here in the U.S.” We have such an artistic short-attention span.  It’s amazing what people don’t read, and what publishers let fall out of print.

David, do you miss teaching?  Has being away from the classroom altered your approach to your own writing or changed your routine since retirement?

DW: I do miss the imaginative interactions of teaching, and have been a slow writer these last couple of years, not because I’m not teaching but from self-questioning, weighing the value of what I write. That’s perhaps nothing new, but more so.

Mike, how can you best sum up your relationship with David, as his student and his editor, and now publisher?

MM: David’s treated me not as a student, but as a fellow traveler.  We had a sort of ongoing three-year chat about poetry in translation, films, books, you name it.  Despite our age difference, I consider David to be a kind of brother, another guy making his way along all the tortuous pathways poetry has to offer.

Hans Boas Wins Book Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to the Study of Linguistics

boas.hans1Hans Boas, associate professor of Germanic studies, has been awarded the 2011 Leonard Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America for his book “The Life and Death of Texas German.”

In “The Life and Death of Texas German,” Boas presents the first major study of Texas German, a unique fusion of English and 19th century German. The book includes and in-depth analysis of Boas’ Texas German Dialect Project, an online digital archive of recordings, transcriptions and translations of interviews with more than 300 Texas German speakers.

“This masterful work combines a sociolinguistic analysis of the phonological, morphological, and syntactic developments in the German spoken in New Braunfels, Texas, with a study of the larger socio-historical context that framed these developments. Written lucidly and accessibly, the book contributes significantly to the understanding of the dynamics underlying new-dialect formation, language contact, language change, and language death.” – the Linguistic Society of America

First presented in 1992, the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award was established to honor recently published books that make the most outstanding contribution to the development of our understanding of language and linguistics.

For more about Boas’ work, read the feature story, “Vanishing Voices.”

An Incurable Talent

SmSkibellJoseph Skibell, a native of the Texas Panhandle, was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter living in Los Angeles when he joined the first-admitted class of UT’s Michener Center for Writers in 1993.  Switching his emphasis to fiction after a year in the program, he graduated in 1996 with a novella submitted as his thesis, which grew into his debut novel, “A Blessing on the Moon,” published by Algonquin in 1997.  Skibell joined the English Department/Creative Writing faculty at Emory University in 1999, where he now serves as the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

We spoke with him about his third novel, A Curable Romantic,” out from Algonquin this fall. O Magazine calls the book “An irresistible romp about a lovelorn 19th century doctor who falls in with Sigmund Freud—and some dangerously attractive women.”   Skibell will read from the book and sign copies on 7 p.m., Thursday, November 4, at BookPeople, located at the corner of West 6th Street and North Lamar.

How does a Texan, exiled to Atlanta, end up immersing himself in turn of the 20th century Vienna, Freud, and Esperanto?

ThumbCurableWell, I grew up in Lubbock, and as the great wealth and diversity of creative people from Lubbock will attest, a 360-degree horizon seems to be good for the imagination.  I guess I was interested in how different the turn of the last century was from the turn of our century.  In the wake of the 1900 World’s Fair, people really seemed to believe that humanity was on the lip of perfecting itself. The great advances in science, underscored by enlightenment philosophy, coupled with the internationalization of railroad systems and Braille and the codes of weights and measurements, really made people think that war and national hatred was a thing of the past. No one would ever have had similar thoughts in the year 2000. So I was interested in the difference between their naivety and our cynicism. And, of course, the terrible answer to their naivety was the carnage of World War I, which may have something to do with our cynicism.

What interests or obsessions or curiosities fueled such a research-intensive novel? The bibliography, available on your website, is enormous. Did you actually learn Esperanto?

Yeah, I tell people it was a bit like taking a bar bet. You know, write a book that includes Sigmund Freud, Dr. Zamenhof and Esperanto—oh, and the Warsaw Ghetto.  It did require a lot of research, much of it in Esperanto, which I did learn. It’s a beautiful and easy-to-learn language. There’s an extensive literature in Esperanto, including some really marvelous stuff.  There’s an Esperantan poet of astounding genius named Kalman Kalocsay.  In answer to someone who charged that Esperanto couldn’t possibly be a real language because it didn’t contain any dirty words, Kalocsy wrote 50 highly erotic—actually, very smutty—sonnets called La Sekretaj Sonetoj (The Secret Sonnets).

Did you worry about “getting it right” as far as period details?  After all, Freud is a nearly mythical personage to turn into a character, and his life and times are so fully documented.

I felt it was only fair to the reader for me to try to get it right. I remember meeting a playwright once who had written a play about Stephen Foster stealing all his tunes from an unknown black composer. I asked him if this was historically accurate and he said, “Well, no, but white artists have always plundered black culture.” I didn’t want to invent anything in “A Curable Romantic” that skewed the historical truth, and fortunately, the truthful things I wanted to write about—like Dr. Zamenhof’s belief that a universal language would create a universal brotherhood, or Dr. Freud’s good friend Dr. Fliess’ belief that the nose is the center of the human soul and that by operating on it, he could cure neurosis, etc., etc.—were in themselves dramatic enough that they didn’t need tweaking.

As for Freud, I was happy to be dealing with only about a year of his life, even less, really.  There’s so much known about him. Between his letters, the autobiographical sections of “Interpretation of Dreams” and his other work, and what other people have written about him, you could probably draft a day-by-day calendar of sixty years of his life. The hard thing was trying to fit as many little gems I learned about him into the novel without retarding the narrative flow.

Was there any snippet of serendipity that may have either led you to this story or altered your writing of it in some profound way?

There was nothing but little moments of serendipity throughout the writing of this book. For instance, Freud had this “bromantic” crush on Wilhelm Fliess, a total crank who believed all sorts of weird things. He believed that by removing the left middle turbinate bone of the nose, he could cure Emma Eckstein’s hysteria. She was Freud’s first analytic patient, and she’s a major character in the novel. Well, Freud hands her over to Fliess, and Fliess nearly kills her. He left a meter of surgical gauze inside her nasal cavity.  Dybbuks also play a large role in the book and, at one point, the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn and Dr. Freud believe that Fräulein Eckstein’s hysteria might actually be a dybbuk possession. When I started researching the history of dybbuk possession and exorcism, I discovered an account of a dybbuk being exorcized through the victim’s nose. So in the novel, this forms a credible counter-story to the historical account of how Emma Eckstein’s nose came to be destroyed.

Your publisher has brought out a new paperback edition of your first novel “A Blessing on the Moon,” which you began as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center. How do you feel about that book now, 14 years later?

It feels good to have it back in print. I read it not too long ago, because the composer Andy Teirstein and I were adapting it into the libretto for the opera he’s writing based on it.  I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I was impressed by how fearless I was as a young novelist.  I don’t think I’d have the courage to write that book now.

Author Ghada Abdel Aal Discusses Best-Selling Book “I Want to Get Married!”

9780292723979Ghada Abdel Aal will discuss her best-selling book “I Want to Get Married!” (University of Texas Press, Oct. 2010) at an event hosted by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Arabic Flagship Program, and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

After years of searching for Mr. Right in living-room meetings arranged by family or friends, Ghada Abdel Aal, a young Egyptian professional, decided to take to the blogosphere to share her experiences and vent her frustrations at being young, single, and female in Egypt. Her blog, I Want to Get Married!, quickly became a hit with both men and women in the Arab world. With a keen sense of humor and biting social commentary, Abdel Aal recounts in painful detail her adventures with failed proposals and unacceptable suitors. There’s Mr. Precious, who storms out during their first meeting when he feels his favorite athlete has been slighted, and another suitor who robs her in broad daylight, to name just a few of the characters she runs across in her pursuit of wedded bliss.

“I Want to Get Married!” has since become a best-selling book in Egypt and the inspiration for a television series. This witty look at dating challenges skewed representations of the Middle East and presents a realistic picture of what it means to be a single young woman in the Arab world, where, like elsewhere, a good man can be hard to find.

The book was translated by University of Texas at Austin alumna Nora Eltahawy, who earned her master’s degree in comparative literature in May 2010.

The author will discuss her book 3:30 p.m., Thursday, October 28, at the AT&T Conference Center, Classroom 105. A book signing will follow at 7 p.m. at BookWoman, located at 5501 North Lamar, A-105.

Playwright-in-Residence’s Work Featured

MyattBWThe UT Michener Center for Writers will sponsor a reading of the award-winning play The Happy Ones by its current Michener Residency Author,  Julie Marie Myatt, at 7 p.m., Thursday, October 28, at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302 on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway.

Myatt is a Los Angeles-based playwright whose most recent productions include Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, the story of an amputee GI and her difficult return from the war in Iraq; Boats on a River, which deals with Cambodian sex-slave trafficking; and Someday, a piece about reproductive rights, commissioned by Cornerstone Theater for its Justice Cycle.  But Myatt can’t be pigeon-holed as the author of “issue plays”—her work is much subtler than that. “Julie says everything she wants to say . . . without really having to say it,” Cornerstone’s artistic director Michael John Garcés says.

Living the dream life in suburban Orange County, California, in 1975, The Happy One‘s protagonist, appliance salesman Walter Wells, is a man who has it all—until sudden calamity descends on his perfect life.  At the same time, the area is experiencing its first influx of refugees from the fall of Saigon, and an unlikely friendship develops between Walter and Bao Ngo, a refugee who bears his own recent sorrows.  Across a cultural divide, the two look to each other for a way back, if not to happiness, at least to peace.

c. 1972 Bill Owens from SUBURBIA

c. 1972 Bill Owens from SUBURBIA

Myatt’s own early life was shaped by the Vietnam War, where her father served two tours of duty during her toddler years. But personal history alone wasn’t the impetus for the play. She became interested in the undercurrents beneath idyllic family lives when she saw the photography of Bill Owens in his seminal book, Suburbia, published in 1973. His was the first major photographic exploration of middle-class lives and the book, according to an LA Times review at the time, “rouses pity, contempt, laughter and self-recognition.” Echoing Owen’s themes, Julie says of her subjects, “I want to write about what is interesting in American life and what is dead about it.”

The Michener Residency Author program brings distinguished writers to campus for three-week stays, during which they mentor students in workshops and manuscript conferences. Myatt is the first playwright to be selected for the program.

The play will be read by five actors, and the event is free and open to the public.

Winners of the Fourteenth Annual Hamilton Book Awards Sponsored by the University Co-operative Society

9780674023512-lgThe winners of this year’s University Co-op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards were announced on Wednesday, October 20, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. The Hamilton Award is one of the highest honors of literary achievement given to published authors at the University of Texas at Austin. Chairman of the University Co-operative Society, Dr. Michael H. Granof hosted the event and announced the winners. President Bill Powers of The University of Texas at Austin presented the awards.

The Hamilton Awards are named in honor of Professor Robert W. Hamilton, the Minerva House Drysdale Regent Chair-Emeritus in Law. Hamilton was chair of the Co-op Board from 1989 to 2001, and was in large measure responsible for the Co-op’s uncommon growth and profitability during that period.

The $10,000 Grand Prize winner of the Hamilton Book Award was:

Shirley E. Thompson, Department of American Studies
“Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans” (Harvard University Press)

There were also 4 winners who took home $3,000 runner-up prizes:

Oscar G. Brockett, Department of Theatre and Dance
“Making the Scene: A History of Stage Design and Technology in Europe and the United States” Published by Tobin Theatre Arts Fund (University of Texas Press)

Huaiyin Li,
Department of History
“Village China under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948-2008”
(Stanford University Press)

Robin D. Moore, Butler School of Music
“Music in the Hispanic Caribbean” (Oxford University Press)

Richard R. Valencia, Department of Educational Psychology
“Chicano Students and the Courts: The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality” (New York University Press)

Faculty Book Celebration Honors L. Michael White’s “Scripting Jesus”

9780061228797Christian history scholar L. Michael White will discuss his book “Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite,” (Harper Collins, May 2010) at a faculty book celebration party hosted by the Department of Religious Studies 5-7 p.m., Wednesday Oct. 29 in Mezes Hall Auditorium..

The gospel stories of Jesus have shaped the beliefs of billions of Christians and deserve to be studied seriously. In “Scripting Jesus,” L. Michael White proposes to do just that — to take them seriously as stories.

He argues that in order to understand the earliest gospels one must look at them the way they were originally intended, rather than newspaper-like historical accounts in any modern sense. Instead, they were intended to be read aloud or performed as stories of faith, which were told and retold, edited and reedited, for the greatest effect.

In “Scripting Jesus,” White examines what the gospel stories meant to people in ancient times and offers insights for how people can read the stories today. Carefully examining the complex and sometimes-conflicting narratives of the gospels, White explains how the gospel writers of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John had a specific audience in mind and a particular perspective to advance.

“White’s hands-on knowledge of archaeology, his broad knowledge of the literature of the Greco-Roman world and his mastery of scholarship in several different areas all combine to make this a rich and illuminating book,” says Wayne A. Meeks, the Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Yale University.

White is the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins and director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of “From Jesus to Christianity” and was featured in two award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” and “Apocalypse!,” for which he also was principal historical consultant and co-writer.

In celebration of White’s book, the Department of Religious Studies will host a panel discussion featuring commentary from Steve Friesen, the Boyer Chair in Biblical Studies, and Martha Newman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

The event is free and open to the public. A reception will follow.