A Shoemaker’s Dilemma: Q&A with UT Alum and Author Spencer Wise

Set in contemporary South China, The Emperor of Shoes is about a young Jewish Bostonian preparing to take over his family’s shoe business. But he ends up falling in love with a factory worker who may or may not be using him as a pawn to start a pro-democratic revolution in the factory.

For author Spencer Wise, the topic is deeply personal and well-researched. His family has been making and designing shoes for five generations — the last 30 years in China. The book was recently featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and called “one of the seasons most promising debuts.”

I sat down with Wise, a University of Texas at Austin creative writing alumnus, to chat about his novel and how it explores the clash of Western and Eastern cultures:

 

What kind of research did it take to write this novel and what inspired you to take on the project?

Like most Jewish novels, this one starts with guilt. My family has been in the shoe business for five generations, and it ends with me. Though it was my choice, I feel guilty for ending this lineage that in so many ways defines me. So, I wanted to connect to what my father and grandfather and great-grandfather knew about this ancient art of shoemaking.

I began writing early drafts of the novel in graduate school at UT, where I began developing the characters while studying under such great writers and teachers as Elizabeth Harris, Oscar Casares, Pete LaSalle and Jim Magnuson.

In the summer of 2014, I did a real apprenticeship, learning every facet of the shoe business while living in the dormitory of a shoe factory in South China. I interviewed many of the workers and made a few deep friendships with younger supervisors who showed me the inner-workings of the factory. Some were even generous enough to invite me to their homes to meet their families.

Before doing research in China, did you know where the story was going?

It’s easy to forget the real people behind our clothes, our shoes, our furniture. So, I wanted to make their stories visible. I’d like to think that’s one of the ways we develop empathy. When I started researching, I was surprised to find that two ancient cultures — Jewish and Chinese — shared this pervasive sense of family as something that’s nurturing and wonderful; and yet, at the same, a yoke or burden, some claustrophobic thing one can’t escape from.

But I didn’t have any clue what the plot was about when I first got to China. The young Chinese people I met were immensely proud of their country and heritage, but showed surprising dissatisfaction toward the Chinese government, its corrupt, hypocritical system and the widening income gap. They seemed angry enough to do something about it.

How do you feel about The New York Times calling it a novel for “our times”?

It’s an honor to be recognized on that scale as an author, but I also think the issues in the book — cultural clashes, globalization, migrant labor, activism — have been relevant for a long, long time. I think when Trump was elected with such a divisive agenda, these issues were thrust into the spotlight, which was lucky for me. But the novel is about a world that’s always been here. One that we mostly choose not to look at it in order to maintain a comfortable quality of life.

To what extent is this book meant to be politically provocative?

Well, certainly it’s a critique of global capitalism and whether or not it can ever be done ethically. But it’s also a book about family business and shoemaking as an art form. When I was writing it, I just wanted to tell the most honest and urgent story I could.

More than anything, it’s a novel about two real people yearning to find their own identities in face of serious obstacles wrapped up in old traditions and heritage and family. How much of that can you lose — as you see in hyper-capitalistic China or in the attenuating levels of religiosity among Jews — before we forget who we are? I don’t have an answer, by the way. I like what Chekov said about “Anna Karenina:” “The job of the novelist is to ask questions, not answer them. Tolstoy asks them beautifully.” I’ve paraphrased, I think.

Though the Dad could be seen as “the evil capitalist boss,” I was surprised to find myself having compassion for him.

The family are self-made immigrants who suffered and worked tremendously hard to achieve the American dream. At the same time, I was deeply troubled by the idea that a Jewish family — like my own — who have been subject to such persecution and discrimination in the past only to turn around and exploit migrant workers in China.

In reality, the factory managers and owners still work 16-hour days. Their lives aren’t very glamorous. So, I think the book portrays the universal human struggle to make a living and support your family by any means necessary. While in China, I noticed that many business people abroad succumb to their exhaustion and inability to speak the langue by hiding in their hotels — a choice that is, I think, subconsciously necessary to create distance between “us” and “them” that makes their jobs possible.

It certainly seems quite true-to-life. Is it at all autobiographical?

No, no. Not at all! It is funny, but I’ve been asked this question before. I guess I should take it as a compliment that it feels so real. I worked hard to craft characters that the audience would care about: Complex people facing complex problems. That was my aim. But nothing in this novel happened to me. My father is nothing like the dad in the book. And I never tried to take over my family business.

By Katie Lazarowicz, PhD candidate in Asian Studies

 

 

 

Michener Center for Writers Presents Jane Miller

image of Jane Miller Acclaimed poet Jane Miller will give a reading at a Michener Center for Writers event on Tuesday, march 20, 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Building (POB),  Avaya Auditorium (room 2.302).

Miller is the author of the poetry volumes Thunderbird, A Palace of Pearls, Wherever You Lay Your Head, Memory at These Speeds: New & Selected Poems, August Zero, and American Odalisque, all from Copper Canyon Press.

Her honors include fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, and she serves as adviser and jurist to numerous distinguished national book and poetry prizes. Who Is Trixie the Trasher? and Other Questions is forthcoming.

Miller is the Michener Center’s visiting poetry faculty this semester.

Celebrating Black History Month: Sneak Preview Into ‘As We Saw It’

Image of book cover In honor of Black History Month, we’re turning back the pages of time to the mid-1970s—an era when women’s sports programs were in the early stages of development on the Forty Acres. This pivotal point in UT Austin history is documented in the forthcoming book “As We Saw It” (UT Press). The collection of stories, co-edited by Division of Diversity and Community Engagement staff and faculty, gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the first Black undergraduate students to enroll at the university. Told against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, this narrative is inextricably linked to current conversations about race, identity, access and equality in higher education.

Read this abridged chapter to learn more about the first Black female student athlete to receive an athletic scholarship at UT Austin. And be sure to pick up a copy when it hits bookshelves in Austin area bookstores on March 23!


Retha Swindell

The first athletic scholarship was not offered to a female athlete at UT until 1974, Women were thus faced with the complex task of navigating both the uncharted waters of racial integration and gender social politics. Sports as a pathway to educational opportunity and social mobility for women of color was less defined yet just as transformative. The experience of Retha Swindell, UT’s first Black female athlete, who played basketball for Texas from 1970 to 1974, provides a look into an under-explored experience.

The gender parity between female athletes and male athletes, regardless of race, was ever present during Retha’s ascension to college prestige.

“In high school we were always told we had to be better than our white counterparts,” she explained. “We were always taught you have to work, work, work. I remember Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. I remember watching that group on TV. I remember liking Johnny Roberts from Nebraska; I definitely knew Jesse Owens, and there was definitely pride in seeing them compete. You always wanted to see someone Black on TV. Those male trailblazers represented progress and opportunity for all Black Americans. There was little visible precedent for women of color; our path was less defined and less lauded.”

Image of Retha Swindell

Swindell sits with teammates in her final season as a Longhorn.

That was the type of environment that female athletes faced. Black women were confronted with the challenge of advocating for more resources for female athletes while also pursuing more social opportunities and administrative support for all Black students. Before the introduction of Title IX, the UT women’s basketball team would hold bake sales and car washes to raise funds to travel to games and/or cut expenses by camping out in sleeping bags in the gym of the team they were playing.

The year Retha came to UT Austin, the women’s basketball team transitioned from an intramural sport to a varsity sport, thanks to Title IX, which was signed into law in 1972. Coach Rodney Page had been hired to teach physical education in 1972 by Dr. Betty Thompson, who oversaw recreational sports. In the fall of 1973, she asked him to coach the women’s basketball team.25 He was the first Black coach in an official capacity at UT. Page told Texas Athletics writer Natalie England, “I can’t say that there was much overt opposition, but at that time in the history of The University of Texas, there were no black head coaches and very few black faculty.”

For Retha, Coach Page’s position helped make possible her positive experience in a nominally integrated sports environment.

“Rodney drove the van to our out-of-town games, washed uniforms, and helped us mature as young women. He made sure we all knew each other. We learned to appreciate everybody’s differences. He would even pick whom we roomed with when we the women’s basketball program, seemed, at the very least insensitive to racial overtones. It was natural for her to want to put her own person in the job with so much at stake.”

Michaelson says, however, that Retha, who had been recruited by Page, decided to give Conradt “the benefit of the doubt.” In fact, Jody Conradt recalled in a 2007 Texas Month/,y interview that only two team members decided to stay on the team after Coach Page was fired-Retha and Cathy Self.

Retha would go on to become team captain her final year and would become her team’s first All-American. She also holds the Longhorn record for number of rebounds, 1,750.

“When journalists, historians, and students ask me about what the experience of being the first Black female basketball player at UT means, it’s always puzzling because although I was aware that was my story, my circumstances were just a part of the journey to get me to college and to get me a life beyond my childhood,” Retha reflected. “I did what I had to do, and I’m grateful if it has made a difference.”

Germanic Studies Professor Discusses “Dopers in Uniform” at Texas Book Festival

Since 1995, the Texas Book Festival has connected Texas authors with readers through literary panels and readings, book signings, demonstrations, live music, family fun and local eats. This year at the festival, Germanic Studies Professor John Hoberman presented his third book on the social impacts of anabolic steroids, Dopers in Uniform: The Hidden World of Police on Steroids.

His newest book follows two previous works on the topic, including Mortal Engines (1992), which examines the sports world; and Testosterone Dreams (2005), which looks at the medical world. Visit Life & Letters, the magazine of the College of Liberal Arts, to read Hoberman’s Q&A.

 

Award-Winning Poet Marie Howe to Give Reading at Michener Center Event

The Michener Center for Writers will host a reading by poet Marie Howe on Thursday, November 2, 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium (POB 2.302).

Howe is the author of four award-winning volumes of poetry, most recently Magdalene, a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry this year.

Parking is available in the nearby UT San Jacinto Garage, and the event is free and open to the public.  For more information, contact Marla Akin, Michener Center for Writers assistant director, 512-471-8444.

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UT’s Ultimate Summer Reading Guide 2017

images of books It’s that time of year again! The literary listing for the Freshman Reading Round-Up has arrived. Every year UT faculty members handpick books for the campus-wide summer book club that connects new students with outstanding faculty and fellow Longhorns.

“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone to keep its edge,” proclaims Tyrion Lannister in the bestselling book series turned hit TV series “Game of Thrones.”

The 2017 Freshman Reading Round-Up is a celebration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. You need to be a freshman to join the event, but you don’t have to be a student to enjoy the books. Whether you’re looking to sharpen your mind or just escape into a story for a while, the titles listed in the reading guide are a good bet.

 

 

Celebrated Author Bret Anthony Johnston Named New Michener Center Director

Image of man in gray shirt and glasses

This month, award-winning author Bret Anthony Johnston has assumed the directorship of the Michener Center for Writers, one of the most selective and prestigious writing programs in the country.

Johnston has directed the creative writing program at Harvard University for the past 12 years. A native Texan, his fiction titles include the story collection Corpus Christi and the novel Remember Me Like This.

For the past 12 years, he has directed the creative writing program at Harvard University.  A serious skateboarder for over 30 years, he also wrote the documentary film about the sport, Waiting for Lightning, which was released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and premiered at Austin’s SXSW.

Johnston was born and reared in Corpus Christi, Texas, and attended Miami University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  His many honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a “5 Under 35″ honor from the National Book Foundation, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and both the Stephen Turner Award and Kay Cattarulla Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters.  Most recently, he won the $30£ Sunday Times EFG Award, the world’s richest and most prestigious prize for a single short story for his “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows about Horses,” originally published in American Short Fiction.

Johnston replaces outgoing director James Magnuson  who retired in May after 23 years at the helm of the Michener Center.  Magnuson was responsible for bringing the program from its inception to national prominence among MFA programs.

“Bret’s going to be great for the Center,” says Magnuson.  “He’s walking into a situation where there are extraordinary faculty and resources, and amazing students.  The students at the Michener Center have been the joy of my life, and I’m sure they will be for Bret, too.”

“With Mr. Michener’s original vision and Jim’s inspired leadership,” Johnston says, “the Michener Center for Writers has had, since its start, a hand in shaping contemporary literature. The opportunity to be part of the Center’s future is an honor and a privilege.  It’s a gift.  The students, faculty, and staff are unparalleled, and their commitment to art-making is contagious.  In most respects, my job is simply to keep the lights on and get out of their way.”

The Michener Center for Writers is a three-year interdisciplinary Master of Arts program. Admitting fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and screenwriting for fully-funded graduate study, it was created by a $20-million endowment from James A. Michener, philanthropist and author of over 50 books.

Bestselling Authors, UT Professors to Celebrate African American Culture at Annual Book Festival

Juneteenth marks the day when the last of the American slaves learned they were free. It commemorates June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when a Union general landed in Galveston and announced that all slaves were free.

In honor of this significant point in U.S. history, also known as “Freedom Day,” we’re spotlighting the upcoming African American Book Festival, an annual event that brings bestselling authors, scholars and bookworms together for thoughtful discussions about race and society. The event, free and open to the public, will be held on Thursday, June 22, and Saturday, June 24, at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.

Events listed below are just a few highlights. A full schedule can be found here.

Thursday, June 22

April Sinclair will present Coffee Will Make You Black, a humorous coming-of-age tale set in the Civil Rights Era. The novel was selected as the 1994 Young Adult Book of the Year by the American Library Association..—11 a.m.

Bestselling young adult author Angie Thomas will present her No. 1 New York Times best-selling novel The Hate U Give. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the story follows a teen girl who is the only witness to her friend’s fatal shooting by a police officer, leading her to confront the reality of racial injustice in America and get involved in activism.—6:30 p.m.

Saturday, June 24

Educator and editor-at-large for Salon, D. Watkins will discuss his books including The Cook Up: A Crack Memoir. This inspiring true story was a New York Times bestseller and an O Magazine Best Summer Book. Watkins is also the author of The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.—12 p.m.

Peniel E. Joseph, UT Austin history professor and founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, will deliver the keynote address. Joseph’s publications include Stokely: A Life, and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His career focus has been on “Black Power Studies,” which encompasses interdisciplinary fields such as Africana studies and political science. Joseph is a frequent commentator on CSPAN, NPR and PBS’s NewsHour.—1:30 p.m.

UT Austin English Professor Jennifer Wilks will lead the discourse around Raoul Peck’s critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript. The film covers race and race relations in America.—3 p.m.


Want to know more about Juneteenth happenings in Austin? Visit the Greater East Austin Youth Association website to learn more about the Annual Juneteenth Historical Parade and Festival, happening June 17, 10 a.m. at the intersection of MLK and Comal streets. You can also learn more about the recent Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant, supported, in part, by the DDCE’s Community Engagement Center.

Free Digital E-Book Features UT’s Collections of Cultural Artifacts

The University of Texas at Austin has released a digital edition of The Collections, the first encyclopedic account of the university’s repository of cultural artifacts. With more than 170 million objects, the university outpaces the largest collections in America and rivals many in variety and importance. The full 720-page volume is published at thecollections.utexas.edu. Available for free download, the broad distribution of the e-book and searchable PDF enables worldwide access to the university’s distinguished collections.

“This is the first time a publication of this kind has been produced by a public university,” said Andrée Bober, the book’s editor and director of the university’s public art program, Landmarks. “By making it available for free and online, we are putting the collection before a greater public. It’s our hope that this digital edition will increase awareness of these materials and inspire other universities to make their collections known.”

The book, released in print in January 2016, spotlights more than 80 collections — some familiar and others virtually unknown outside their fields of research — acquired since the university’s inauguration in 1883. It reveals the scale and diversity of the holdings by bringing these materials together for the first time, offering a new perspective on collections at public universities. The Collections offers an account of all the university’s irreplaceable artifacts, introducing each collection by outlining its history, highlighting its strengths and suggesting its educational function.

Highlighting materials held by some 40 academic and administrative units, The Collections covers a radical range of subjects — archaeology, ethnography, fine and performing arts, rare books and manuscripts, decorative arts, photography, film, music, popular and material culture, regional and political history, natural history, science and technology – providing insights on the formation of collections at institutions of higher learning.

Visit UT Austin’s news site for more information.

Latin American Studies Alumnus Chronicles Peace Corps Journey in ‘Different Latitudes’

image of bookAs graduation looms right around the corner, many soon-to-be UT alums will be traveling far and wide on missions to change the world. From the Peace Corps to Teach for America, our jet-setting Longhorns will be making an impact in high-need regions of the world. In a book titled “Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond” (Peace Corps Writers, April 2017), Latin American Institute alumnus Mark D. Walker chronicles his Peace Corps journey in various countries beset by poverty and political corruption.

Synapsis (from the publisher): Summer, 1971. A naive young man must decide his path upon graduation from a small university in Colorado. Amidst the turmoil of the counterculture years and the looming possibility of being sent to Vietnam, he concludes that he wants to travel, serve, and, if possible, save the world. As a Peace Corps volunteer Mark embarks on a vigorous cross-cultural experience in a Caribbean and two Central American countries, with a final stop in one of the more isolated areas of the highlands of Guatemala.

Though beset with a fear of the unknown and feelings of profound isolation due to being the only volunteer in a remote village, he eventually gets to know and appreciate the people of the rural communities he is privileged to live among. After a near-death experience takes him to another part of Guatemala and eventually to a horse town, Mark meets the love of his life, Ligia, who will bear him three children and be part of a lifelong commitment to and appreciation of this beautiful and unique country. Much of the courtship process will take place on a coffee plantation owned by Ligia’s family, where Mark experiences a different side of Guatemalan society.

While Ligia selflessly abandons her own career to focus on establishing a stable bi-cultural home for their three children during the violent Guatemalan Civil War, Mark’s “wanderlust” takes him on a four month solo trek through Latin America and then a country change based on threats from a guerrilla group. Mark’s 13-year career promoting rural development through various international NGOs begins when he sets up a local development agency in Guatemala to help the poorest of the poor, whose plight is at least partially due to the policies of his own government.

Eventually family circumstances force a radical career change and a return to the United States to begin a 30-year calling. Inspired by the “extreme do-gooders” he’d met along his journey, he takes some of the wealthiest American families in the world to meet some of the world’s poorest in some of the most isolated, unstable countries. This leads to many adventures, with both wealthy and poor growing from their shared experiences.

Mark’s career comes to a sudden and unexpected turn after he is let go as the CEO of one of these international NGOs, and this frees him up to focus on his three children and  six grandchildren. This twist in the road also provides a new opportunity to reflect on what he has accomplished, where he’s failed, and where the international NGO community has come up short. Different Latitudes is more than a travel memoir. It is a tale of physical and spiritual self-discovery through Latin American, African, European, and Asian topography, cuisine, politics and history.

Visit the author’s website to learn more about his good work in publishing and human rights advocacy.