On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 20, Assistant Professor of English Rachel Heng and Professor of English Maaza Mengiste opened this year’s Russell House Reading Series, presented by the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism. This reading was the first of 10 events happening in the 2023–24 academic year, and the only one this semester to feature current faculty at the University. The event was well-attended; many students and other English faculty members were present, as well as President Michael Roth ’78.
Heng and Mengiste were introduced by Associate Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program Hirsh Sawhney.
“Tonight is the most special event of the year because we have two of our new-ish colleagues from the English Department reading from their very wonderful work,” Sawhney said.
Heng, who has been at the University for two years, read from her novel, “The Great Reclamation,” which was published in March 2023 and has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the best books of 2023 so far by The New Yorker and Amazon Books. A coming-of-age story set in the 20 years before Singapore gained independence from Britain, “The Great Reclamation” emphasizes the role of the family as its main character, a young boy named Ah Boon, grows up and attempts to find his place in the world while his country tries to do the same.
“You know what is tradition?” Heng read. “Tradition was the glue that bound everyone else so naturally, but failed, somehow, to adhere to Ah Boon…. Tradition was the stick against which he was constantly measured, against which, time and time again, he came up short.”
Mengiste chose a passage from the middle of her book, “The Shadow King,” published in 2019 and shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
“Mengiste’s writing and teaching focus on individual lives and state during conflict, migration, and political upheaval, as well as the intersections of photography and war,” Sawhney said.
“The Shadow King” centers on the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and the story of not only the Ethiopian army that fought against Mussolini’s invasion but also the women of Ethiopia who enlisted and fought on the front lines and soldiers on the Italian side.
“One of the characters that I’m going to be reading about tonight is an Italian Jewish soldier named Ettore,” Mengiste said. “He is a soldier as antisemitic laws are rising or passing across Italy. He thinks obedience is his safety. In the military, he has been ordered by his officer…to use the camera that he has brought to war, to photograph the results of battles and several other things that the army does to the enemy.”
Mengiste was born in Ethiopia but fled the country as a young child during the Ethiopian Revolution.
“Part of what led me to this story was…that I had heard growing up in my family about [the Italo-Ethiopian conflict] or about the Italians…and eventually realizing that…all I ever heard was about the men,” Mengiste said during the event’s Q&A portion. “And I now realize there’s just other things. So what else haven’t I heard?…. I think also, maybe my American life helped inform the writing of the book because I could now look, as an outsider, in many ways at these two different cultures and begin to ask questions that I felt were really pertinent to me and my place in the United States.”
Heng, who was born and raised in Singapore, brought up similar sentiments about her connection with the setting of “The Great Reclamation.”
“For me…the underlying question is: why are we like this?” Heng said. “How did we get here? Like, why is this country like that?…. I felt like I had been fed one story of Singapore my whole life, and there was no room for any alternative narrative…. I couldn’t have written it without it coming from that personal place and that deep cultural investment, because I think I was trying to answer a question for myself.”
The pair also fielded questions about their writing process, including research and inspiration.
“We’ve all been in those rooms, when we were kids growing up, when someone in our family, or a friend will tell a story, and it holds the entire room captivated,” Mengiste said. “And I remember that in my own family. There’s a feeling of magic that happens when a story invades or comes into your space, and you suddenly move with it and go somewhere else. And that’s what I love.”
Heng echoed Mengiste’s account of how writing connects authors across generations and the ways it challenges authors to expand their personal repertoire and skills.
“What I do love about storytelling, and I felt it very strongly with this book, is the ability to communicate and to reach people,” Heng said. “And then when [your work] goes out there, and you’re trying to say, as accurately as possible, this is what it feels like to me. This is something that I find weird, or I find powerful, or something that’s moving…. I think that’s why anyone writes anything.”
Both professors are teaching sections of “Techniques of Fiction” (ENGL296) and “Intermediate Fiction Workshop” (ENGL339).
“I’ve been here two years,” Heng said. “So I think I can say what I enjoyed. The students are amazing writers here, like just…top quality, really passionate, and very inspiring,”
Mengiste is new to the University this year but expressed excitement about getting to know students and their work better. When asked about how she manages her time both teaching and writing, she poked fun at her work-life balance.
“I don’t sleep,” Mengiste said. “And I do a lot of thinking…a lot of it is about just slowing down for one or two minutes, taking a notebook out, jotting down an idea. And then getting back to what needs to be done. So I carry a notebook with me everywhere.”
The next guest in the Reading Series is Tracey Rose Peyton, who received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin and her BA from Howard University. Her short fiction work has appeared in Guernica, American Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Best American Short Stories 2021, and elsewhere. Peyton will be reading from her debut novel, “Night Wherever We Go,” at the Russell House on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m.
Rose Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.