Author Gish Jen visited West Hartford as KO’s 33rd Baird Symposium writer.
Submitted by Kingswood Oxford School
Before she knew better, said award-winning author Gish Jen, she always thought that “a writer writes.”
“Now I see that a writer listens,” she explained during her visit to KO on Jan. 14 and 15 as the 33rd Baird English Symposium author. “Listens and listens and listens and listens.”
That refined ear, combined with her distinctive voice, are what Jen uses to convey, with intelligence and wit, what it’s like to grow up and discover one’s identity as a first-generation American. A prolific writer, she’s published novels and non-fiction, short stories and articles. A finalist for the National Book Award, she won the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 1999.
At KO, students have been reading her writing since last summer. The 16 Symposium students read all four of her novels (Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land,The Love Wife, and World and Town)plus her short story collection, Who’s Irish?.Middle School students read a number of the short stories, and the entire Upper School readMona in the Promised Land.
“I chose Mona for the Upper School to read because it is the most relatable for teens, since major themes involve finding one’s identity and defining oneself as separate from parents,” said Lynne Levine, this year’s Baird Symposium teacher.
Jen’s two-day visit included the events that have been part of the Baird Symposium for more than three decades:
- Dinner on Thursday evening with the Symposium students, who shared with Jen some of the short stories they’d written in response to her work
- Assemblies on Friday with the Middle and Upper Schools; at the latter, the author laughed heartily when Evan Kelmar ’16 introduced her to the audience with “Jenuine” pleasure. “In all the places where I’ve been introduced, no one’s ever used that particular pun,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
- Classes and lunch with students on Friday
- Dinner on Friday evening with English teachers from KO and the surrounding area, followed by a gathering in Alumni Hall where Jen read from one of her books, took questions, and received the traditional Baird parting gift: a piece of art commissioned specifically for each author
Although typically a KO art teacher creates the Baird artwork, this year it was made by an alum, Joe Nicorici ’99 of Simsbury, whose spectacular, 32×24 silkscreen print captures themes and images from Mona in the Promised Land.
“I am honored to have been a part of the Symposium,” said Nicorici. “I remember being a student and sitting in Roberts and listening to these amazing authors talking about their work and their process. So to create this print and be up there talking about the process of creating it was a real special moment.
“Gish’s reaction — and everyone’s reaction — when they saw it … as an artist, that’s all you really ever want: for your work to grab people and make them want to take a closer look,” he added.
Jen’s visit to KO was also a reunion, of sorts, with Head of School Dennis Bisgaard, who taught her novel Typical American when he was on the English faculty at Bryn Mawr School and Collegiate School in the 1990s. He was delighted when Jen inscribed the copy he’d used two decades ago.
Jen, in turn, seemed equally delighted with her Baird experience.
“This is a special experience for the writer, as well,” said Jen. “I’ve been to many campuses, and I’ve never experienced anything like this. I feel completely at home.”
Kingswood Oxford is still accepting applications for September 2016 enrollment, but only those applications that are complete by Feb. 1, 2016, will be eligible for merit scholarship consideration, for which financial need is not a prerequisite. Apply at www.kingswoodoxford.org/apply or contact the Admissions Office at 860-727-5000 to schedule a tour and interview.
The preeminent independent day school in the Greater Hartford region, Kingswood Oxford School is located just steps from Blue Back Square and West Hartford Center. The 508 students come from 62 towns in CT and western MA, as well as China and South Korea. KO was named “Best Private School” in Hartford Magazine’s 2015 Readers’ Poll for the seventh year in a row – a record.