For their unique class at Kelly Writers House, Penn students read 82 columns and a personal memoir written by Charles Blow, an opinion writer at The New York Times. The readings were close and the discussions deep, as the 16 students prepared to meet and speak with him.
As a Writers House Fellow, Blow joined the three-hour seminar course taught by English Professor Al Filreis, Writers House faculty director. That evening Blow read excerpts from the memoir of his life growing up in Louisiana, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” at a sold-out public event.
Senior English major Jillian Karande introduced Blow to the more than 100 people who filled the Writers House main floor.
“On a visceral, personal level I felt struck by Blow’s op-eds as a member of a racial minority. In a lot of ways, I have become accustomed to not seeing characters or perspectives in literature that either physically resemble me or reflect my personal experiences as a person of color,” said Karande, whose parents are from India.
“To get to read a minority voice speak about issues black and brown bodies must endure was a watering, empowering experience that I have not encountered so fully in my undergraduate career.”
Blow has been writing a column for the Times for 10 years. Known for his opinions on social justice, racial equality, police violence, and gun control, he has been especially prolific on the subject of presidential politics in the past year. Very active on Twitter, @CharlesMBlow, he has nearly half-a-million followers.
During the seminar, the students took turns going around the circle reading passages they had each chosen from the columns and his memoir.
“I was scared,” Blow said, with a laugh, about joining the class. “Because they read all my work and studied it, which I haven’t even done. It was great. They knew everything, and I learned things from them about how I write. I’m not writing looking for patterns. I learned about the patterns and my quirks from them.”
Filreis said the students were well prepared. “We in a way knew more about the writing than he did,” Filreis said, noting that Blow told them he does not read his twice-weekly columns once they are published.
“This was a rare opportunity,” Filreis said, “for our students to try out their ideas with the author right there in the room--for them, but also for him—to work out connections between his memoir and his columns. We spent a lot of time connecting his life to his political work.”
Karande, from Barrington, Ill., said it was an “incredible experience” reading and discussing Blow’s work in such detail, first with her fellow students and then with him.
“It resonated really strongly with me the way that he wrote about his life in his memoir and also the issues he focuses on in his columns, as a woman as a person of color,” she said. “I had the opportunity to give a voice to all the feelings I’ve felt in the last month while reading his work and just how moved I was.”
The goal of the Fellows program is “to bring eminent writers into conversation with young writers and readers through an intensive study of that writer's work and an in-person conversation” in the small, intimate setting, said Lily Applebaum, coordinator of the Fellows program.
Blow was the “perfect” choice, Applebaum said, as many of the students in the class and in the creative-writing program are interested in journalism and news. “That is certainly something the students in the class have gravitated toward and relished in bringing into our discussions, since no topic seems more relevant to all of our daily lives than current U.S. and world news,” she said.
Senior Dan Spinelli is an English major and aspiring journalist who was executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and is an intern reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I love speaking to journalists about their approach to writing,” said Spinelli, who is from North Wales, Pa. “We discussed at length how he incorporated the language of his upbringing—primarily the music he remembered and the rhythm of passages from Scripture—into his prose in ways a typical reader might not notice.”
Blow is the third Kelly Writers House Fellow this year, following novelist Paul Auster in February and poet Bernadette Mayer in March. The first program was in 1999 with one Fellow, literary journalist Gay Talese, but since 2000 it has featured three Fellows each spring. Only one Fellow has come more than once, the late poet John Ashbery, in 2002 and 2012.
The students plan each Fellow’s two-day visit, beginning with the Monday class seminar, complete with a snack based on the readings. For Blow, they laid out a spread like that described in his family’s garden—peas, corn, watermelon—and a cobbler nearly like his mother’s.
“At that point, usually the Fellow falls head over heels for the students,” Filreis said. “The Fellow then understands the uniqueness of the Writers House. It is a community of people who like to do things cooperatively and think of even famous writers as human beings.”
After the public reading on Monday night, the author joins a family-style meal cooked and served by the students at the Writers House. The next day, along with brunch, the author joins Filreis for a public one-hour interview.
The conversation with Blow focused on his life described in his memoir, the content of his columns, and his writing style.
“It is a poem,” Filreis said, referring to a column Blow wrote about the death of Trayvon Martin, calling it an elegy with its dozen repetitions of the phrase “The system failed him.”
“I end up writing about things that are very close to me,” Blow said, “so when I write about my personal narrative it doesn’t feel strained or forced. I’m telling you what I’ve seen and how I’ve processed it. For me the only way to write that column is in a personal way.”