Staff Writer Isabel Sepúlveda braved the rain last night to attend the final reading for Writers at Barnard, featuring creative writing faculty, so you didn’t have to (though you definitely should have).
It was honestly the perfect atmosphere for a reading by two members of Barnard’s creative writing faculty, poet Saskia Hamilton and author Hisham Matar. The heavy rain and rushing traffic faded into a distant ambiance that set the tone perfectly for the intimate mood of the reading that was to follow. This set-up was continued by the writers’ introduction, given by fellow faculty member Rachel Eisendrath. It was frankly a touching introduction that conveyed her love and respect for her colleagues. She stated that “ours is a brutalizing world” and that these works were a moment of happiness in said world. I would later find these words to be the perfect contextualization of what I was about to hear.
Saskia Hamilton, English professor and director of Women Poets at Barnard, was the first to read. She began by sharing a piece titled “Zwijgen,” the Dutch word for “to fall silent,” and she explained the meaning behind both the title and inspiration for the piece. I had read the piece shortly before arriving at the event, in an attempt to get a feel for what I was about to be hearing. Seeing the words on a page was nothing compared to hearing the writer give life to her own works, both in the explanation and the reading itself. She followed with a handful of selections from a project she is currently working on, before finishing with two translations, including one of an Anglo-Saxon riddle. Despite the range of the selections, Hamilton painted a delicate but detailed picture of the subject and really lived up to the promise of moments of happiness in a world that tends to find itself lacking in that department.
Hisham Matar followed, reading a few sections from his Pulitzer-winning memoir, The Return, which details his return to Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, and Matar’s search for his father who was jailed for political dissidence during that time. The reading moved fluidly through his life, starting with his return to the country he left when he was eight years old, to the family’s departure, to his first days at Barnard and to many moments between. The prose conveyed a sense of yearning for a place to call home, the desire to understand one’s past in a way that was relatable and breathtakingly beautiful. Most of my notes from this reading were just quotations that I found particularly striking. A handful of examples: “What can you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” and “It placed a nation against the intimate reality of a family.”
Family was the theme that tied both readings together, found in many of the poems, but most obviously in The Return. Whether this was intentional or not, it gave the reading a sense of cohesiveness, a narrative thread that the listeners could follow between works. In general, the statement at the beginning held true for both; it was an hour of warmth and happiness, set to the soundtrack of soft rain that threatened to put me to sleep.
Afterward was a small reception, featuring some wonderful chocolate-covered strawberries and Hamilton and Matar’s respective books for sale, courtesy of Book Culture. Never had I been happier to forget to bring my wallet somewhere, otherwise I’m sure I would have immediately purchased copies of all of them.
Image via eflon