In conversation with Micheline Marcom

Newest addition to creative writing faculty shares history, ambitions

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Arts and Entertainment spoke with new MFA professor Michelle Marcom about formative career moments, her reasons for writing and teaching and what she hopes to accomplish at the University.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The University’s creative writing program — as prestigious as it is — is often overlooked by the average student. The MFA program has taught such celebrated writers as Aja Gabel, Christina Baker Kline and current professor Thomas Pierce. Its faculty is just as impressive, boasting the highly awarded Jeffery Renard Allen, Elizabeth Denton and former Poet Laureate Rita Dove.

One look at Micheline Marcom’s career and awards proves that she will be a welcome addition to the staff. The Saudi Arabian-born novelist has lived in California most of her life, where she penned beautiful, fiercely political works such as “Three Apples Fell From Heaven” and “The Brick House.” Arts and Entertainment had the opportunity to speak with Marcom through email about formative career moments, her reasons for writing and teaching and what she hopes to accomplish at the University.

Arts and Entertainment: How did you obtain your position on the creative writing staff? Have you been a creative writing professor at other universities?

Micheline Marcom: The Creative Writing Program / English Department ran a national search for which I applied. Before coming to UVA, I taught in the MFA and undergraduate program in Creative Writing at Mills College in Oakland, CA for fifteen years and I also served on the faculty of the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Goddard College in Port Townsend, WA. for ten years.

AE: The incorporation of historical events is central to your writing. Is your fiction partially

intended to educate audiences who might not otherwise know about the events you

describe? Do you think creative writing is an effective medium to do this?

MM: I have written several novels which take up particular moments in history, oftentimes calamitous ones and sometimes ones which are not widely known or which are not (yet) part of the mainstream historical record and / or awareness, such as, for example, the Armenian genocide of 1915 about which I wrote a trilogy of novels. I don’t, however, think it is the job of literature to educate audiences per se, that it should not and cannot be didactic for then it will fail as imaginative literature, but I do believe, as the Italian writer Italo Calvino said in an essay he wrote called “Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature,” that literature is one of society’s instruments of self-awareness and that it is “necessary to politics above all when it gives voice to whatever is without voice, when it gives name to what as yet has no name.”

AE: What are some of your main goals when you write?

MM: My main goal when I write is to write well, to write truly, and depending what project I’m working on at the moment, to do everything within my power to inhabit and deeply and accurately render the world I am writing about.

AE: In your own writing, you say you want to “make space for the unsaid.” Does that

philosophy apply to your teaching methods as well? What are some of your goals when

teaching?

MM: As a teacher I try to create space for my students to go beyond known or received ideas and ways of reading and using language to try new things, go to an “edge,” experiment and explore. I think this does in fact make space for the unsaid and the not-yet-said. I model my teaching of creative writing on how I work as a writer. My pedagogy is one where basically the books are the teachers and we writers apprentice with them — this is a lifelong undertaking. My goal as a teacher is to support writers in their apprenticeship, to nudge them when needed, like a coach might, and to enthusiastically remind them that the world is a place of stories and theirs too have need of a telling. As it says in the “Yogavāsiṣṭha,” “The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story.”

AE: What do you hope to accomplish at the University?

MM: This is a big question! I’m a lifelong Californian, so for now I hope to engage with the community here on all levels and get to know the university, its people, as well as Charlottesville and its community and life.

AE: What would you say are some of the largest challenges you’ve faced in the classroom

setting, either as the student or the professor?

MM: As a young college student the largest challenge I faced was in developing good habits around studying (I was a terrible procrastinator my first year of college) which for me hinged on finding a field of study — in my case comparative literature — which turned me on, made me curious, created a sense of meaning in my life, so that studying was no longer a chore, or a means to an end, but a passion. Once I discovered what I loved to do I no longer postponed it, or put it off — this is what I often tell my students: we don’t resist doing what we love. Of course I think fear plays a big role in procrastination: fear of failure, fear of not being smart enough, etc., but let’s just say I realized, eventually, that love (of a subject, of study, of inquiry) eventually trumps fear of performance or of a bad grade and the like.

Dan Goff is an Arts and Entertainment Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at ae@cavalierdaily.com

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