Last Thursday, a small crowd gathered in Griffin 3 for a reading of original fiction by two of the College’s most popular English faculty members, Senior Lecturer in English Andrea Barrett and Lecturer in English Karen Shepard. Both Barrett and Shepard have recently published new works. At the event entitled, “Two Writers, One Reading,” they shared samples of their writing with a nice turnout of students, local residents and other faculty members. Professor of English Jim Shepard introduced his colleagues with thoughtful words, a few congenial jokes and his opinion on what it means to be a “writer’s writer,” as Barrett and his wife, Karen Shepard, are so often described. They are two writers with very different styles and specialties, yet both seem to fall into this category of being “writer’s writers.” Jim Shepard observed that the term seems to carry some negative weight and imply only a small readership of fellow writers, even though the description should be considered an honor. He also noted that both Barrett and Karen Shepard are certainly under-appreciated for not only the breadth but also the excellent quality of their works.
Jim Shepard introduced Karen Shepard first, with a quip about the importance of “always letting Karen [Shepard] go first,” which was received by some quiet laughter. He cited her ability to listen and her emotional intelligence as the qualities that best influence her writing best.
Karen Shepard’s latest novel The Celestials is a work of historical fiction about the influx of Chinese factory workers to North Adams in the late 19th century. At the end of the 1800s, North Adams had the largest Chinese population in the Northeast, aside from New York City. The novel’s plot is based on the true story of Calvin Sampson, a North Adams shoe factory owner and his “Chinese Experiment” in 1870. Unbeknownst to the Chinese immigrants, they were standing in as strikebreakers, therefore rendering the recent union strike of Sampson’s laborers ineffectual. Bursts of racial violence were not uncommon, and Sampson’s wife even gives birth to a mixed-race child, igniting scandal and questions of community and identity.
Shepard spoke of what an experiment for her, too, the construction of this novel was – she’d never used an omniscient narrator before, and the genre of historical fiction was also new.
The Celestials explores themes of alienation, multiculturalism and exile and provides a snapshot of our neighboring town, North Adams, in the peak of its industrial commercial success.
Barrett recently praised her co-worker’s novel: “Karen Shepard’s characters vibrate with desire and disappointment, so obdurately individual that a whole world springs to life around them and the past becomes completely present.”
While Karen Shepard read a few selections, she displayed images on a screen behind her. They were sepia photographic portraits of Chinese immigrants from the 1800s, some in suits, others in traditional Chinese dress. Karen Shepard read in a clear, deliberate voice, and the images helped breathe life into the “almond-eyed creatures” she explores in her fourth novel.
Barrett was introduced next by Jim Shepard as the “second of his two favorite people at this school.” After listing her impressive honors, which include a National Book Award in 1996 for her short fiction collection, Ship Fever, a MacArthur Fellowship and a finalist position for the Pulitzer Prize, Jim Shepard pointed to her “intensity of curiosity” as her most valuable trait as a writer.
Her latest collection of short stories is called Archangel. Barrett, who majored in biology in college, usually includes elements of science and the natural world in her stories. Loosely connected by a broader theme of quotidian life and scientific theory, this collection of Barrett’s stories ranges in time period from the late 19th century to World War II, and in subject from the cultural context of Einstein’s theory of relativity to Darwinism.
Barrett read a large portion of her story, “The Ether of Space,” the second in the collection. Phoebe Wells Cornelius is this story’s protagonist. A single mother and author of popular science books, Cornelius struggles in a disillusioned post-war England to help scientific proof take precedence over provincial superstition. Barrett’s reading voice is haunting, her prose delicate and colorful, rooted with pieces of scientific language. Barrett’s elocution gives the notion that she is reading her work for the first time – she gives off a sense of self-appreciation.
Last Thursday’s reading showcased the work of two authors, both respected in the writing community and largely under-praised by a wider audience. Archangel by Andrea Barrett and The Celestials by Karen Shepard are available at Water Street Books.