Essayist Jeff Nunokawa discusses medium and everyday life

Jeff Nunokawa has been blending scholarship and his perosnal life since 2007 when he started posting daily short essays on Facebook. Photo courtesy of Fast Company.
Jeff Nunokawa has been blending scholarship and his perosnal life since 2007 when he started posting daily short essays on Facebook. Photo courtesy of Fast Company.

Facebook is hardly the place one expects to find literary critique. Status updates, Snapchat screenshots, rants about politics, pictures from your friend’s spring break and photos of potatoes with the heading, “Tag someone that looks like a potato!” – sure. These are the things we expect to find, as we scroll through our News Feeds, scanning the surfaces of our online friends’ online lives. It’s much less common to stumble across a sentence from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, much less a short essay that seeks to put the quotation in a new context. And yet this is exactly what Facebook followers of Jeff Nunokawa have found on their feeds, not intermittently, but daily, for the past nine years.

Nunokawa, a professor of English at Princeton, spoke Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. in Thompson Memorial Chapel as part of the “Art of the Essay” lecture series sponsored by the English department, the Oakley Center and the Lecture Committee. Nunokawa’s perspective on the essay is unique; in addition to authoring two books of literary criticism that are fairly standard, at least in terms of their genre, he has also been publishing a short essay in the Notes section of his Facebook page each day since 2007. These writings almost always begin with a quote from some work of literature – something from the writings of say Jane Austen, Henry James or Wallace Stevens – along with a short response from Nunokawa. In an unusual character for modern literary criticism, these essays are usually quite personal in nature. Nunokawa discusses friends, lovers, politics, detailing his sense of himself as a person as well as his sense of himself as a writer.  Yet his work is also intended to enhance his readers’ sense of the work he references, and as such his Facebook posts blur the boundary between the academic and the everyday. Last year, in a further melding of social media and scholarship, a collection of 250 of Nunakawa’s Facebook essays were published in a volume called Note Book.

On Friday, Nunokawa read a number of selections from his recent Facebook notes, all of which, he hopes, will eventually become part of a new book he is tentatively titling Things We Learned at Home. In the work, he said, he’d like to explore what he called, “the middle kingdom” – the lives of people of “mixed race” and “mixed feelings,” the “middlebrow,” the “middleclass.” “The world I’m trying to render is kind of like the Betty Crocker Cookbook,” he said. In other words, his new work is the continuation of his nine-year-long attempt to cultivate the “everydayness” of the essay, the extent to which it can illuminate real, ordinary people and their real, ordinary lives. 

In seeking to evoke what he called the “affective infrastructure of the middle class,” Nunokawa draws heavily on his own experiences growing up in Hawaii, as the son of parents of two differ-ent races. He spoke of his strict dad, who taught him (or at least ordered him) to surf and argued with him vehemently about local politics. He was very liberal and maintained that George McGovern would win the 1972 presidential election until the results from the very last precinct came in. (Actually, Nunokawa said he can’t remember ever hearing his father “giving it up.”) Nunokawa also spoke of his stoic, faithful “in her own way” mother, who he saw scared, but never panicked, who used to read with him in the evenings before bedtime, who used to warn him not to oversleep, because they had to get up early. Nunokawa’s prose is occasionally funny – “Absolute confidence was pretty much my father’s go to position on all matters, private and public … Nervousness about the sky falling was (and is) pretty much [mine]” – and other times, quite touching – “Sometimes I write because I’m afraid of my mother leaving too early for me. Sometimes I write because of the way she’s taught me not to be so afraid.” But Nunokawa’s work is always sharp and illuminating; his essays are evocations of who he is and, sometimes, it seems, who he would like to be.

One of the most interesting things about Nunokawa’s work is the way it questions the division between the intellectual and the intimate, the pedagogical and the personal. In this internet age, during which people’s lives can be splayed across a screen, seen anywhere and everywhere, how do we conceptualize the act of writing, of communication? In a question session after the lecture, Nunokawa was asked how he decides how much of his life to share. “There are things I won’t talk about,” he said, adding that he tries not to describe the details of other people’s lives if they are “salacious” or simply “uninteresting” – which, really, he said, come to be the same thing.

Facebook posts and personal essays – these are odd ways, perhaps, to engage with literature. There are surely some drawbacks to this form. The abbreviated nature of most of his essays sometimes makes his work seem to fall a little short, as though the tiny space Nunokowa has allowed himself has only let him scratch the surface of what he might have said. And yet there is nonetheless something fascinating and very moving about his body of work, the way it seems to say that Eliot and Austen and Yeats and James were not just talking to the ages. They were talking to you, the way I might write to you, the way you might write back.

“Have you ever wondered,” Nunokawa asked in the last line of the last essay he read on Friday, “how many of the notes you’ve written are versions of a letter you never sent?”

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