Albright Auditorium filled up quickly Monday night in anticipation of President’s Forum speakers, professor of English and John Milton Potter Professor of Humanities Deborah Tall and former faculty member Stephen A. Kuusisto ’78, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University. The pair, accomplished authors and poets, read from their respective memoirs with stories both comedic and tragic.
The forum, hosted by President Mark D. Gearan, was the first of three presentations scheduled for this semester. “When two colleagues—longtime friends and respected authors—have books published at about the same time, that’s a fortunate coincidence the President’s Forum Series can’t help but embrace,” Gearan said.
Tall’s most recent book, “A Family of Strangers,” tells her story of self-discovery, a voyage 12 years in the making, filling in the blanks in a family history more secretive than most. “Secrecy was his habit,” Tall said of her father, who worked on classified projects for the federal government. As a child, she felt “he knew more about the future than the past.” She came to understand that for her parents, “to seek roots would have been…a resistance of the axiomatic 'melting pot.'”
Tracking her family’s legacy becomes Tall’s mission, from suburbia’s “fenced in acreage of the unsaid,” to her long-lost ancestors in the Ukraine. It is a journey that helps her make sense of her own place in the world, to overcome the feeling that “someone had attached me to a family of strangers.”
Kuusisto also won over the audience, telling humorous anecdotes from his most recent work, “Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening.” The book was inspired by a question he found difficult to answer: What’s the point of traveling and sightseeing when you are blind?
Recounting tales of his world travels with his guide dog Vidal, Kuusisto related his experiences, not sightseeing, but eavesdropping on the subtleties that often go unnoticed: Vidal is endlessly harassed by a housefly during a concert in Finland; Kuusisto is cornered by a less-than-helpful “firewalker” on an airplane (“the third person who tried to cure me in 48 hours”); and cell phone talkers inadvertently sharing their life stories. “The barriers between private and public conversations have collapsed,” he said. Throughout, Kuusisto shared a unique vision of life without sight but with a rich and varied perspective nonetheless.
Afterward, the two authors took questions from students, related anecdotes and shared more of their experience with the “art of the memoir.” First-year students Andrea Lippa and Haley Lindahl said they had no idea what to expect, but found the readings very entertaining. “I got so much more out of hearing them read their works than I would have just reading it,” said Lindahl.
Professor James Crenner said he was moved to “laughter, tears, and aesthetic delight by the combination of the writing and the personable voices of the two speakers.”
“I’m sitting in Albright, grinning from ear to ear as I listen to these two dear and cherished friends reading from their artful and affecting works. How nice life can feel at times!” said Crenner who first had Kuusisto as student, and later worked with him as a colleague.
He praised Tall as a brilliant colleague, who took Seneca Review and transformed it into a “pillar of the national literary community, and—along with her husband, the poet and novelist David Weiss—expanding and developing our creative writing program.”
“It should be a matter of great pride to the Institution that Deborah and Steve, two of our own—two who have been both influenced by and inestimably influential on the spirit of these coordinate liberal arts Colleges—have become so prominent in their profession of writing as to fit comfortably in the company of states-persons, ambassadors, political pundits, media stars and other highly renowned figures who comprise the guest-list of President Gearan’s Forum,” Crenner said.