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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Author Emily St. John Mandel stirs discussion of art and humanity at Middlebury

Author Emily St. John Mandel and Professor Megan Mayhew-Bergman speak onstage at Wright Theater.
Author Emily St. John Mandel and Professor Megan Mayhew-Bergman speak onstage at Wright Theater.

Canadian novelist and essayist Emily St. John Mandel brought the larger Middlebury community together for an event full of laughter and insights into her work and creative process. The Middlebury student body sat alongside members of ‘book clubs’ from the college, a high school class, the Vermont Book Shop and ‘Tome Talk,’ the Ilsley Public Library’s discussion group led by Renee Ursiti. 

The highly anticipated Feb. 15 event was sponsored by the Climate Action Program, the Environmental Storytelling Program and the Department of Theatre, with support from the English and American Studies departments, the Axinn Center for the Humanities, the Writing & Rhetoric Program, the Vermont Humanities Council and the Ilsley Public Library.

St. John Mandel is the author of six books, including “Station 11,” which earned her the Arthur C. Clarke Award. She was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her most recent novel, “Sea of Tranquility,” was named one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2022 and long-listed for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. 

The conversation last Thursday between St. John Mandel and Professor of Creative Writing Megan Mayhew-Bergman — who met St. John Mandel years ago while doing a reading together at New York University — was followed by a Q&A and book signing. Mayhew-Bergman opened the evening by saying, “I have watched her career soar with so much joy because I know underneath that success is hard work, a great mind, razor-sharp wit and an expansive heart.”

“I was raised by hippies in Western Canada,” St. John Mandel said. “It was not a good education. I don’t recommend it… but having an almost unlimited number of hours to read books was wonderful.” 

She left her hometown of Delano Island, following her passion for dance to the School of Toronto Dance Theater before eventually discovering that that writing was what she truly loved. As a homeschooled child, she was once asked to write something every day. She never stopped. 

“Last Night in Montreal,” her debut novel, came from the decision to focus on writing after she closed her chapter on dance. It was a result of supporting herself through  four years of working many different day jobs. “I think there’s real value in constraint,” she said. “It can shape your work, and it can make you a very focused person.”

But St. John Mandel does not agree with constraints that others may impose on her writing, as she does not consider her work to belong to a single genre. 

“I think we have this mania for categorization, not just as readers but maybe as a species,” she said. “The book I am writing now is speculative in the same way that “Sea of Tranquility” is this sort of near-future space.” 

This interest in the near-future space is apparent in “Station 11,” published in 2014, as well.

“It is hard to talk about the future… without the ‘apocalyptic,’ for obvious reasons,” she said. “But there will still be some beauty, and there will be humanity, and there will be joy. I think that our basic interests as a species won’t change in the sense that we will still want stories that will still be important.”

St. John Mandel thinks of writing a novel as putting together a puzzle. Of “Station 11,” she said,  “The project of that book was just thinking through, what do we long for, and miss, and try to recreate if all of the modern world falls away… We get together to tell stories and that’s the thing that sustains us as people.”

Following the lecture, Director of the Middlebury Climate Action Program and event organizer Minna Brown described the event as a powerful display of how our community can gather.

Efforts to engage students and community members with the author’s work began in January, led by Brown and Associate Professor of Theatre Michole Biancosino. Biancosino taught “The Plays of Station 11” last spring, using the novel and its HBO television adaptation to “provide a study of theatrical literature through an interrogation of the specific ways live performance and the human body inform meaning in text-based theatre,” according to the course description. 

“It definitely resonated with all of us on a variety of levels,” said Vermont Book Shop owner Becky Dayton, where one group met during J-Term to discuss the novel. “And our conversation was rich with observation and insight.”

“As a teacher/reader, I like how the story is mostly post-pandemic, but it's not a zombie-riddled, starving, violent world,” said Middlebury Union High School English teacher Cathy Stoddert. “Mandel’s world is realistic, about human relationships and nourishment, not mere sustenance and survival.” 

Biancosino described talking about St. John Mandel’s work in different settings, from college classes to local libraries, local bookshops and high school classes, and creating a sense of community that goes beyond that one moment of discussion. “There is power and possibility in getting into rooms together and discussing a work of art or literature. It’s an act of hope to engage with each other through discourse and genuine curiosity,” she said. 

Spoiler alert: “Station 11” ends with a conversation about history and how older generations may or may not make the choice to educate post-pandemic children about the ‘before’ world. The event was a testament to how St. John Mandel’s work connects readers and thinkers of any age, allowing them to receive the author’s assertion that at the forefront of human needs is the importance of gathering to create and discuss art.

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