By Ama Debrah
On April 7, 2011, Barnard College played audience to the powerful and graceful words of prose and poetry from Shira Nayman, Associate Professor of English, Frances Richard, Associate Professor of English and Tanya Barfield, Adjunct Assistant Professor, as part of the Writers at Barnard lecture series. Although these three women specialize in different genres, each woman brought to the lecture a distinctive voice that truthfully and vividly expresses the human experience through race, war and personal heartbreak. As said by Visiting Professor of English Yvette Christianse in her introduction: all of us in attendance were in for a treat.
The first writer of the night was Shira Nayman. In addition to teaching psychology and literature at Rutgers The State University of New Jersey and Columbia University, Nayman has also worked as a clinical psychologist and a strategic consultant to political campaigns and Fortune 100 companies, and has had her work published in The Atlantic Monthly and New England Review. Nayman read three passages from her novel The Listener, which has been called, “consistently intriguing,” by Booklist and, “vividly imagined and evoked,” by Kirkus Reviews. The Listener, which Nayman said was based on a psychiatric hospital she previously worked at, tells the story of the “psychological reverberations” from war on both the patients and doctors of the hospital. With spellbinding description, one of the excerpts written by Nayman described the harrowing story of one event in the hospital, where two concentration camp survivors killed rats and hung them to the ceiling with a sign, “Un-kosher rats,” written in blood.
The next writer, Professor Richard, a poet, provided a complete shift in the mood through reading five selected poems and excerpts from her upcoming book of poetry to be released in September. Richard is the author of See Through, Anarch, and Shaved Code. Before she started reading, Richard told the audience that these poems included words that she invented to create sound effects of things like car alarms, bluebirds and the wind. Richard drew inspiration from many different mediums for her upcoming poems, including quoted material from famous writers, historical figures and even the Internet. For example, in The Grass Was Very Clever, Richard included quoted text from Gerard Manley Harris and President George W. Bush, to which Richard said she would “leave it to [the audience] to figure out which [quote] was from which.” In Not Aspects but Cuttings, Richard incorporated quotes from James Hoyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and from a website for dealing with poisonous weeds.
The last writer of the night was Professor Barfield, a playwright ,whose work includes Of Equal Measure, Dent, The Quick, The Houdini Act, 121 West, and Blue Door. In addition to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Blue Door, Barfield is a two-time finalist for the Princess Grace Award and won the Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights in 2003 and the Lark Play Development/New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant in 2006. Barfield read four selections from Blue Door, which is a play of a series of monologues and dialogues between two characters. One character is a middle-aged black mathematician set in 1995, while the other character portrays a series of characters set in past, including during slavery and Reconstruction. Although Barfield was recovering from a sinus infection, her portrayal of the black experience before the Civil Rights movement and a modern black man dealing his racial identity and a divorce from his white wife was gripping, poignant, and true. Though the lecture was only an hour long, the words from the extraordinary women will continue to stay long after in the minds of the audience.
Ama is a first-year at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.