Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Alicia Erian

Early on this semester I volunteered to introduce author Alicia Erian when she came to Butler as part of the Vivian Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. I thought it would be interesting to mix it up, and have the Jew (me) introduce the Arab (her). (Actually, she's only half-Arab. Her father is Egyptian.) This was one of my more ridiculous ideas, as my knowledge of Middle East politics is sketchy, at best. What did I expect -- to debate her on the current unrest in the Arab world?
It wasn't until a few weeks later when I read her novel, "Towelhead," and watched the movie adaptation with the same name, that I realized Erian's overriding personal theme, wasn't ethnicity, but sex, which is a lot more interesting than politics, anyway.
I learned a lot from Erian, so much that it's hard to put it all into neat sentences, so I'll just share some of the highlights of my time with her. I first met her when she made surprise appearance at my Visiting Writers class. She leaned back in her chair and proved herself worthy of holding her own next to our instructor, Dan. Dan's a devoted teacher, but he's not known for his subtlety or demure nature. Next I trailed Erian to an undergraduate writing workshop. Here again she engaged fully in the discussion. She came to the class prepared, having read the student's work that was being discussed. Then I got the chance to join the group that was taking her to lunch, and it was there that her warmth really shined. She shared her life experiences and asked about ours.
I also had the privilege of joining her family (boyfriend and two young and delicious boys) for dinner that evening! Despite the busy day Erian remained engaged and gracious. Then came the very best part: her reading. Turns out Erian has switched tracks. She's no longer writing fiction, but is deep into a memoir (my favorite genre). We got a small taste of it that night and, let me tell you, it was fabulous. It had everything you want in a memoir: an engaging, personal voice, a lot of truth-telling (Erian is NOT shy!) and a compelling story.
And there's more! As if all this wasn't enough, I got to spend another hour with Erian the next day, interviewing her for Booth, Butler's literary magazine. In the interview I discovered how devoted Erian is to helping her students achieve their potential. I reflected back to her that she seems to have strong opinions about how her students should learn. She agreed, saying, "When they're with me they should do it my way. When they're with the next teacher, they should do it his way. In the end, they can see what works best for them." Makes sense to me.
Erian epitomizes the best qualities of a visiting writer, a writing teacher and a writer. She's a clear thinker, and is fearless in speaking the truth, whether in regard to her own life or the world around her. She's engaging, open-hearted, curious and generous. My only complaint is that I have to wait for the publication of her memoir.

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