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In the Openness of Others

By Dean Franco, Associate Professor of English, and Holly Thayer (’15)

On Tuesday February 12th, fiction writer and Cornell University creative writing professor Helena Maria Viramontes spoke on the theme, “In the Openness of Others: Sensual Practices, Cultural Specificity and a Movement Towards Tolerance,” to an audience of over 100 students, faculty, staff, and friends from around the region at Kulynych Auditorium in Byrum Welcome Center.

Viramontes is the recipient of the Luis Leal Award, the John Doss Passos Prize, and an NEA fellowship for creative writing, was invited to Wake Forest by the Humanities Institute to address the topic of diversity.

Viramontes, whose fiction represents the lives of the homeless, migrant workers, the mentally ill, and the urban poor, was asked to consider the role of imagination in summoning the courage to face new challenges of diversification.  In her talk, the author explained that “a movement toward tolerance” begins with an acceptance of the ambiguity of otherness itself.

It is not simply the case that other people’s differences pose challenges to ourselves, but that those differences remain opaque, even unfathomable.  According to Viramontes, it is that unknowability, and not simply difference, that we must learn to tolerate.

Viramontes continued to explain that we all have an aspect of unknowability, even to ourselves.  The fiction writer suggested that the struggle to write well occurs because we often find a gap between what we think and feel on the one hand, and what our language will allow us to say.  Creatures of and in language, we nonetheless struggle to bring forth our self in language.

Nonetheless, Viramontes takes faith in knowing that we all have common experiences with our bodies and with our senses.  Though our bodies vary in age, gender, and typicality, we are nonetheless all sensual creatures, she explained, and we engage the world with our senses.  Thus, with her writing, Viramontes explained, she strives to depict her characters as sensually engaged by the world around, presuming that a reader, similarly sensually engaged, will be able to understand through the body the experience of her characters.

Viramontes offered that when a writer is able to breach the differences and engage a reader, it is a “dancing of the minds,” a metaphor she borrows from Toni Morrison.

Earlier in the day, Viramontes sat down for lunch with a group of students studying her work. These students seized the opportunity to supplement the in-class learning experience with the personal attention of an author and the dialogue with Viramontes provoked thoughtful personal reflection.

Sitting across from the author, sophomore Holly Thayer found in Viramontes the qualities one often seeks in a role model. “I find it critical to my personal development, as well as the development of young women in general, to have someone like Helena to look up to, especially in a world in which a young woman’s typical role model is either a super-model, TV star, or a Hollywood sensation.   Instead, Helena is a woman who dedicates herself to giving a voice to suffering souls. She is a woman of compassion, courage and love. I cannot help but hope that one day I may embody these values with such grace and poise.”

Dean Franco’s introduction to Viramontes’ evening lecture noted that while Wake Forest celebrates fifty years of integration, we must continue to look around consider who is not here, and to gather the will, courage, and imagination to open up the university to ever broader representation of our diverse nation. As Holly Thayer relates, Viramontes’ speech most dutifully reminded us that finding people with similar academic determination and goals for the future does not mean that we are finding people solely of the same race, religion or ethnicity as ourselves. Embracing, not only encountering, diversity is the only way in which we will grow as students.

Thayer contends that occasions like Viramontes’ visit reminds students why they chose to come to Wake Forest. Recent high school graduates search all around the country for an environment, or rather a community, in which they are able to develop relationships within the classroom, with both students and teachers. And they choose to come to Wake Forest because students can actually have lunch with their teachers! And who would have thought that they could be eating with famous authors too!

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