By Brad Dress
“She crosses the street, comes up to me, bold as a rabbit in predator-purged territory,” author, activist and journalist Ru Freeman read Oct. 11 in Tawes Hall to a crowd of more than 30 people. “And asks me, right in front of all the other mothers, if I’m looking for more work as a nanny.”
Freeman’s posture was composed and solid, as she sat at the podium with her own book clutched in her hand tightly. She emitted an emotional voice, a smooth one that represented the dramatic tone of her story. She spoke about the issues of minority classes, the everyday lives of those who do not have much, and the possibilities of harnessing conflicting emotions for growth.
Her story intersected the lives of three minority women struggling with family and identity in Philadelphia.
Freeman read her short story “Fault Lines” as part of the second Writers Here & Now event this semester, hosted by the Department of English at this university.
The event began at 5:30 p.m. in Queen Anne’s Hall, where students in the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House could ask Freeman questions about her writing style, themes or even pick her brain for advice.
Students asked about her process for writing, but Freeman said they should simply “just write the story” they intended to write, or find one that they knew how to.
Freeman also told students they have a certain responsibility to uphold the accuracy of a culture they write about—the reader’s opinions often pull from what they read.
Freeman, more than a lot of successful authors, understands the necessity of writing cross-culturally. She was born in Sri Lanka, but lives in America where she publishes the vast majority of her books and writing pieces. Still, her writing usually revolves around her birth country, and she often incorporates themes inspired from Sri Lanka into her own works.
“On Sal Mal Lane,” her latest novel, is a story about a family in Sri Lanka fighting for control of their own lives as a civil war threatens the nation. “ A Disobedient Girl” centers around two women in Sri Lanka struggling to find new lives. Her essays and short stories often shoot toward a similar background as well.
“She said ‘just let it out on the page, write it out,’” said junior English major Gustavo Quintero.. “You don’t want to hold anything back, even if that means switching to another story so you can keep writing something else.”
At 7 p.m., more than 30 people crowded into small desks and cushiony chairs sprawling out before a brightly lit stage. In the crowd were older women and men, young college students and teachers and professors who helped organize the event.
Shortly after, Carlos Chism slowly walked up the stage. Chism is a second-year MFA creative writing student who volunteered to introduce Freeman. To Chism, it’s a great chance to think about a writer’s work and condense the “ethos” of it into a few minutes.
He began by introducing “On Sal Mal Lane.”
“The novel’s emotional core is stickered with children who play and fight and learn and grow,” he explained to the crowd. “The children’s growing defiance of the adults in ‘On Sal Mal Lane’ demonstrates to the reader what other worlds are possible if we give children the time, attention and care.”
When Freeman walked onto the stage in a black, sparkling dress, she addressed the earnest crowd graciously. She opened warmly, speaking casually to the audience. As she eased in, though, she said she planned on reading her latest novel, but decided against it after reading a collection of essays.
She went on to explain about the oppression of classes in poorer countries and the ability for humans to use conflict as a vehicle for growth.
“One of the greatest joys of being a human being … is the ability to hold conflicting realities in your mind,” she said. “There is something to be gained by entertaining all of those possibilities when thinking about something.”
She closed by saying “Fault Lines” would better tackle that issue and, with the audience’s ears pricked and heads leaned forward, began to read.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maryland Department of English’s Facebook page.
Brad Dress is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.