Sunday, April 13, 2014

Leah Hager Cohen

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of five novels, most recently No Book but the World, and The Grief of Others, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize, selected as a New York Times Notable Book, and named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, and The Globe and Mail. She is also the author of five nonfiction titles, including Train Go Sorry and I Don’t Know. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Cohen's reply:
At this point in the semester, should anyone ask what I’m reading, I’m liable to go sort of panicky-blank. “Golly, what have I been reading?” I think, trying to visualize a book, any book, I’ve been reading, to little avail. Then it hits me: student papers. My reading life has been flooded by April showers of my college students’ work.

I actually love this time. Any grumpiness over having to defer other kinds of reading -- awaiting me at this moment: Holding on Upside Down, the new Marianne Moore biography; Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World); and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God -- is tempered by the distinct pleasure of learning what my students are exploring in their own creative prose.

A few recent papers that stand out: A young man who’s seriously into culinary arts (he cures his own meat) profiles the much older neighbor who inspired him. A young woman writes hauntingly and lovingly about her and her sisters’ practice of tweezing the white hairs from their mother’s dark brown locks. Another describes her memory of transitioning, as a child, from baths to showers, and what she only now realizes to be the freighted meaning inherent in this shift. One student manages to evoke both pathos and humor as he maps his passage through puberty onto a Ramones album, track by track.

It’s not that the writing is uniformly great – although it’s often good, and there are flashes of excellence. It’s not that the content is always gripping – although many of these writers, while still just on the cusp of adulthood, do have intrinsically interesting stories to tell. What moves me is witnessing their discoveries, their epiphanies. These may be craft-based (look how much more I reveal, not to mention how much more I involve my reader, when I put this into scene rather than state it as exposition!) or profoundly spiritual. Students have moved me to tears and laughter with their writing, including those who are rough stylists or still-developing grammarians. But even better is when a student tells me she moved herself to tears, or uncovered a truth she’d never quite accessed before, in the act of setting down a story.

All good writing catalogs growth. Rarely am I more stirred by evidence of this truth than when I am reading my students’ work.
Visit Leah Hager Cohen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue