Finalists Chosen for Disney Chair

The three remaining finalists for the Pomona College English department’s search for the Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professorship in Creative Writing are novelists Jonathan Lethem, Edie Meidav, and Chris Abani. The post was last held by the late David Foster Wallace.

Upholding Pomona’s tradition of soliciting student involvement in administrative decision-making, the English Department has arranged readings as well as sample fiction workshops by the candidates. Attendance is not restricted to English majors, and all interested students are encouraged to participate.

Abani’s reading is on March 4 at 4:15 p.m., and will take place in Crookshank 10. It is open to all students. Lethem and Meidav had readings and trial workshops on campus last week and yesterday, respectively.

Advertisements in the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Times [of London] Literary Supplement, as well as letters to 36 writers proposed as fitting candidates, drew approximately 75 applications for the chair. The search committee narrowed the field by assessing portfolios—résumés, writing samples, and letters of recommendation—and interviewed seven individuals via video conferences.

The team then invited four contenders to visit campus. One of the candidates was Dominican-American author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, who shared his compelling upbringing and potent wit in an appearance at Pomona’s Rose Hills Theatre in autumn 2008. However, Diaz withdrew his candidacy for personal reasons.

Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn garnered the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. The post-modern crime novel has been adapted for the big screen by actor Edward Norton. Norton is also directing and starring in the film, which is slated for a release later this year.

The New York Times included Lethem’s most recent novel, Chronic City—centered around a circle of delightfully idiosyncratic friends, including a has-been child actor and a disreputable autobiography ghost-writer—in its 2009 “10 Best Books of the Year” list. Lethem, who splits his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Berwick, Maine, has also been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Lethem was on campus for a reading and trial workshop last Thursday.

Meidav is currently a writer-in-residence at Bard College in upstate New York. Her novels The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and Crawl Space both appeared on the Los Angeles Times annual “Best Book” list. Her reading and workshop took place yesterday.

Abani, winner of a Guggenheim Foundation Award and a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, is equally accomplished in prose and poetry and currently teaches at the University of California, Riverside. Esquire Magazine called his work reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway.

Abani’s latest novella, Song For Night, concerns a mute 15-year-old boy who pilots a squad of mine detectors in a war-ravaged African country. Abani has produced other works about African youth struggling against circumstance.

The search for the new chair is a tender endeavor, as the seat was left vacant by the tragic death of Wallace. His Infinite Jest was included in Time Magazine’s compilation of the “100 Greatest Novels” published between 1923 and 2006.

Numerous undergraduate institutions have been accused of hiring writers solely for their fame, sacrificing the quality of instruction for big-name bragging rights. Wallace seemed to defy this paradigm, becoming regarded not only for his publicized genius but also his devotion to his students and his affection for the larger Pomona community.

English Department Chair Kevin Dettmar said the committee wants to preserve aspects of Wallace’s teaching philosophy and methodology. “Of course, you can’t simply forget a writer and teacher as towering as David; at the same time, we want to be very open to the possibilities of finding a writer and teacher who works in very different ways,” he said.

“Certainly Claremont isn’t the home base that every writer would choose,” said Dettmar. “Many New York-based writers seem unwilling to contemplate a move; so too with some Bay Area writers.”

However, Dettmar noted, “Most of the writers [considered] were already teaching; it’s only the very rare writer, in this day and age, who can support him or herself exclusively through his or her writing.”

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