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Film on Author Tim O’Brien by Matthews ’93, Mittelstadt ’92 to be Released March 2

war and peace of tim o brienA new film by Aaron Matthews ’93 and Jennifer Mittelstadt ’92 will be released March 2 on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, and other digital streaming platforms.

The film, titled The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien, follows the renowned author of The Things They Carried and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, as he struggles to write one last book. The documentary dives deep into the meaning and impact of war, as well as the effect of America’s forever wars on civilians and soldiers. It also gives an in-depth look into the creative process from the perspective of one of America’s most influential living authors.

Watch the film’s trailer online here.

Matthews, who spent five years creating the film, met O’Brien during an interview he directed for PBS called The Draft. “Working on that project, I became interested in how most Americans are so disconnected from the wars we wage, how so few people in this country bear the burden of killing and dying,” Matthews recalled. “When I talked with Tim, I had my heart blown open. He was a smart, funny wordsmith—which you might expect from a legendary author—but he was also emotionally raw and open in a way that I found electrifying. In his trademark jeans and ball cap, he presents as this regular guy. But he’s not a regular guy. He’s operating on a higher level, able to express big ideas, especially about the meaning and impact of war, in a powerful, relatable way. Plus, he chain-smoked throughout the interview, so the frame was filled with cinematic swirls . . . Everything about him screamed ‘not your typical ivory tower writer.'”

“You Just Have to Read This…” An Interview with Madam C.J. Walker Author Erica L. Ball ’93

Madam CJ Walker coverErica L. Ball ’93 is a historian and the Mary Jane Hewitt Department Chair in Black Studies at Occidental College, who specializes in 19th and 20th-century African American history. Her second book, Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), tells the life story of one of the most influential women in American history. Throughout the biography, Ball unravels Walker’s importance as a hair- and skin-care trailblazer, a philanthropist, and an activist.

Annie Roach ’22, editorial student assistant, recently interviewed Ball about Walker and the process of writing the book.

Annie Roach ’22: What first inspired you to write this book? How did you first hear about Madam C.J. Walker?

Erica L. Ball ’93: Getting to the project was a circuitous route. A former professor from grad school was doing a series on famous American women, and she floated the idea of me potentially writing one on Madam C.J. Walker. That didn’t work out, but I’d already started the research and had gotten pretty far along down that road and knew I really wanted to continue working on the project.  A friend put me in touch with the editors at Rowman & Littlefield, and that’s when the project really took off. That’s the short and technical answer to how this book came into being.

There’s actually a longer answer that stretches all the way back to Wesleyan, and to my history senior honors thesis project. Madam C.J. Walker actually makes an appearance in Chapter 3. There I talk a little bit about her work as a philanthropist and her prominent role the in purchase of the Frederick Douglass home. Weirdly, the roots of this book go all the way back to my senior year of college.

Erica L. Ball

Erica L. Ball ’93 is the author of Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon.

A.R.: What was the process of researching and writing like?

E.B.:I think of it as a three-stage process that actually took place simultaneously. One, the book is designed not just to introduce readers to Madam C.J. Walker the person; it’s also designed to serve as a lens onto the broader sweep of African American history. To do that, I had to make sure that I not only stayed current and up on all of the trends in African American history, but that I also allowed these historiographical trends to help me make sense of the larger political and cultural significance of Madam Walker’s life experiences.

The second aspect of the research process involved digging into the work that had already been written on Madam C.J. Walker, and of course, her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, has a wonderful cradle-to-grave biography of Madam Walker. Other folks have written great books on Madam Walker or published work analyzing the history of African Americans’ hair-care or beauty practices; all of that was very useful and helped to contextualize Madam Walker’s story.

The other critical aspect of the research process involved digging into the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company papers at the Indiana Historical Society. I found a wealth of material during my visits there.

A.R.: What did you find in your research that was most surprising?

E.B.: Two things, I would say. As I went through the papers held at the Indiana Historical Society, I was stunned by the number of requests for donations that she received. The files contain daily requests from random people all over the country, and outside of the United States, as well. Many requests come from well-known figures who are heads of institutions and presidents of HBCUs. And then there are other letters, like one from a fellow who was incarcerated at the infamous Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. After hearing about Madam Walker, he writes a letter to tell her about his plight and to ask for help and a few dollars. Seeing that range of people reaching out to her was quite extraordinary. That ultimately led me to one of the key arguments I make in the book: Madam Walker was someone who fashioned herself into a modern celebrity—someone whom masses of individuals identified with, looked up to, and sought to reach out to—right at the moment when modern celebrity itself [was] being invented.

A.R.: In the context of our current world, what exactly makes this story so important and applicable now?

E.B.: Maybe it goes in two directions. On the one hand, I think of Madam Walker’s story as emblematic of a long freedom struggle. This is a person who insisted on not being limited by the terms that society set for her. She refused them. She didn’t believe them. And this was the starting point for her participation in the Black freedom struggle. This is a woman who moved, who would not be contained in one particular location, and who consistently defied Jim Crow limitations on Black freedom of movement. This is a woman who not only searched for opportunities for herself, but went on to create and expand opportunities for other people. Madam C.J. Walker was a person who refused to be satisfied with the political status quo for African Americans but engaged in a concerted, intense civil rights campaign—a multifaceted civil rights campaign—to fight for better conditions for people of African descent. I think she represents the capacious nature of the African American freedom struggle. And I think that can be a useful lesson for us today. It’s a long journey, a long struggle, one that can take many forms and requires different types of actions.

There might also be another lesson in there for folks who are well-positioned, like wealthy celebrities. Madam Walker’s life story raises some questions for them: What do you do with your money? What do you do with your fame? Is it just for you, or do you do what someone like Madam C.J. Walker did, and insist on using it for the public good?

A.R.: What is the most important takeaway that you hope readers will get out of reading about Madam C.J. Walker?

E.B.: She was more than a lady who was just interested in something that people often think of as frivolous (beauty culture) and she was not focused on helping Black women imitate white standards of beauty. She spoke in terms of health, she spoke in terms of agency, and she advocated for the independence of Black women. She was much more than some of the caricatures that emerged in the ’60s and ’70s made her seem. That’s why her memory was so important to African Americans for much of the 20th century.

A.R.: What was your time at Wesleyan like?

E.B.: I grew up in a military family and went to high school in Arizona, where my father was stationed at the time. I’d never been to Connecticut. It was a big change for me. I spent a lot of time hanging out at WesWings, I was a member of the Cardinal Sinners a capella group, and I sang in a blues band called Johnny Vess and the Westones. I had a great time and I learned so much; Wesleyan was a formative experience for me.

Sometimes I think if I hadn’t gone to Wesleyan, my life would have been very different. There were paths that I didn’t know were possible for me to take. One was becoming a researcher, a scholar, a professor. As I worked on my honors thesis, I got it into my head that this is something I might want to keep doing with my life. I also made some great friends. I actually live fairly close to one of my Foss 9 dormmates from frosh year. It’s a small world.

A.R.: Anything else you want to add about your book or about Wesleyan?

E.B.: Wesleyan taught me how to think differently, how to think broadly, how to wrestle with new ideas, how to be open in ways that I didn’t know that I could be. It’s an extraordinary institution that develops habits of mind that are conducive to better world-making. It opens people up in ways that are extraordinary and profound. And I will always be grateful for having had the opportunity to attend Wesleyan.

Garvey ’20, Abel ’65 Collaborate on Mind-Eye Connection Research

Zoe Garvey '20 and Dr. Abel

Zoe Garvey ’20 and Dr. Robert Abel ’65 connected through the Wesleyan Alumni Directory and have since collaborated on mind-eye studies.

After graduating from Wesleyan last May, Zoe Garvey ’20 had plans to conduct research at a local hospital, but the COVID-19 pandemic hindered that plan. As an aspiring physician who is taking a gap year before enrolling in medical school, Garvey began browsing the Wesleyan Alumni Directory, looking for any potential, comparable leads.

“I wanted to see if any Wesleyan alumni who were physicians would be able to offer me opportunities to work with them during my year off,” she said.

And that’s when she connected with Dr. Robert Abel Jr. from Wesleyan’s Class of 1965. Abel, Garvey learned, was a Delaware-based ophthalmologist, a former clinical professor of ophthalmology at Thomas Jefferson University, and is the author of The Eye Care Revolution, which teaches patients how to treat and manage common vision problems.

United Way Creates Fellowship Honoring Cooney ’81

J. Gordon Cooney, Jr. '81

J. Gordon Cooney, Jr. ’81

The United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey (UWGPSNJ) is honoring Wesleyan alumnus Gordon Cooney ’81 by establishing the J. Gordon Cooney, Jr. Fellowship in Criminal Justice.

Cooney, a government major at Wesleyan, works as a senior partner for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where he oversees the firm’s litigation operations across the globe and has a long history of fighting for social justice. He served as regional board chair for UWGPSNJ from 2017–2020, and the fellowship was made in recognition of his significant leadership to United Way.

The J. Gordon Cooney, Jr. Fellowship in Criminal Justice is a six-month fellowship presented to people who have lived experience with the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, aspire to a career in criminal justice or community organizing, and who have shown a commitment to social equity. The Cooney Fellowship is coordinated with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), a UWGPSNJ-supported nonprofit agency that, since its founding in 2011, helps low-income Philadelphians clean up their criminal records.

Films Created by 9 Alumni Screened at 2021 Sundance Film Festival

brusier

A film titled Bruiser was presented at the Sundance Film Festival 2021. Eight recent Wesleyan graduates created the film.

A film featuring the works of eight Wesleyan alumni was presented at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Titled Bruiser, the film focuses on a boy named Darious who begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood after his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley. Bruiser was presented in Sundance’s Short Films category.

The film was directed by Miles Warren ’19; assistant directed by Eliza McKenna ’20; written by Warren and Ben Medina ’19; produced by Gustavo René ’19, Albert Tholen ’15, and Lauren Goetzman ’19; and designed by Emma Cantor ’19. Costumes were designed by Regina Melady ’18.

Former classmates René and Warren began collaborating on projects during their freshman year at Wesleyan. “We switch off producing each other’s work,” René said.

During their sophomore year, René and Warren wrote a film called Huntress, which René produced and Warren directed. And during their senior year, Warren produced René’s senior thesis film, which ended up winning the Steven J. Ross Prize for best undergraduate film. Bruiser is their latest collaboration.

In addition, Richie Starzec ’14 worked as the assistant to director Edgar Wright, of the film The Sparks Brothers, which also screened at Sundance. The film illuminates Ron and Russell Sparks’ music journey that has so far spawned 25 studio albums.

The Sundance Film Festival, founded in 1978, is the largest independent film festival in the United States. It includes competitive categories, featuring documentary and dramatic films, both feature-length and short films, and out-of-competition categories for showcasing new films.

Trans in Trumpland by Zosherafatain ’10 to Stream Feb. 25 on Major Networks

Zosherafatain filmA four-part documentary film series directed by Tony Zosherafatain ’10 will stream on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Topic starting Feb. 25.

Titled Trans in Trumpland, the series investigates the impact of anti-trans policies on the lives of four transgender Americans during the Trump administration era. The series was featured in VarietyNBC NewsDeadline, and The Daily Beast.

“We’re at a crucial moment in our country, and Trans in Trumpland encapsulates the past four years, not just for trans people, but for a wide variety of groups,” Zosherafatain said. “There is a lot of intersectionality in the series, including race, immigration, income inequality, and other structural issues.”

Zosherafatain, a trans-Iranian-American and co-founder of TransWave Films, began directing and producing films in 2012 after realizing that there weren’t many movies exclusively about trans people. He previously directed I am the T, a documentary series about trans experiences around the world.

“I was moved to create the series the first week that Trump took office. Within that first week, he removed any mention of LGBTQ rights from The White House website, creating a sense of urgency in me. I knew I had to do something to shed a light on the plight of transgender Americans,” Zosherafatain said.

With Trump now out of the White House, Zosherafatain credits President Joe Biden for passing executive orders that protect the LGBTQ community within a few days after the inauguration.

“I definitely think that things will improve drastically with Biden now in office. He has made other promises to advance trans rights. I’m very optimistic about his presidency. However, trans equality has a long way to go on the state level, which is an issue that Trans in Trumpland heavily investigates,” Zosherafatain said. “The next four years will be incredibly crucial for the transgender community.”

Zosherafatain and his work also have been featured in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, BBC News, The Advocate, The New Yorker, and New York Magazine.

Play by Long MALS ’96 Focuses on Coping with the Pandemic

John Long MALS '96

John Long MALS ’96

A new play written by John Long MALS ’96 is available for online viewing through the Phoenix Stage Company’s YouTube Channel.

Titled Learning Experience, the play explores individual experiences of living in quarantine during the pandemic in the first half of 2020. Eight people, ranging in age from 18 to 70s, tell their stories in the form of monologues to be posted online. The stories reveal what their lives were like before the pandemic and how they’ve changed during isolation.

“Some characters work from home, some go into work, some don’t work at all, but all are motivated to share a learning experience online to communicate with people they will never meet or know,” Long explained. “By turns moving and humorous, these characters share a desire to continue living, learning, laughing, and growing in a time of crisis that affects everyone.”

Learning ExperienceTo watch the play, go to www.phoenixstagecompany.org and follow the link to the play on the theater’s YouTube channel.

Theater, Long says, has always adapted and survived for thousands of years. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, theatermakers continue to adapt.

Alumni, Parents Explore “Living a Good Life” in Mini-Course

Horst good life

Steven Horst, professor of philosophy, lectured on “Means and Desires” Jan. 14 during the three-part mini-course on Living a Good Life. The series, which is ongoing until Feb. 1, is open to all alumni, parents, and friends of the University.

desire mapping

Horst speaks on desire-mapping.

“What is the good life?”
“What should I value?”
“What should I believe?”

These are the questions that more than 760 alumni, parents, and friends of the University are exploring this winter as part of a three-part mini-course titled Living a Good Life.

Taught by Wesleyan Professors Steven Horst, Stephen Angle, and Tushar Irani, the course gives attendees the chance to participate in activities during each one-hour virtual webinar. Attendance is encouraged for all three classes, but not required.

The mini-series is based on Wesleyan’s Living a Good Life undergraduate course, piloted during the Fall 2020 semester.

good lifeThe course is part of the University’s new Window into Wesleyan virtual event series created by the Office of Advancement’s Alumni and Parent Relations Office.

On Jan. 14, Steven Horst, professor of philosophy, lectured on “Means and Desires.”

On Jan. 21, from 7 to 8 p.m., Stephen Angle, professor of philosophy and Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies, will speak on Daoism.

And on Feb. 1, from noon to 1 p.m., Tushar Irani, associate professor of philosophy, associate professor of letters, will lead a session on Stoicism.

All three of these lectures will be recorded and shared with registrants when available. Register for the mini-series online here.

“We’re so excited by the interest from alumni and parents in this opportunity,” said Dana Coffin, associate director of alumni and parent relations. “I think it goes to show that the larger community has such an interest in maintaining a lifelong connection to Wes and appreciates the opportunities to engage with our incredible faculty.”

For more information, see:

“You Just Have to Read This…” Books by Wesleyan Authors Hill ’93, Schonfeld ’13, and Woodson ’76

In this continuing series, Annie Roach ’22, an English and Italian studies major from Middletown, Del., reviews alumni books and offers a selection for those in search of knowledge, insight, and inspiration. The volumes, sent to us by alumni, are forwarded to Olin Library as donations to the University’s collection and made available to the Wesleyan community.

Watch Her coverEdwin Hill ’93, Watch Her (Kensington, 2020)

As the third installment in Edwin Hill’s mystery series, Watch Her is a sophisticated and gripping psychological thriller with sharp attention to character- and world-building. Protagonist Hester Thursby, a Harvard librarian and renowned researcher, is pulled into a murder mystery that starts when she and her friend Detective Angela White are summoned to investigate a break-in at a house belonging to the owners of a for-profit university, the Matson family. Readers are swept into addictive prose as Hill unravels a complex history that explains the unusual circumstances of the Matsons’ break-in. Hill manages to keep the plot moving at a fast and engaging pace, while still paying special attention to detail and suspense. The cast of characters is strong and eclectic, featuring compelling LGBTQ+ and female voices, and Hill builds on both new and old characters in his third novel. Readers will appreciate the book on its own, but will undoubtedly be eager to pick up (or revisit) the first and second books in the series as well.

Edwin Hill is the author of the Hester Thursby mystery series, which includes the books Little Comfort, The Missing Ones, and Watch Her. He graduated from Wesleyan with a BA in American Studies and earned an MFA from Emerson College. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, he worked in educational publishing. He lives in Roslindale, Mass.

3 Alumni Authors Published in Ploughshares

Ploughshares

Works by Steve Almond, Fay Dillof, and Christina Pugh are published in the Winter 2020–21 issue of Plougshares.

Works by three Wesleyan alumni are published in the Winter 2020–21 issue of Ploughshares. Founded in 1971 and published at Emerson College, Ploughshares is an award-winning journal featuring the freshest voices in contemporary American literature.

The issue includes: “The Man at the Top of the Stairs, On Rendering the Inner Life” by Steve Almond ’88; “Private Practice” by Fay Dillof ’87; and “Reading for the Plot” by Christina Pugh ’88.

Almond, an English major, is also the Kim-Frank Visiting Writer at Wesleyan this spring. He’s the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (Workman Publishing, 2004) and Against Football: One Man’s Reluctant Manifesto (Melville House Books, 2014). His stories and essays have appeared in Best American Short Stories, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. His most recent book is William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life (Ig Publishing, 2019).

This spring, Almond is teaching Writing Certificate Senior Seminar: Writing and Publishing at Wesleyan.

Work by Dillof, a university major, is published or forthcoming, in New Ohio Review, Green Mountains Review, FIELD, Barrow Street, Rattle, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Prize in Poetry and the Milton Kessler Memorial Prize for Poetry.

Pugh, who majored in English and French language and literature, has published five books of poems, including Stardust Media (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and Perception (Four Way Books, 2017), named one of the top poetry books of 2017 by Chicago Review of Books. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, Kenyon Review, Yale Review, and other publications. A former Guggenheim fellow and visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, she teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pugh’s Stardust Media was also featured in this April 2020 “You Just Have to Read This…” article by Sara McCrea ’21.

The Ploughshares Winter 2020–21 Issue, edited by Editor-in-chief Ladette Randolph and Poetry Editor John Skoyles, also features poetry and prose by Nick Arvin, Gina Ochsner, Sylvie Baumgartel, and Jennifer Givhan, as well as Kelli Russell Agodon, Justin Balog, Shauna Barbosa, J. Mae Barizo, Christopher Buckley, Michael Burkard, Nora Caplan-Bricker, Elaine Hsieh Chou, Emily Cinquemani, Katie Condon, Jackie Craven, Caroline Crew, Evgeniya Dame, Shangyang Fang, Corey Flintoff, Jessica Goodfellow, Matthew Henry, David Keplinger, Ted Kooser, Laurie Lamon, Michael Lavers, Kathleen Lee, Eugenia Leigh, Ruth Madievsky, Alexandra Marshall, Gary McDowell, Paul Muldoon, Janice Northerns, Suphil Lee Park, Madelin Parsley, Emily Pittinos, Jeremy Radin, David Roderick, Craig van Rooyen, Noah Warren, Mason Wray, He Xiang, and Jane Zwart.

Behind the Beard: Cooper ’79 Captures Images, Stories of Professional Santa Clauses

santa book

Ron Cooper ’79 is the author and photographer of We Are Santa.

A couple years ago, Ron Cooper ’79, a retired corporate executive-turned-travel, documentary, and portrait photographer, was in New Mexico to photograph cowboys, Civil War re-enactors, gunslingers, and snake-handlers. After completing the shoot, one of the subjects asked if he could show Cooper a very different character that he also portrayed.

“I agreed and he went to change. He came back as Santa Claus in a terrific Western-style Santa suit, complete with bolo tie. As it turns out, he had a side gig during the holiday season as Santa Claus at a shopping mall in Albuquerque,” Cooper recalled. “Not long after that, I saw a news story about the Charles W. Howard Santa School, a venerable institution that’s been around since 1937 and has trained hundreds of professional Santas. Then I learned that Santa Claus is the most photographed character in the world. I’ve always been interested in meeting and photographing people who follow their passions, especially when those passions take them outside of, or beyond, the realm of their daily lives.”

“You Just Have to Read This…” Books by Wesleyan Authors Desai ’03, Logan ’16, and Savarese ’86

In this continuing series, Annie Roach ’22, an English and Italian studies major from Middletown, Del., reviews alumni books and offers a selection for those in search of knowledge, insight, and inspiration. The volumes, sent to us by alumni, are forwarded to Olin Library as donations to the University’s collection and made available to the Wesleyan community.

The Dance Towards Death coverTejas Desai ’03, The Dance Towards Death (The New Wei, 2020)

In the third volume of his crime thriller trilogy The Brotherhood Chronicle, Tejas Desai delivers awe-inspiring narration that easily follows through in its mission to add a breathtaking final installment to the series. The Dance Towards Death follows former private investigator Niral Solanake and his journey through an intricate international criminal world across all corners of the globe. Desai’s realistic and clear-cut use of dialogue is most striking in his prose, as he manages to capture a multitude of tones and attitudes within each of his characters.

In an interview with Digital Journal, Desai explained that the exquisite precision of the book is no coincidence—he spent years engaging in a rigorous editing and revising process. “I’m meticulous, so even though the basic draft of The Dance Towards Death was finished years ago, it has still been chiseled and revised several times since,” he said. His attention to detail shows, and readers and fans will not be disappointed with the result.