Annual programs

The Cheryl J. Family fiction program

April 21, 2014: Roxane Gay

One warm spring day in April 2014, Roxane Gay visited the KWH for the seventh annual Cheryl J. Family Fiction Program. Donald Antenin introduced Gay, marveling that she’d appeared in Best American Short Stories and Best Sex Writing in the same year (2012), and emphasizing her impressive social media presence, most notably on Twitter (@rgay). Gay prefaced her reading by telling us about her UPS delivery man, with whom she has “a really hot relationship” — and then she launched into an erotic essay about it (which everyone enjoyed immensely). When introducing her new novel, An Untamed State, Gay warned us that the novel would stand in stark contrast to the lighter, sexier essay. “My parents are from Haiti,” she said. “I was always struck by what a beautiful country it was and what a wonderful time we had there. And the older I got the more I realized not everyone gets to have a wonderful time when they’re in Haiti. And I started to see more of the class divisions… I started to realize that some people have what many people don’t.” The reading left us much to mull over, about class and race — and deliveries, too. Later, dinner conversation was lively, as we spoke of many things, including Game of Thrones and Twitter. Students of Naomi Jackson, our 2013–14 ArtsEdge Resident, had special seats at the table.

April 10, 2013: Ariel Djanikian

This event was practically a family reunion as Ariel Djanikian, daughter of Creative Writing director Greg Djanikian, read from her first novel, The Office of Mercy. Professor Max Apple introduced the young author — who met her husband as an undergraduate in one of his classes — with charming anecdotes from the classroom. Djanikian’s reading plunged headfirst into America 5, a dystopic underground settlement “the basic shape of a concrete and lead-enforced flower,” where Natasha Wiley has her doubts about her prestigious job exterminating renegade tribes. Though time permitted only a fleeting glance into a frightening future, Djanikian explained in a question and answer session that the book goes on to explore societal issues such as abortion, taken to extremes. The author also described her literary role models, her writing plans now that she’s created a world, the arbitrary borderlines between genres, and how apocalyptic she is on a personal level.

November 29, 2011: Amina Gautier

On a rainy day in 2011, Amina Gautier returned to The Writers House for the first time since her visit in 2001 – her first reading ever, incidentally! – to share a story from her first book At Risk: Black, Young, and Under Duress. Herman Beavers introduced her and made the mistake of forgetting his introduction on the podium, but grabbed it before Amina had a chance to steal it away. "I can't keep it?" she asked, before reading a story which evoked all the exuberance and awkwardness of adolescence: her narrator recounts the self-consciousness induced by school uniforms as well as learning a hip new dance – something called The Running Man – in the school bathroom. Amina left us with a reflection on the "openness and lack of finality" that stories are capable of sustaining, and how writing stories has become for her as much an addiction as a craft.

March 23, 2011: Karen Russell

For our fourth annual Cheryl J. Family Fiction Program, The Writers House had the pleasure of having Karen Russell – outed in Erin Gautsche’s introduction as Rollingstone’s recently crowned “Hot Novelist” – enchant us with a gorgeous description of a night-time dive into an alligator tank from her new novel Swamplandia!. Prompted by a listener’s question, Karen reflected that the “liminal” quality of the shoreline lends itself to the experience of her “weird and pubescing” characters. At any rate, we’ll all remember Karen’s evocation of a woman’s headlong leap into water that “wrinkled like black silk,” and how delighted Karen was to learn that one of her earlier stories had “firmly creeped out,” and enthralled, one reader in attendance (“Such a nice compliment!” Karen exclaimed).

October 6, 2009: J.C. Hallman

In 2009, JC Hallman visited the Writers House to read from his book of short stories and describe his recent “decent into the Kafkaesque,” or what happens when you’re editing an anthology and try to publish a piece of writing called The Metamorphosis – not Kafka’s famous novella, but Vladimir Nabokov’s inauspiciously titled essay about that famous novella. This task, undertaken for Hallman’s anthology The Story About the Story, can reduce even an adult man to a “hissy fit,” or so Hallman told us as he recounted his struggles with a truly Kafkaesque publishing bureaucracy. Shifting gears, Hallman read a story exploring the relationship between a middle-aged man and his young nephew from his collection The Hospital for Bad Poets, reminding us why stories, along with the stories about the stories, are so important in the first place.



October 23, 2008: Ben Fountain

On an October Thursday, Ben Fountain came to the Writers House to read from his acclaimed debut short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, with his wife and daughter – a Penn student! – in attendance. Ben warmed all our hearts by describing the Writers House, “an entire house for writing,” as one of the three most vital places on a university campus, alongside the cafeteria and the hospital. Reading from his story, Asian Tiger, a witty and engaging exploration of golf played under a dictatorship, Ben paused every five minutes to ask for “suggestions,” before diagnosing the immemorial question of “what happens next?” as the defining quandary of fiction writing. He also revealed, very memorably, that some choice comments attributed to one George W. Bush in Asian Tiger were quite real. The story finished, Ben reflected on his time in academia and his relatively late turn to fiction writing, thanking his wife for her support and his own skills as a dancer for convincing her to become his wife – or at least go out with him.

February 26, 2008: Adrian Khactu & Samuel Delany

Samuel R. Delany is a critic and novelist, with essays and interviews collected in seven volumes, the most recent three of which are Silent Interviews (1994), Longer Views (1996) and Shorter Views (1999). His award winning autobiography The Motion of Light in Water (1988) and his novel Hogg (1995) were returned to print in 2004. His novel Phallos was reviewed in the Village Voice as "a lapidary, digital-age Pale Fire, tonally redolent of Valery's Epilinos." His other fictions include The Mad Man (1995), and Atlantis: Three Tales (1993). A multiple winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards, Mr. Delany is also a recipient of the Pilgrim Award for outstanding scholarship in science fiction studies, and a winner of the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a lifetime's contribution to Lesbian and Gay Literature. His scholarly interests include Walter Pater and the Oxford aesthetic movement and its influence on high modernism, as well as questions of race, gender, queer studies, and literary theory. After eleven years as a comparative literature professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a year and a half as an English professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Mr. Delany began as a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University in January 2001.

Adrian Khactu's work has been published or is forthcoming in the Atlantic Monthly, Carve, Heritage, and In/Vision (or HOOT! as those in the know pronounce it). He has won the Richard Moyer Prize in Fiction and the Ezra Pound Prize in Literary Translation, as well as fellowships from Clarion West and Vermont Studio Center. Adrian currently lives, studies, and works in Philadelphia, and he holds shiny, though not entirely profitable, creative writing degrees from Stanford and Temple Universities (where he was a student of Samuel Delany).

Adrian Khactu