November 13, 2003

Julie Orringer '94 Tells C.U. a Story

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On Tuesday night, Prof. Emeritus Edgar Rosenberg, English and comparative literature, introduced guest reader Julie Orringer ’94 by telling the story of his first meeting with the energetic, confident student, who at the time was trying to get into an advanced Arts and Sciences course as a new transfer from the College of Human Ecology.

“She popped into my office, and I asked her if she got into [a course she wanted]. Julie smiled at me and said … ‘I usually get what I want,'” Rosenberg related.

That confident remark would set the tone for Orringer’s career at Cornell and later in life, as Rosenberg related it.

He continued speaking, highlighting Orringer’s major accomplishments and her life at Cornell. He praised “Julie’s ear for colloquial talk,” and noted that, “like all writers worth reading, Julie writes from her experiences.”

Orringer then took to the podium, thanking Rosenberg and emphasizing the importance of her years at Cornell, and her joy at returning. “It really is a pleasure beyond words to be back here, and to be in the very room where I studied with [Prof.] Lamar Herrin, American literature,” she said. “I’d always run in that back door about 10 minutes after class started.”

She talked briefly on the difficult decision to become a writer, sharing, “I never regretted this decision, but it has been very challenging very often.” She recalled the support of Rosenberg, Herrin and Kenneth A. McClane ’73, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature.

She also alluded to Rosenberg’s previous story, admitting that as a student she certainly felt she could do anything she wanted and adding that she learned it wasn’t always like that, especially after graduation.

Orringer, however, still read with that old confidence, sharing with the audience of over a hundred listeners a generous portion of her lengthy short story “The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones.” The story, which was featured in her debut short story anthology How to Breathe Underwater, tells the tale of two Jewish girls coming to grips with religion, boys and their changing friendship. The crowd, so large that the reading had to be moved from the English Lounge to Goldwin Smith’s Auditorium D, sat raptly as she read, her voice alternating fluidly between that of a stern, Orthodox Jewish aunt to that of a self-conscious teenage girl small-talking a crush.

At a small reception held afterwards, many students expressed their appreciation of Orringer’s craft. Muyoung Kim ’06 admired her control of dialogue. “It was very believable. [Often,] dialogue is either too structured or too long, but she was frugal with her words, and every word she used added something,” he said.

Rachel Somerstein ’04 agreed. “I really liked that she used a different language,” she said, alluding to Orringer’s sprinkling of Yiddish phrases into her story. “I personally relate to it.”

Prof. Stephanie Vaughn, English, encouraged her students to come to the reading. “I think that story is going to be anthologized forever, it’s that good,” she said, referring to “Pilgrims,” a story in Orringer’s anthology that Vaughn assigned to her class.

Herrin praised Orringer’s ability and felt it was a good start to a series the English department is heading over the next two years. The organizers of the series hope to bring back three more authors, mostly recent Cornell graduates, to read and discuss their work.

The series is part of an ever-expanding effort to strengthen and involve Cornell’s literary community. In addition to future readings and colloquii, the English department, along with Cornell’s literary magazines, has revived weekly Temple of Zeus readings, which occur Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m. These readings are all part of an overall push, Herrin stressed, to involve undergraduates in Cornell’s literary life.

Archived article by Michael Morisy