On Feb. 24, the Spring 2022 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series kicked off with the Richard Cleaveland Memorial Reading, created in 2002 by friends and family of Richard Cleaveland ’74 to honor his memory. This semester’s Memorial Reading — the only one to include Cornell faculty — featured literatures in English Prof. J. Robert Lennon and Prof. Mukoma Wa Ngugi.
Lennon is the author of nine novels, including Familiar, Broken River and Subdivision, as well as the story collections Pieces for the Left Hand, See You in Paradise and Let Me Think. He is also a musician and composer who helped found The Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band.
Ngugi wrote the novels Mrs. Shaw, Black Star Nairobi and Nairobi Heat and poetry collections Logotherapy and Hurling Words at Consciousness.
Quoted by event moderator Prof. Helena María Viramontes, department of literatures in English, Ngugi said, “As an African and a Black person, I feel that I have a duty to love all the places I call home. Love need not always be pleasant — it can be demanding, defensive, angry and wrong. But it always wants to build, not destroy.”
I arrived at the event ahead of time, but I wasn’t as early as I’d hoped. I’ve been unable to attend many in-person speaker events at Cornell since I enrolled in 2021, and I realized that I had no idea where the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium was! As a result, I spent some time wandering the basement of Goldwin Smith before realizing that it was, in fact, right in the lobby of Klarman. Few people were in the auditorium when I arrived, but more trickled in during the next half-hour, including several students from one of Ngugi’s classes.
Viramontes started off by sharing Cleaveland’s story. An English major at Cornell, Cleaveland often attended the then-weekly Temple of Zeus poetry readings and helped create the literary magazine Rainy Day, which is still active today. After his passing in 1999, friends and family established the Memorial Reading Series in his memory.
Lennon began by acknowledging the current crisis in Ukraine, saying that his thoughts were with “writers and scholars in Ukraine” and expressing gratitude for being able to perform the reading. He read an excerpt from an in-progress novel titled Hard Girl, a crime thriller about twin, estranged con-artists who must unravel the mystery surrounding their missing mother. The passage described the experience of the protagonist, Jean, as she disembarks an airplane before selecting a stranger as a “mark” and stealing their car.
Throughout the passage, Lennon’s attention to detail and characterization shone through Jean’s people-watching and con techniques, such as her observation that deliberately-induced crying was more dependent on the “physical sensations” of joy or sadness rather than the emotions themselves. I was impressed by his ability to immerse himself in the thoughts of a character who, by all accounts, seemed quite different from himself, as well as his highly expressive, humorous reading of the characters’ dialogue.
Before reading passages from his novel, Unbury Our Dead With Song, Ngugi shared some context. This included an explanation of Tizita, an Ethiopian musical genre that features prominently in the novel; he mentioned how he used to listen to Tizita on his commutes to and from Cornell. He also drew on his personal experiences in a bar with both Ethiopians and Eritreans at a time of war between the two countries.
Ngugi remarked on the theme of divides between people, but also the interaction of music with these divides. He mentioned that another war is occurring in Ethiopia today, and from what I understand of his novel, it portrays music as a unique force for love and humanity even in the midst of conflict.
Unbury Our Dead With Song follows Kenyan journalist John Thandi Manfredi as he reports on a musical competition between four Ethiopian Tizita singers: the Diva, the Corporal, the Taliban Man and Miriam. I most enjoyed the scenes Ngugi read that featured themes of music as an expression of love, longing and memory.
One passage ended on this note: “If I forget those I loved, how can I remember who I am? … What I fear is that I will forget this pain that carries my love.”
I was struck by Ngugi’s skill at conveying these ideas of time and loss of identity through a conversation between Manfredi and the Corporal, where they discuss music as an “archive” for all of human feeling.
After the readings, there was a brief audience Q&A session. Since I hadn’t read either professor’s work, I deferred to my fellow audience members, who posed a variety of insightful questions.
One question that caught my interest dealt with the prominence of women in both professors’ novels. Ngugi expressed his desire to abstain from the “erasure” of women in history. He modeled the character of Miriam on his grandmother, who carried bullets and supplies to the resistance against British colonialism in Kenya.
Lennon said that his novel’s premise initially seemed like a “silly thriller plot,” but as he wrote, he realized the novel turned into a story about mothers and daughters. Further questions dealt with Ngugi’s thoughts on love, Tizita, his readers and issues of translation.
As an English major, this was the first in-person reading I’ve attended at Cornell and my first exposure to both professors’ works. It was certainly heartening to experience the talent of our own faculty. Although it was a hybrid event and the auditorium was sparsely seated, I’m excited for further events, including the rest of the Zalaznick Reading Series.
Amy Wang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].