Telling Truths

In its ninth year, a nonfiction author series at Brown is more diverse than ever


The official title is the “Nonfiction!@Brown Lecture Series” – and no, the exclamation point is not a typo. Like many colleges, Brown has hosted several authors this semester, just as it has done for nine years running. All of these authors are accomplished, and several are local. But their backgrounds are diverse, as are their areas of expertise.

“We wanted to keep the series running,” says Elizabeth Rush, who co-organizes the series with professor Michael Stewart. “But we wanted to make it more inclusive of age, race, and gender.”

Across the country, students of nonfiction writing tend to study the same authors – “new journalism” pioneers like Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and Gay Talese. Legendary as they are, the reading list can easily skew toward cisgendered caucasoids, leaving out whole libraries of more contemporary voices. The Nonfiction!@Brown series is trying to change that, starting with its nomenclature: The original name was The Great Brown Nonfiction Writers’ Lecture Series.

“What do we mean by great?” says Elizabeth, herself an author and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “I think the academy is trying to actively pick apart the canon. Greatness isn’t neutral. There are reasons certain people have been left out.”
One example was last year’s lecture by Alexander Chee, a Korean-American essayist born in Rhode Island and raised in Seoul. Alexander is deeply invested in the LGBTQ community, and Out magazine proclaimed him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the Year. While the lecture series has always provided a rich literary experience, authors like Alexander add new perspective.

The series has evolved in other ways, as well: authors spend time in writing classes, talking with Brown students about their lives and careers. But Elizabeth hopes that the public lectures will attract non-students as well. The events are free and open to anyone. Authors represent an astonishing range of expertise, from Nora Khan’s scientific writing to Amy Pickworth’s nonfiction poetry.

This year’s celebrity guest was Francisco Contú, who made waves with his memoir, The Line Becomes a River. In 2008, Francisco enlisted as a US border patrol agent along the Mexican frontier; when he retired, he attempted to track down a friend who had disappeared. Outside of the literary community, Cantú isn’t a household name, but after strong reviews and an appearance on NPR’s This American Life, the author’s visit to Brown excited many fans – including Rush.
“I remember finishing his book at home,” recalls Elizabeth, “and hollering to my husband, ‘You have to read this book! It’s so good!’”

The series’ final lecture is by Amy Pickworth, 6pm on November 8 in Smith-Buonnano Hall, Room 106.