I come from a long line of voracious readers, sometime writers and historians of various stripes (my geologist parents jokingly called what I do “small” history.) My fascination with language and with material culture began early, sparked by the experience of being born in Japan and growing up surrounded by Japanese art, clothing and food. Japanese was my first language, which I babbled happily until my family moved to the United States when I was three and no playmates could understand me. An awareness of history came early too in part because generations in my family were so widely spaced; for example, my mother could remember listening to the stories told by great-aunts who had lived through the Civil War. It was also hard to avoid an awareness of history, anyway, coming of age in Washington DC during the Civil Rights era as I did.
Early in my graduate career at Brown University, I was lucky to receive a fellowship to study paleography (the study of ancient and medieval handwriting) in Florence, Italy. Novice researcher that I was, I spent an entire summer practicing on a single long document, the ricordanze, or diary and account book, of a fourteenth-century city councilor. I sweated over one particularly cryptic passage before finally realizing that it was the notation of a purchase - of two oil-soaked torches. “So that I can see when I go out at night,” the councilor dutifully recorded. For me, this was a tantalizing juxtaposition of infuriating script, obscure Italian and utterly mundane human artifacts. My research moved to France, but I remained fascinated by language as a medium of culture and by the stuff of people’s lives.
A job teaching history at Duke, a monograph, a textbook and a smattering of articles followed, interrupted at various junctures by meeting my fellow-historian husband and giving birth to a son and a daughter. Then, some ten years later, came an “aha moment” in my writing life. I had signed up for a creative writing workshop because I was aware, very dimly, that I wanted to nurture this capacity in myself. When the novelist-cum-instructor at the workshop remarked, “Of course you are all here because you have writing projects you are working on,” I thought, “except me.” Then I realized I had pages and pages of a memoir as well as some essay drafts already in hand. I needed practice – a lot of it - with craft, but I had already launched my creative writing life, and had not truly known it until that moment.
Serving as Director of Duke’s Thompson Writing Program from 2009 to 2016 was a logical extension of my interest in both academic and creative writing, and in bridging the artificial distance between the two. I had begun on my own to experiment with approaches to teaching with writing that made room for the passion and creativity usually absent from student writing. Since 2016, I have directed the Language, Arts and Media Program which aims to extend to faculty across the university creative approaches to teaching communication across old and new media alike. In all my work with faculty, I have found a vibrant community whose members are eager to talk about writing – their own and their students’ – and from whom I can learn about teaching as well as about advancing my own various writing projects.
I have been fortunate, too, to live and conduct research in Italy, France and Great Britain and to have often taken family with me. Home most of the time now is Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I live with my husband and (sometimes) with our now twenty-something children, all accomplished writers in their own right. My passions beyond reading and writing include travel (unsurprising), cooking (unsurprising for a French historian), and an addiction to World Cup Soccer. But it is hard to beat the pleasure of finding my son’s or daughter’s writing waiting in my email’s inbox.