Written by: Olivia McLean
It got deep on Tuesday when nonfiction writer and editor Dr. Ned Stuckey-French gave a reading that touched on subjects such as racism and the meaning of life.
The West Lafayette, Ind., native who is a professor at Florida State University read two selections, “Nightmares” and “South Side,” to an audience in the Student Union Theater.
“Nightmares,” which revolves around a conversation Stuckey-French had with his father when he was just four years old, “is about the first time I guess I really was aware of the big existential questions,” Stuckey-French said.
“Dad, why is there anything?” Stuckey-French read from behind a podium on the theater stage. “Why are there people? Why isn’t there just nothing?”
The essay was published in New South, a Georgia State literary magazine.
Stuckey-French then read “South Side,” which is about “one of the moments where I first became aware of race,” he said. In this essay, he took the audience back into his childhood to an incident in which he witnessed his parents’ behavior toward black people in the early ‘60s.
He explained that the reason he chose to read this piece was because he and David Dickerson, a friend and former student of his who was also in the audience, went to the “Stand Your Ground” rally in Tallahassee at the Florida Capitol on Monday.
“A real moving part of (the rally) was that Trayvon Martin’s parents were there, Jordan Davis’s…parents were there as were several members of Emmett Till’s family,” Stuckey-French said, “so there was history there on that stage, so I thought, ‘I’ll read a piece about race.’
“And whenever you think about those cases, I think that we can agree that race makes it hard for us in this country to communicate with each other sometimes, so that’s what (“South Side”) will be about,” Stuckey-French said.
While reading the essay, he recalled memories of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” and listening to soul music by artists such as James Brown, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin on his shortwave radio.
“As he started reading his excerpts from his stories, it was kind of interesting to hear his feedback on racism and how he viewed it,” Tyreese Whitehead, freshman mass media major, said.
After reading his two pieces, Stuckey-French then answered a few questions about his technique for writing nonfiction.
“I write about the essay, and I write the essay,” Stuckey-French said. He has authored, co-authored and co-edited the American Essay in the American Century, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary, respectively.
“I’ve always liked essayists like Joan Didion, John McPhee and Edward Hoagland who do a lot of immersion journalism and go spend a month with a geologist or go interview the Black Panthers or something like that and then write about them from their perspective. I’ve always liked that,” Stuckey-French said.
Stuckey-French received his bachelor’s from Harvard University, his master’s from Brown University and his doctorate from the University of Iowa. While attending Harvard, he was on the school’s football team, and while in Indiana, he met his wife, Elizabeth, who also went on to attend the University of Iowa. They now live in Tallahassee.
“I think the pieces were very informative, and they were great,” Ashley Ford, sophomore psychology major, said. “I like what he said about nonfiction, and I liked when he was talking about growing up and how he was scared of going into black communities.
“I feel like children don’t understand (racism), and then they learn it through their parents, so if their parents don’t expose them to certain things, then they will grow up feeling scared (of black people), and they’ll behave like their parents,” Ford said.
The Contemporary Writers Series will continue on April 3 with poet and nonfiction writer Sandra Beasley.