‘Caucasia’ author to visit Main Campus
Temple sets tone of ‘Color and Character’ with summer reading choice for new students
Many colleges across the country use summer reading programs to orient incoming freshmen to college life. At Temple, however, project organizers have broadened that concept by folding their book selection, Caucasia by Danzy Senna, into a “Color and Character” theme for first-year students during the fall 2004 semester.
The project peaks on Sept. 14 when Senna visits Main Campus. She will give a Universitywide address, sign books and discuss the creative writing process during a lecture sponsored by the English department.
In the run-up to the author’s visit, nearly 40 professors across a range of disciplines have volunteered to lead freshmen in small discussion groups during the first three weeks of the semester. These talks, labeled “A Book and a Bite” sessions, will familiarize students with the overriding themes of the book. Program organizers hope to stimulate an atmosphere where students, faculty and staff are vested in the project.
“The Freshman Summer Reading Project is about more than everyone reading the same book. It is about joining a community,” said Jodi Levine Laufgraben, associate vice provost and head of the Freshman Summer Reading Project committee. “We want students to talk to each other and their teachers about Caucasia. They can talk about the book with a professor in one of more than 30 discussion sessions that will take place early in the semester. They can talk about it while walking to classes with their friends or while riding the train to campus.”
Reading Caucasia introduces freshmen to Temple’s and Philadelphia’s melting pots of diverse populations, committee members say.
“Revolving around the search for an identity by a biracial child, Caucasia prompts the reader to see what people share in common, despite their differences in color,” said Roland Williams, an English professor who serves on the Freshman Summer Reading Project committee. “Disclosing the need to deal with the diversity that marks the new millennium, it manifests the possibility of bridging barriers to peace and prosperity.”
Committee members see a shared summer read as an entry point to a variety of learning experiences—both for freshmen and for the greater campus community—that extends beyond Senna’s visit. Caucasia will be examined in freshman seminars, learning communities and other courses that typically enroll freshmen. The on-campus student cinema will feature six films during the fall—including Imitation of Life, Love Field and A Bronx Tale—that explore race, class, relationships and the historical context in which Caucasia unfolds.
After two years of selecting nonfiction works by white males (Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen), the summer reading committee changed course with Caucasia, Senna’s debut novel. Set amid the simmering racial angst of 1970s Boston, the book charts the course of a biracial girl, Birdie Lee, who goes on the run with her white mother. She is separated from her black father and sister and must take on the identity of a Jewish girl in a sleepy New Hampshire town. Birdie ultimately tries to reconnect with her father, her sister and her past and discovers her true self during this journey.
“The child at the heart of Caucasia faces a challenge that confronts every first-year college student,” said Williams, who nominated the book during the selection process. “Her story is a coming-of-age tale that will afford new students an opportunity to share a conversation about the trials and tribulations that await them.”
Committee members believe the book speaks to all freshmen, regardless of background.
“Caucasia illuminates some important dimensions related to individual identity,” said Jacqueline Tanaka, a biology professor. “Students who attend college will experience a world of diversity that often includes new ways of worship, ideas of government and political thought, music, foods and styles of dress.
“In the college environment, students may begin to question the very attributes assigned to them by their communities and families of origin. Caucasia should provoke every reader to think about who we are in the context of our parents, our siblings and the world at large,” Tanaka continued.
Cassaundra Amato, a sophomore student who read Lies My Teacher Told Me as a freshman last year, said the shared reading project helped her adjust to college life.
“A common read is always worthwhile,” said Amato, a member of this year’s selection committee. “It allows students to share ideas and discuss issues that the book presents. Communication between students goes beyond just what the book solely addresses and into broader subjects.”
Caucasia was one of 41 books named during an open nomination process last fall. The committee chose the book for its cross-disciplinary appeal.
Proposed lectures tied to the book include talks on myth and racial identity, human cloning and individual identity, evolution, the language of gender identity and even the changing identity of the University itself.
Senna graduated from Stanford University and received a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of California–Irvine. Her latest novel, Symptomatic, was released in May.
Sept. 14 author visit: Danzy Senna
9:30–11 a.m. Writing Caucasia: A conversation about creative writing with Danzy Senna. 1123 Anderson Hall. (Sponsored by the English department.)
1:15–2:15 p.m. Book Signing. Student Center, 2nd floor.
2:30–4 p.m. A Discussion with Danzy Senna: Address to the University community. Student Center, second floor. (First 200 students to the author’s talk will receive a free Caucasia T-shirt.)