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Renowned memoirist to speak at CCRI
Oct. 18, 2013
This is the third year that the Community College of Rhode Island has participated in the Common Reading Project, a national initiative that encourages college campuses to promote a text outside any one curriculum with which students and faculty can engage. But thanks to some serendipitous timing and the work of Assistant Professor of English Beth O’Leary Anish, this year’s selection, “All Souls,” by Michael Patrick MacDonald, will be further brought to life as its author makes two appearances on campus.
MacDonald’s first appearance, at noon on Friday, Nov. 1, in the Bobby Hackett Theater at the Knight Campus, will be free and open to the public. Anish and Professor of English Alicia Lyon said that they hoped students of all disciplines take advantage of this rare opportunity to hear an acclaimed author on campus. They were particularly excited about MacDonald, as his story will no doubt resonate with many.
Raised on the hard-knock streets of South Boston, MacDonald catalogs his often harrowing, sometimes humorous, recollections of his family and community’s experience in “All Souls.” The heartbreaking book reads alternately like a love letter and a dirge: There’s no place like home, even if having home’s hooks in you means a death sentence for many.
“We have certain criteria for a common reading project book,” explained Lyon. “One is readability; we have students who come in at all different reading levels, so it needs to be accessible to all. It needs to be high interest. And it also needs to lend itself to topics of discussion. We want our students to be aware of social issues.”
Those issues are plentiful in “All Souls”: violence, poverty, racism, the drug war, class struggles and the surprising specter of liberal bias – MacDonald often recounts how Southie received little help or sympathy from people who claimed to aid underserved communities, usually because of a cocktail of their own blind spots and Southie’s misguided idea that it didn’t need the outside help – are all readily on display. MacDonald details how, one by one, he saw his brothers and sisters fall victim to the side effects of Whitey Bulger’s world. Anish pointed out another timely coincidence in the fact that Bulger’s trial recently played out in the media.
It was Anish’s connection to her own heritage – as well as her involvement with the New England American Conference for Irish Studies – that drew her to MacDonald’s writing and then to MacDonald himself. Anish’s dissertation for her Ph.D. program at the University of Rhode Island, which concerns the construction of Irish-American identity, brought her to “All Souls” and the follow-up book, “Easter Rising,” which follows MacDonald as he journeys to Ireland. A mutual friend introduced her to MacDonald, and she had the chance to hear him speak. Coincidentally, this year’s New England American Conference for Irish Studies needed a home, and when Anish volunteered CCRI, everything fell into place.
Anish said it’s not only a coup to get a recognized speaker such as MacDonald to go along with the Common Reading Project, but for the college to play host to a regional academic conference. Anish herself is a frequent attendee at conferences of this ilk, and said that community college faculty aren’t typically represented as well as four-year college and University/graduate studies faculty are. Having this year’s conference at CCRI is “great publicity” for CCRI’s programs, she said, bringing a diverse group of academics in to see “what CCRI has to offer.”
Additional funding secured through the Charles Sullivan Fund for the Arts and Humanities at CCRI helped to bring MacDonald here as the keynote speaker not only for the conference, but also for the special session for the students.
“I’m thrilled that he’s coming. He’s a very engaging speaker – he’s very passionate and outspoken on political issues, especially as an advocate for the poor. He’s been very outspoken on the Whitey Bulger trials this summer, being interviewed by NPR and other major media outlets,” she said. “I just saw him interviewed recently about the movie that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon want to make about Bulger’s life. He said that we don’t need to glamorize Bulger any further; he always brings it back to the people who were affected.”
“‘All Souls’ is just a great selection for the Common Reading Project,” Lyon added.
No registration is necessary for the talk on Nov. 1. The bookstore will have a table stocked with copies of the book for sale afterwards, and MacDonald will be available to sign copies for students. Further information on the New England American Conference for Irish Studies, including registration and a detailed schedule, is available online.
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