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Writing from the Edge

Anne Fadiman carved out a brilliant career for herself writing about the creases where cultures converge. Now she is asking her students at Yale to explore the seams in their own lives.


by Ashley Porter

In one of the more dramatic moments of the story, one of the dogs crawled off the end of a log and fell into a murky river. There was some “risk of ingestion by alligator,” Fadiman recalls, though she can’t remember the details or how, exactly, the story ends. All she knows is that it was “a long story.”

The wild dogs and the alligator were Fadiman’s first literary versions of “edge species,” idiosyncratic creatures that reside in habitats on the edge of civilization, often where two different worlds converge. As a self-proclaimed literary edge species, Fadiman still likes to tell stories today that surface where two different worlds collide. “That’s where I like to lurk, the places where habitats come together,” Fadiman pointed out to her audience in a speech at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

Fadiman spent a decade lurking in one peculiar habitat. She embedded with Hmong refugees who emigrated from Laos to California, and reported on the cultural divide between Western doctors and a Hmong family whose child suffered from epilepsy. Her research gave rise to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (the literal translation for epilepsy in the Hmong language), a 1997 National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner that thrust Fadiman into the national spotlight. This sort of literary acclaim must have made Fadiman blush. A Kirkus Review called Spirit “a vivid, deeply felt, and meticulously researched account of the disastrous encounter between two disparate cultures.” The Washington Post Book World called Spirit “superb, informal cultural anthropology — eye-opening, readable, utterly engaging.”

More than 15 years after its birth, Spirit remains a literary phenomenon. It’s sold more than a million copies. It’s become a book-in-common at more than 25 colleges and universities. Journalism classes use Spirit as a casebook for cross-cultural sensitivity. And medical practitioners use it as a resource to better understand how to effectively care for patients from other cultures.

Years before Spirit’s phenomenal success, Fadiman had already distinguished herself as an essayist and literary journalist, winning National Magazine Awards in both genres. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire and The New Yorker. She has been an editor at two respected literary magazines, Civilization, The Magazine of the Library of Congress and The American Scholar, and she has authored two books of essays; Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays.

Today, when she is not teaching writing at Yale University, Fadiman is spending as much time as she can holed up in a cabin in the woods of Massachusetts writing a book about her late father, Clifton Fadiman, a renowned author, editor, and radio and television personality.

Among his many literary achievements, Clifton was chief editor at Simon & Schuster for 10 years and later became The New Yorker’s book critic. Clifton had two passions: literature and wine. And today, his widely published quotes on both subjects are considered part of his cultural legacy. On reading classics, few are quoted more often than Fadiman’s father.

On the subject of wine, Clifton’s provocative quotes continue to make the rounds among oenophiles. “To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.” Fadiman is titling her book The Oenophile’s Daughter, which seems fitting for a memoir about her father.

Fadiman says the journalist side of her comes from her mother, Annalee Jacoby, the first female war correspondent in China and co-author of Thunder Out of China, a book recreating a decade of upheaval in a country caught in the grip of revolution.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Fadiman immerses herself in the topics she writes about, spending weeks, months, even years doing research and filling up binders with page after page of notes, complete with a table of contents.

Once she has completed the research, Fadiman tucks herself away in a quiet hideout, writing in a linear fashion from one sentence to the next, sometimes working through the night until the story is done. “Something amazing happens when the rest of the world is sleeping,” she writes in her essay “Night Owl.” “I am glued to my chair. I forget that I ever wanted to do anything but write.”

Fadiman’s enchantment with writing began with reading literary giants like Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway. Her parents helped cultivate in her an insatiable curiosity for anything related to what Fadiman calls “the family business” — writing, reading, journalism and other intellectual pursuits. “I was surrounded by shelves that held 7,000 books,” Fadiman told one interviewer. “My brother and I built castles from our father’s 22-volume set of Trollope; our parents both read to us; the Fadiman dinner-table conversations were larded with long words and literary references.”

In her adolescence, Anne spent many Sunday afternoons on the living room sofa inside her home in Los Angeles engaged in a family ritual. Just for the fun of it, the Fadimans would compete against college teams on television in a weekly round of the GE College Bowl, the 1960s program where students played for scholarship grants from General Electric.

Representing Team Fadiman U. were Anne’s father, hyper-intelligent in history and literature; her mother, a maven of national affairs, politics and sports; and her brother, sapient in science. “I rarely knew anything that another member of Fadiman U. didn’t know as well,” Fadiman writes in her essay, “The Joy of Sesquipedalians.” But she possessed faster reflexes than her parents, allowing her to slap the arm of a nearby chair (the Fadiman version of the GE College Bowl “buzzer”) before the show’s host could finish his sentence.

Their track record, a mere two losses in five years, demonstrated the strength of the foursome. While no financial rewards came with a Fadiman U. win, “the pleasure was in the experience of watching together and competing as a humorously conceived ‘team,’” she says.

Fadiman parlayed her fascination with literature and journalism into the pursuit of a writing career at Harvard University. Her English classes expanded her literary horizon. But her first encounter reading John McPhee’s “Encounters of the Archdruid,” a three-part series in The New Yorker published in the spring of Fadiman’s freshman year, left Fadiman awestruck.

McPhee’s nonfiction narrative was unorthodox, blurring the traditional lines between fact and fiction. McPhee, a pioneer of a new genre called creative nonfiction, chronicled the conflict between David Brower, an environmental activist, and his adversaries by bringing them together to wage their ideological battle inside three of the nation’s ecological wonders: Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington state, Cumberland Island in Georgia and Glen Canyon, a vast canyon and reservoir spanning parts of Utah and Arizona.

As an outdoor enthusiast, Fadiman was smitten by the subject and by McPhee’s novel method of storytelling. “I remember thinking … Whoa! That’s what I would really like to do with my life,” she says.

“Encounters of the Archdruid” inspired Fadiman to enter an anonymous competition to become a columnist for Harvard Magazine. Facing a hard deadline, the self-described “night owl” pulled an all-nighter writing a piece about how Harvard students decorated their rooms. She won the contest and was the first woman to be named the sole undergraduate columnist of Harvard Magazine.

McPhee’s brand of literary journalism felt like the perfect fit for Fadiman. While she enjoyed the process of crafting sentences and describing scenes, she didn’t think she had the sort of ample imagination needed to succeed as a fiction writer. It turns out she was exceptionally good at writing about the real world, particularly places where she could lurk like an edge species on the outskirts of civilization.

In 1981, she landed a coveted job as a staff writer at Life magazine. Life let her spend a lot of time outdoors hunting stories. She’d head out into far-away wilderness regions, pitch her tent and search for stories about edge species. She usually got her prey. She wrote about muskoxen in Alaska, polar bears in Manitoba, Canada, and other edge species that her more sedentary colleagues couldn’t care less about.

Fadiman’s stories in Life, whether exploring edge species in the wilderness or a young couple bridging the chasm of communication in the deaf culture or the events leading to a suicide pact between Louise and Paul Martin (“The Liberation of Lolly and Gronky”), catapulted her to the top of journalism’s hierarchy. She earned a National Magazine Award, the magazine equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for “The Liberation of Lolly and Gronky.” But none of her encounters with muskoxen or polar bears prepared her for the project she was about to undertake.

Fadiman submitted several story ideas to Robert Gottlieb, the editor of The New Yorker. One of them grabbed his attention. It involved a conflict brewing at a county hospital in northern California between Hmong refugee patients and their doctors. Gottlieb accepted Fadiman’s pitch and agreed to pay her reporting and translating expenses.

She would later recall in an interview at New York University that when she arrived at the scene of the conflict in 1988, she felt she was a “black hole of ignorance.” Yet her instincts told her to settle in at the edge of the friction between the Hmong community and the health care providers who were supposedly taking care of them. Her quest was to lurk inconspicuously on the edges of the two cultures and figure out what was creating the fissures in their relationship. “That’s what I think being a reporter is all about,” Fadiman says.

She sat silently on a red folding chair in a small apartment in May 1988 and watched a mother caress the cheeks of her motionless 6-year-old child. She was Lia Lee, the daughter of Foua and Nao Kao Lee, Hmong immigrants who in 1980 were relocated by U.S. Immigration Services from Laos to Merced, California.

Misunderstandings in language, differences in cultural beliefs and difficulties administering medication had set in motion a series of traumatic events leading to Lia’s removal from her family’s home and her placement in foster care a month before her third birthday. With help from a social worker assigned to Lia’s case, and the support of her foster family, Lia returned home to her parents a year later. But one evening, only a few months following Lia’s return, she began to convulse in a seizure that refused to stop. The lack of oxygen to her brain left her in a vegetative state.

Being perched at the edge of the conflict, interviewing characters on both sides of the divide, was frustrating at times for Fadiman. She made plenty of faux pas, such as using “an older male interpreter to compensate” for her lack of status as a younger woman. That advice, which she writes about in Spirit, was a misstep; at that time, few Hmong males spoke English well, resulting in linguistic challenges and inaccurate translations.

Finally, Fadiman found a young, female cultural broker who assisted her in understanding the gulf between the Hmong family and their adopted country. Fadiman spent long days wedged between these two worlds, trying to comprehend the deep rifts that developed in the communication between the Lee family and the doctors in Merced. Lia’s parents, for example, were convinced Lia’s seizures sprung only after her older sister slammed the front door of their apartment, causing Lia’s soul to leave her body. But Lia’s doctors believed her epileptic seizures were caused by an abnormal surge of electrical activity in her brain.

In the midst of grasping the culture clash between the Hmong immigrants and their doctors, Fadiman encountered upheaval in her other world: her editor at The New Yorker was fired. The new editor, Tina Brown, wasn’t interested in publishing her work. Who would want to read a three-part series about a Hmong toddler with epilepsy?

The New Yorker officially killed the story a year after Brown took over. “It seemed like a big failure,” Fadiman says. But instead of giving up on her story, the indefatigable writer became determined to turn her rejected New Yorker series into a book. She recalled that in the early ’70s, Jonathan Galassi, a young editor at Houghton Mifflin, had invited her to lunch after reading her work in Harvard Magazine. He told her that one day, she would write a book and he hoped she would give him the chance to publish it.

Two decades later, she decided to take Galassi up on his offer. He was now editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Fadiman’s favorite publisher, in part because the house published John McPhee. Fadiman wasn’t sure Galassi would remember her, or his offer, but he did. And after reading the draft of her rejected work, he offered Fadiman a small advance for the rights to publish Spirit.

But then another crisis intervened in the life of Spirit. After the birth of her first child with her husband, writer George Howe Colt, Fadiman suffered several miscarriages. Pregnant again, her doctors ordered Fadiman to stay in bed during her pregnancy. That meant there would be no lifting and sorting through all the boxes, binders and tapes of her Hmong research.

Four months after her son’s birth, Fadiman resumed work on her book. She alternated between the book and writing essays, spending six weeks on Spirit and two weeks writing an essay for her column in the magazine she co-founded, Civilization, The Magazine of the Library of Congress.

In 1997, nine years after she landed in California to report on the clash of two cultures, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was published with modest expectations. Then reviewers read it. The New York Times crowed how “Ms. Fadiman tells her story with a novelist’s grace.” The New Republic said there wasn’t another book “by a non-physician that is more understanding of the difficulties of caring for people…or of the conditions under which today’s medicine is practiced.” Even The New Yorker heaped hosannas on Spirit. “Fadiman describes with extraordinary skill the colliding worlds of Western medicine and Hmong culture.”

Fadiman was surprised by her turn of fortune. She calls it an accident. “I think that accident is usually responsible for all of the most important turning points in your life,” she noted in her speech at Whitman College.

With awards and accolades pouring in over Spirit, Fadiman faced another turning point in her literary path in 2004. The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society that she had edited for seven years, asked her to resign. She was stunned. During her tenure, the publication had received 12 National Magazine Award nominations, winning three for General Excellence, Feature Writing and Essays, as well as four Utne Independent Press Awards. But when Fadiman, stubborn and independent as always, refused to resign, she was fired.

Less than a week before her dismissal, she received a phone call from Richard Brodhead, the Dean of Yale College. Yale’s English Department was seeking a distinguished writer to serve as the Francis Writer-in-Residence, the college’s first endowed appointment in nonfiction writing. If she had been working full time at The American Scholar, Fadiman’s busy schedule would have prevented her from accepting the position. Now, thanks to getting discharged, Fadiman could consider accepting the literary coronet.

With a view of Branford Courtyard, Fadiman’s office looks out on what Robert Frost once called the “most beautiful courtyard in America.” With gothic structures, heavy iron gates and the iconic Harkness Tower stretching into the sky, time seems to stand still within the walls of the 18th-century campus.

On High Street stands the Romanesque structure of Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Inside Room 103, a group of undergraduates chat, laugh and arrange furniture to create a round table to discuss writing with their professor.

Fadiman, dressed in tennis shoes, a casual sweater and minimal makeup, looks like she’s ready for a hike in the nearby woods. Instead, she makes her way to a sprawling blackboard. Reaching into backpacks, her students settle into sturdy wooden chairs, stacking books on the makeshift roundtable.

“Who do you write for?” Fadiman asks in a clear, strong voice.

“For friends,” says a young woman with glowing skin and short brown hair.

A male student chimes in. “The common reader… and my dad,” he says, running his hand through his dark hair. “One should not write for oneself. How would that be perceived?”

“William Zinsser thinks you should write for yourself,” Fadiman says, smiling.

Writing about Oneself, also known as “WaO,” was born at Yale in 2005, when Fadiman arrived on campus. Each week she takes her students to the intersection of old and new, much like the structures on the campus where they live. They study the work of two writers — one from the late 18th to the mid-20th century, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Clarence Day, Virginia Woolf and James Thurber. The other work is “new,” including authors like Christopher Buckley, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Cheryl Strayed and Nora Ephron.

Fadiman engages her students in an exercise examining the seams between two opposing eras of literature, each week focusing on a different theme such as family, food, love and — this week — joy. Pages rustle as students open their course packets to the Robert Louis Stevenson essay “The Lantern-Bearers,” written in 1888. The essay is Stevenson’s account of an autumn he spent on the New Berwick coast when he was 12 years old.

“Why is [the piece] not called just ‘The Lanterns?’” Fadiman asks.

“It humanizes it,” a male student wearing a brown sweater responds.

“It provides an empathetic quality,” a curly haired co-ed adds.

“What do you know about the structure of the piece?” Fadiman asks.

Several students weigh in on their professor’s question.

“Each part is shorter than the last.”

“The lengths of the sentences change as well.”

“All of the senses are used.”

Fadiman tells them to look at the last word in each sentence. “How many are nouns?”

Voices ring out.

“All of them!”

Fadiman holds up two color printouts; a map of the United Kingdom and a close-up of North Berwick. The students pass the maps around to gain a better understanding of the geographic locations where the story unfolds. The conversation morphs into a discussion of romanticism versus realism.

“What are the life and writing lessons we can learn from this essay?” Fadiman asks.

A young man with dark, curly hair responds, “You can choose the way you see something.”

Fadiman poses a question to the students that some may find unsettling, as if asking them to dwell on the edges in their own lives where expectation meets reality.

“Will I become the person my parents expect me to be?”

Stevenson was born into a family of lighthouse keepers, a tradition his father expected of him. “Though [Stevenson] took a different road than was expected of him, he found joyful pleasure in life,” Fadiman tells the class.

Similar to Stevenson, William Zinsser, the 20th-century author of Writing About Your Life, the second reading required for the day’s class, was the heir to the family shellac business. Zinsser gave himself permission to “not take the road [he] was expected to take.” He made his own choices, despite others’ expectations.

A former writing instructor at Yale, Zinsser was legendary. Attending his class in the 1970s inspired one of his students, Paul Francis, to support nonfiction writing at Yale. Thus, the Francis Writer-in-Residence position now held by Fadiman wouldn’t have happened without Zinsser. Understandably, Fadiman holds Zinsser in high esteem, striving to mirror his virtues of availability and openness as a teacher, even though she claims “no one will ever equal him in those and many other virtues.”

As Zinsser’s eyesight began to fail around 2010, he extended an invitation to friends and students who wished to discuss writing to join him at his office in midtown Manhattan. Fadiman passed on Zinsser’s offer and phone number to her students.

More than 100 undergraduates applied to take Fadiman’s class this semester. Class enrollment is 12. The lucky dozen include established playwrights, screenwriters and actors. Some have had plays performed off-Broadway and at the Yale Dramat, others have published articles in The Yale Herald.

Former students of Fadiman’s are currently working as journalists for The Huffington Post, Bloomberg Business, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and National Public Radio, to name a few. Fadiman insists her students’ success stories have little to do with her. “They are not [in these jobs] because they took my classes,” she says. “They were great when I admitted them to my classes. All I gave them was a few more tools and a little more confidence.”

Recent Yale graduate Rachael Lipstein, whom Fadiman advised on her thesis, would say her former professor was being modest. “She is invested in her students both personally and academically to a degree I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere.”

Ruby Spiegel, an accomplished writer and playwright, says she signed up for Fadiman’s “intense” essay writing class to learn from the master storyteller how to use her own life “as the content and main character” for her work.

Another undergraduate student, Jesse Schreck, says he learned a great deal from the “guru” about writing — from microscopic details (end sentences with strong words) to the broad structural questions (make sure your beginning and ending are related). “But what’s especially amazing is that Anne doesn’t want you to write like her,” he says. “She wants you to write like yourself, only better. So, one at a time, she hands you each tool in the shed, teaches you how to use it, and lets you decide for yourself whether it’s helpful. As a result, Anne’s was some of the most empowering teaching I have ever experienced.”

Such approbation may explain why Fadiman was awarded the Richard H. Brodhead Prize for Teaching Excellence from Yale College in 2012. Despite her success as a writer and editor, “teaching is the most enjoyable,” Fadiman says. “It wins hands down.”

Fadiman maintains a close relationship with many of her former students, editing their stories, attending their plays and serving as their ongoing mentor after they’ve left the ivory tower.

After two full days at Yale, Fadiman hugs one of her students goodbye and hustles aboard an Amtrak train in New Haven headed to her home in Massachusetts. As the train pulls into the Springfield station, Fadiman’s husband is waiting inside. “We are a good team,” she says, greeting George with a smile. “I am very lucky.”

The sun is almost down as they slip into the car. Fadiman settles in for the drive home. As soon as she can squeeze in the time, she’ll take off to the isolated cabin in the woods to practice, in silence and solitude, what she teaches — writing for herself.

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Anne Fadiman carved out a brilliant career for herself writing about the creases where cultures converge. Now she is asking her students at Yale to explore the seams in their own lives.
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