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Mountcastle Lecture 2022: Tania James

Upper School English teacher Patrick Hastings introduced the esteemed speaker for 2022 and gave background information on the annual Mountcastle Lecture series.

Tania James is the author of three highly praised works of fiction: the novels “The Tusk That Did the Damage” and “Atlas of Unknowns,” and the short-story collection “Aerogrammes and Other Stories.” Her most recent book, “The Tusk That Did the Damage,” was named a Best Book of 2015 by The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, and NPR, shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice.

James shared with the students that she typically writes fiction, but for this lecture, she read to them a personal essay entitled, “Guilt and Hope and Fruit and Cake.” Written in the second person as if a letter to her former self, the essay took the audience on a journey beginning with James finding out she was accepted to college.

The essay paints a picture of James as she begins college and meets friends, figures out a major, and observes her mother’s bewilderment at her wanting to study filmmaking. She goes on to graduate school to pursue creative writing. Her mother wants to know “what her plan is.” She attempts to join the workforce. She acquires a literary agent.

Later on, she grieves the loss of her grandfather and is asked to write a eulogy, since, after all, she’s the writer of the family. After the wake for her grandfather, she sees she has missed calls from her agent. She finally has an editor who wants to publish her book. Upon hearing the news, her mother bursts into tears and says “You have no idea what you put me through.” The essay circles back to her relationship with her mother several times, closing with the realization that “this is the gift of loving and being loved. This is the curse and the cake.”

Following the reading, James answered a few questions from students about her process of coming up with ideas for fictional stories and how writing personal stories feel like a “journey of confusion” for her. She said she usually experiences writer’s block not when she begins to write but rather when she’s trying to end a story.

After assembly, Tickner Writing Fellow Sam Cheney led a discussion with James and interested students in the library.


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