Writers’ residency named for Philip Roth ’54 gives future notable authors an early career boost.
Nana Nkweti first encountered the works of Philip Roth ’54 in the vast library owned by her father, a professor and cultural anthropologist from Cameroon. In her search of the shelves one day, the young teen spied a “flea-bitten paperback copy of Portnoy's Complaint” and read it eagerly, “even though it was a tad risqué,” she says with a laugh. This early introduction led to further explorations of Roth’s myriad works, including the novella, Goodbye, Columbus, which she studied while receiving her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. As a hyphenated American herself, with roots in Africa and America, Nkweti “was deeply engaged by Roth's sly and satirical explorations of Jewish-American life.” She also loved “the raw energy and acrobatic nature of Roth's prose” and the “depiction of lived-in characters: warts and all.”
Now an accomplished fiction writer herself, Nkweti is in the midst of a four-month stay in Bucknell’s Poet’s Cottage as the Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing. As the program, conceived by Roth and his mentor, Bucknell English professor John “Jack” Wheatcroft ’49, enters its 25th year, Nkweti serves as the 29th resident.
Learning that she had been selected, she says, “was highly gratifying, since of course, I was familiar with Philip Roth's work. Coming to Bucknell and being part of vibrant campus community is exciting — especially given the opportunity for access to world-class research facilities and the space for thought-provoking interactions with students and faculty alike.”
The residency is designed for emerging writers such as Nkweti, according to Andrew Ciotola M’06, the Stadler Center for Poetry's program manager who administers the residency with the Stadler Center director.
“There are some programs like this around the country, but what's distinct about the Roth is it doesn't require university service,” he says. “You just get to be here and write. It's rare for a university to support someone like that, but this was one of Jack and Roth’s stipulations. This was to be a gift of time and space to be a writer.” Along with free lodging, residents receive a $5,000 stipend.
Nkweti appreciates having time “to focus intentionally and finalize the first draft of my novel.” The author of the short-story collection Like Walking on Cowry Shells often draws upon her cross-cultural heritage as an American whose Cameroonian parents moved back to their homeland when she was 14. The overarching themes of her work reflect “a life-long effort to portray the great complexity and diversity of experiences present on the continent and in its diaspora. Representation matters to me,” she says. Her novel-in-progress, Make a Meal of Me, “explores the idea of identity through the lens of food, family and folklore in Cameroon,” she says, “and features strong-willed yet flawed women navigating issues like body dysmorphia, albino civil rights and international adoption.”
The residency, Ciotola says, is competitive, with more than 100 applications per year for two residencies — one in the fall, one in the spring. (For the first 20 years, there was only one resident per year.) This spring's resident will be prose writer Meghan Lamb. Next academic year, two poets will be chosen by a faculty committee.
Some residents are now notable writers. Eduardo Corral, whose poem “Ceremonial” was featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in August, was here in 2008-09.
“The Roth Residency gave me the time and the space to think deeply about my poems,” he recalls. “I spent many hours revising at the kitchen table in the cottage lent to me. I taped my poems to the walls, I spread them across the floor — I lived with my work, which allowed me to engage with them in new ways. The practice of living with my poems is something I continue to do.” Corral, an assistant professor in the MFA program at North Carolina State University, is living with his poems at Princeton University this academic year, where he is a Hodder Fellow at working on his next collection of poems.
The resident in 2009-10, Mike Scalise, worked on his memoir The Brand New Catastrophe at Bucknell. It was named to several “best of 2017” lists. “The Roth residency was absolutely essential to the writing of The Brand New Catastrophe, but just as essential to the research for it as well,” he says. “The ample resources provided with the residency, coupled with the time and freedom to really burrow into a project, permitted me to turn an almost too-personal story of illness into something that had a much wider reach, context, and resonance. But it moves beyond the writing.
“The crew at the Stadler Center have set up a much-needed incubator for emerging writers that teaches them how to exist as a writer in the world, which can be incredibly hard to decipher,” Scalise adds. “Many years on, I still rely upon — and benefit from — conversations I've had with the faculty and staff during my time as a Roth resident. That residency and the people there mean the world to me, and I tell them that every chance I get, effusively, well past the point where it's totally awkward for both of us.”