July 16, 2014

Courting the Muse

Writing from History: Episode #7

Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian expressionist painter and playwright in early 20th century Vienna, had a torrid affair with a woman--his muse--named Alma Mahler. When it ended, Oskar was devastated, feeling that he couldn't live or work without her. So, he did what any man would do: he had a life-size doll likeness of Alma made, which he continued to live with to inspire his work. Henry Schvey, a director, playwright, and professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a play based on this period of Kokoschka's life. He tells the story of how he first met the artist and explains how he turned the historical facts into a play.

July 9, 2014

Family Histories

Writing from History: Episode #6

Today, we consider the memoir. How do authors write about their own histories as well as family and loved ones who might very well read their book? Does time change the way we right about these stories and personal tragedies? Kathleen Finneran, a writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, talks about her memoir The Tender Land: A Family Love Story, which focuses on her family and how their lives are altered by the suicide of her younger brother, Sean. She considers how writing the book affected her personal grieving process and chronicles her family's surprising reaction to the book.

July 2, 2014

Pranking Emily Dickinson

Writing from History: Episode #5

So far, we've considered how authors and historians portray lived-lives in their creative or academic works, but what about creative works from the past? Can they too be "reinterpreted" in the present? Poet Paul Legault, co-founder of the small press Telephone Books and a writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, tackled questions such as these with his 2012 book, The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems. He'll discuss how he sought to connect present readers with these works from the past by translating these beloved poems back into English, and how translation is a broader concept than simply substituting one language for another.

June 25, 2014

Untethered Histories

Writing from History: Episode #4

Historical fiction is an ongoing balance between fact and fiction, but what if the story takes place outside of reality? What if much of the story takes place within a dream? How do you keep readers rooted in time and history? Author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, a Visiting Hurst Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, addresses questions such as these in her award-winning novel Madeleine is Sleeping. She explains why her favorite historical novels never feel "historical," and together we examine the role of time in fiction.

June 11, 2014

A Mirror World

Writing from History: Episode #3

History and fiction are sort of antonyms, so how do historical fiction writers bring fact and fiction together? How closely must historical fiction mirror recorded history? Author Marshall Klimasewiski, Senior Writer-in-Residence at Washington University in St. Louis, discusses the precarious balance writers of historical fiction must strike even when creating alternate histories. He also talks about two stories from his collection Tyrants and a novel-in-progress that follows Salomon August Andrée, a 19th century Swedish aeronaut who attempted to float to the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon.

June 10, 2014

Brave Genius

Writing from History: Episode #2

In the spring of 1940, then-unknown writer Albert Camus and budding biologist Jacques Monod quietly joined the French Resistance as they watched their beloved Paris fall to the Nazis. Decades later, after stumbling across a few lines in a biography, Sean B. Carroll, an evolutionary biologist, author, and alumnus of Washington University in St. Louis, set out to prove that these two great minds were also friends. Rooting through French archives and talking to people at the heart of the French Resistance, Dr. Carroll uncovered documents no one expected to find and illustrated the exciting turns historical research can take.

June 3, 2014

Please Burn After Reading

Writing from History: Episode #1

In 1957, Ghana declared its independence from colonial rule, and a new leader named Kwame Nkrumah rose to take the helm. Jean Allman, professor of history and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, has been studying the surprising networks that formed around Nkrumah, and in her research, she's discovered documents never meant for her eyes. She raises questions about the morality of the archival process and reveals how the NSA may change the future of history research.

April 30, 2014

Chinese Writing and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

On Language: Episode #10

Nearly 500 years ago, the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms was first published. Readers across the country and continent began experiencing this epic, historic tale, which is still one of the most popular novels in China today. But in many cases, these readers would not have been able to have a conversation. They could read the same book, but they could not speak the same language. Robert Hegel, professor of East Asian languages and cultures, describes how the existence of a common written language in China has affected Chinese literature across time.

April 23, 2014

What's the Point?

On Language: Episode #9

The gesture of pointing is something we all do without much thought. We point to ourselves, at other people, at objects, or in the general direction of where we want to go - it's a seemingly straightforward communication tool that even small children use on a regular basis. Yet sometimes the act of pointing is not so simple. As Richard Meier, chair of the linguistics department at the University of Texas - Austin, explains, this is especially true for some children with an autism spectrum disorder. In this week's podcast, Meier introduces us to the complicated relationship between words and gestures in American Sign Language, and explains how this line of research has shed light on one aspect of autism.

To learn more about the ongoing work of two of Dr. Meier's students, mentioned near the end of the podcast, see this article from Al Jazeera America.

April 16, 2014

Language Seen, Not Heard

On Language: Episode #8

For people who have grown up being able to hear, it can be easy to equate language with speech - the audible conversations that make up so much of human day-to-day communication. However, for some 70 million people around the world, these types of conversations happen in silence. Stephanie Berk, a postdoctoral research associate in linguistics and neurology, studies the linguistics of sign language and has worked with children who - because their parents were at first unaware of their child's deafness - began learning their first language later in life. In collaboration with the Washington University School of Medicine, she is now beginning to look into the human brain to see what American Sign Language (ASL) can reveal about how humans learn and process any language, whether spoken or seen.