Monday, September 19, 2011

Visit with Author John Biguenet

On September 12, the Pilot Program class of the Loyola Intensive English Program (LIEP) visited with Dr. John Biguenet, the Robert Hunter Distinguished Professor in the English Department of Loyola University New Orleans. Two of Dr. Biguenet's short stories were chosen as this year's common reading for all first-year students at Loyola. This common reading is part of Loyola's First-Year Experience Program for first-year students.

Many of our Pilot students are first-year students at Loyola. (Pilot students take two credit-bearing intensive English courses at LIEP and two academic courses at Loyola.) Accordingly, in our Pilot Reading class, we read and discussed the First-Year Experience common reading: "The Vulgar Soul" and "I Am Not a Jew" from Dr. Biguenet's collection of short stories, The Torturer's Apprentice.

The Torturer's Apprentice
The stories in The Torturer's Apprentice raise important questions. In "The Vulgar Soul," a nondescript and nonbelieving lapsed Catholic named Tom Hogue develops the stigmata--the five wounds of Jesus Christ's crucifixion--in his hands, feet, and side. Devout Catholics of the Society of the Paraclete soon begin flocking to Tom to see his stigmata, which strengthens their faith. Tom cooperates with this, despite his unbelief, but eventually Tom's stigmata fade and disappear. When Tom encounters a former member of the Society of the Paraclete, whose faith has faded along with Tom's stigmata and who is now dying of cancer, Tom faces a crucial decision.

In "I Am Not a Jew," Peter Anderson, a tourist in Germany, encounters four threatening neo-Nazis while alone in a Jewish cemetery at twilight. Fearing for his life, Anderson insists, "I am not a Jew!" and manages to run to safety. While it is true that Anderson is not a Jew, his wife questions his behavior. In a setting where neo-Nazis divide the world into two camps--Nazis and Jews--Mrs. Anderson insists, "We are all Jews." Anderson is left with the question: What should he have done?

Dr. John Biguenet
The Pilot class met with Dr. John Biguenet in the comfortable Library Living Room of Loyola's Monroe Library. Below are some highlights from our chat with Dr. Biguenet.

AUTHOR: Dr. Biguenet clarified the difference between being a writer and being an author. "You can write about anything," he said, "but you can only be an author in an area where you have authority." Authority, Dr. Biguenet told us, comes from personal experience or from in-depth research.

QUESTIONS: "The author's role," said Dr. Biguenet, "is to ask questions, not to provide answers." Each of Dr. Biguenet's short stories asks a question of the characters and of the reader.

EMBODIMENT: Dr. Biguenet's short stories embody a question within particular characters and a particular setting. This enables us to grapple with the question in a concrete way. In "The Vulgar Soul," Tom Hogue and his stigmata embody the question: How might matters of the spirit play out in a non-religious situation? In "I Am Not a Jew," Peter Anderson and the neo-Nazis embody the question: What is our responsibility toward those who suffer at the hands of others?

SEEDS: Dr. Biguenet, who initially wrote poetry, finds that the seeds of his short stories come from words. The seed for "The Vulgar Soul" came from a conversation at a literary dinner party in London. A guest asked Dr. Biguenet, "What is the role of religion in U.S. life?" Whereupon the host of the party remarked, "Religion is not a matter for discussion among adults; it is for children." The seed for "I Am Not a Jew" came from what Dr. Biguenet was seeing and reading in the media about the genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s. Dr. Biguenet believed that the questions of responsibility and involvement raised by the Bosnian War could best be explored in the more familiar context of the Holocaust.

TIME: Some of us thought that Dr. Biguenet wrote his short stories in a matter of days. We were amazed to learn that he actually spent a year or more on some of his short stories.

PAST: "New Orleans is a city where the past is always present," said Dr. Biguenet. "Families have been here for generations, and we can feel the influence of those ancestors." Accordingly, the past within the present is an important element in Dr. Biguenet's writing, for example, in "I Am Not a Jew" and in the three ghost stories included in The Torturer's Apprentice.

Our visit with Dr. Biguenet enriched our understanding of his short stories "The Vulgar Soul" and "I Am Not a Jew" as well as our awareness of the questions that life asks us. Thank you, Dr. Biguenet!

Dr. John Biguenet and the Pilot class
Our next post will describe the Mass of the Holy Spirit. This is a beautiful September tradition among Catholic universities run by the Jesuit Fathers--to ask God's blessing on the academic year.

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