In Residence

University of Tennessee Libraries names Christopher Hebert the new Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence

by Margaret Renkl

May 18, 2012 Knoxville is a city that treasures its writers: both local newspapers—the Knoxville News Sentinel and Metro Pulse—routinely cover books and author events; its independent bookstore, Union Ave. Books, hosts frequent readings and book-club meetings; the public library sponsors a world-class Children's Festival of Reading each year; and the University of Tennessee, which boasts a "Writers in the Library" program and a creative-writing department, has a Ph.D. program in writing that's ranked fifth in the entire nation for funding. In other words, novelist Christopher Hebert landed in a good town.

A graduate of the University of Michigan's prestigious M.F.A. program, Hebert has been named the Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Libraries for the 2012-2013 academic year. He will organize the Writers in the Library program.

Hebert isn't actually new to Knoxville, however. He's married to novelist Margaret Lazarus Dean, and they came to the city in 2008 when Dean took a job as an assistant professor at UTK. (For an inside look at what it's like to share a home, a child, and a passion to write, click here to read a profile of the couple.) Hebert himself is an adjunct professor in the creative-writing program, though teaching hasn't kept him from writing: in February his first novel was published to great acclaim. Set in an unnamed Caribbean country on the verge of civil war, The Boiling Season is the story of a man who tries desperately, and futilely, to isolate himself from the violence erupting all over the island. Interviewing Hebert for Chapter 16, novelist Madison Smartt Bell wrote, "One feels the weight of the tropical air in reading this book, and the weight of blood and history behind it." (Read other reviews here, here, and here.)

And if teaching duties haven't prevented Hebert from writing a novel, it's also true that writing a novel hasn't prevented him from also writing a very long and very thoughtful essay about political apathy among young people in this country, especially in light of the extraordinary risks young people in other countries around the world are willing to take for the sake of political engagement. In researching the events he would later fictionalize in writing The Boiling Season, Hebert became particularly aware of the difference between Americans and Haitians:

For many Americans, politics is an abstraction, something that happens somewhere else, overseen by people we pay to handle things so we don’t have to think about them. In a place like Haiti, I came to see, politics is virtually inescapable. In 1964, while in exile during the reign of dictator Françoise Duvalier, Haitian scholar (and future president) Leslie Manigat wrote of the situation back home, "Everything is political… The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump. The prestige that a professor gains among his students may represent a political threat to the government… Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him."

Read the rest of the essay here.

Published Friday, 18 May 2012