Arts & Events

“Everything I needed to know I learned from fiction”

By Parker Barry

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive” — James Baldwin.

“Everything I Needed to Know I learned from Fiction,” the title of African American studies professor Renee Simms’ Feb. 27 lecture, seemed to ring true. She took the audience through her life and how, in the end, fiction taught her everything. In the talk, which was sponsored by the Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society, professor Simms discussed her journey towards developing a passion for literature and narratives.

Simms originally pursued a a career as a lawyer. She was a defense lawyer in the insurance industry and represented companies like Allstate. She thought that lawyers made good money, and, more importantly, that lawyers got to weave narratives to juries and judges.

Constructing a story was the main thing that she enjoyed about law. Simms explained that this was a problem because telling stories was a very small part of it. Realizing that the only part of law she enjoyed were the stories was a turning point for her.

Simms broke up her presentations using “chapters” (I see what she did there) as different sections in her life that brought her closer to a career in studying fiction. She described the books that inspired her passions when she was younger: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “L’Etranger” by Albert Camus and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. She said these books struck her because she was able to relate to them; they described a form of the human condition that nothing else had for her until that point.

The books that she described as influencing her writing were “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith, “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, “Beloved” and “Solomon” by Toni Morrison, “2666” by Roberto Bolano and “Zong!” by M. NourbeSe Philip.

She discussed in depth the book “Zong!” which captured the experiences of slaves being shipped across the ocean through an unidentifiable genre that may be viewed as poetry. Simms described M. NourbeSe Philip as “anti-lyric, anti-syntax and anti-law.” The book, Simms argued, allows for a lost history to be told through fiction.

The presentation encompassed Simm’s process to finding herself in literature and also the most important aspects, she thinks, of literature as a professor. She highlighted the necessity of process, subtext, mythology, surprise and the mystery of language. She also said that the lessons she has learned from fiction include experimentation, humor, playfulness, perspective and the power of subtext.

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