An assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, Faith Adiele won a PEN Beyond the Margins Award for her memoir Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun in Thailand, and was the subject of My Journey Home, a PBS documentary that looked at her childhood up as the daughter of Nigerian and Nordic-American parents.
A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Adiele more recently served as a co-editor with Mary Frosch for Coming of Age Around the World, a collection of 24 short works (including fiction, memoirs, graphics and other forms by such contributors as Ben Okri and Marjane Satrapi). The new volume serves as the centerpiece of her appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival, at noon Saturday, Oct. 13, at A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore.
The Daily Page: How did you come to co-edit Coming of Age Around the World?
Adiele: My college pal and former co-author on the delightfully trashy, The Student Body, Bennett Singer invited me to collaborate on the project. He's done a number of books for The New Press, so they had asked him to submit a proposal, but he didn't feel particularly qualified to do an international anthology. When his film career forced him to withdraw, the project became mine.
What three aspects of this project did you find most appealing?
One of my favorite things to teach is the coming of age story, and I thought that personal stories would be a great way that colleges and high schools could combat our lack of knowledge about other cultures and global history.
I'm always looking for ways to internationalize my reading, a desire given some urgency once I read the UNESCO statistic that only 6% of world literature is translated into English.
I've wanted to edit an anthology for quite some time, so the opportunity to develop a new skill was a huge draw.
What were your responsibilities as co-editor, and how did you go about sharing duties with Mary?
I was the original editor, so I really shaped our approach and drafted the introduction. We shared equal responsibility for finding stories and sharing them with each other, setting the table of contents, and writing the contextualizations for each story. Mary tended to focus on fiction and I on nonfiction.
How were the stories for Coming of Age Around the World chosen or solicited? What criteria did you apply to the selection process?
Due to our respective time constraints, none were solicited. We went with works that had already been published and (if necessary) translated into English.
My particular interest were stories that
- Illuminated major historic moments, with the protagonist's coming of age accompanying the country's coming of age, such as Andrew Pham's account of becoming Boat People during the Vietnam War, or
- Complicated traditional notions of identity and place, for example, someone like Alexandra Fuller who was born in England, raised in Southern Africa by 2nd generation white Africans, and now writing from the USA.
How did you manage to keep the collection's unifying themes in view while focusing on individual contributions?
It required many drafts of the Table of Contents. We knew we wanted stories that were current (post 1975), powerful and representative of all sorts of diversity. We chose the stories first, and saw what themes were emerging therefrom.
To what simile or metaphor might you compare the experience of editing of this book?
I don't have a simile but the experience was one of terror -- from the minute we finished I have lived in dread of coming across the perfect story we omitted.
The collection includes stories by several authors of substantial reputation, such as Marjane Satrapi and Ben Okri. Were you at all intimidated about editing specific works? How did you negotiate the give-and-take of working with the contributors?
No editing of actual texts was required, as all works had already been published. It was always our goal to mix lesser-known folks with international stars with folks famous in their home countries but unknown in the USA. It gratifying that every single person we asked to include said yes.
From your perspective as editor, how do geography, gender and ethnicity compare as determinants of the authors' views on coming of age?
You see that these social determinants -- individually and/or together -- really do determine most of the world's options. Unlike the American mythology of you can become whatever you want to be, most people have very limited options of what they will become, which is determined by their group membership. In a sense, that challenges the whole notion of coming of age, which as we normally define it, is very Western/Northern hemisphere and based on ideals of the individual.
How would you describe your editing style? And how has it been shaped by your own experiences as an author whose contributions to anthologies such as A Woman Alone and Men We Cherish were (I presume) edited?
True, I got my start in anthologies and have appeared in dozens of them. It's a great way to make new friends. But again, we didn't have to edit the stories themselves, just the volume as a whole -- which stories, what order, what themes, glossary of terms, and the introductory headnotes, which was my favorite part.
What can your Wisconsin Book Festival audience expect from your presentation?
My usual high energy and irreverent humor, to be sure!
What did you learn, gain or take away from your appearance at the 2004 Wisconsin Book Festival? What are your expectations for your return this year?
That was a wonderful time, and my appearance had immense personal significance, given that the journey detailed in the book began in a way in Madison. I'm not sure anything could live up to that. But I love Madison, I love the book festival, and I love the folks I've met at the Africa Without Borders conference as well.
What is the status of Twins, the memoir you were working on when you appeared at the festival three years ago?
Aw, you remembered! It got put on the back burner in light of recent responsibilities, but it's simmering.
When you participated in Isthmus's series of Q&As for the 2004 Wisconsin Book Festival, you said the last book you had read that you would recommend was Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun. Among the more recent books you've read, what are you recommending?
Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. I'm hoping the Turkish government will read this and invite me to visit, gratis.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, who might you be most eager to see?
Patricia Hampl is one of my absolute favorites -- the way her essays perform memoir while also deconstructing and teaching it. And of course, Chimamanda Adichie, who's an old family friend, and Zakes Mda.
How did you come to write a movie review for Oprah's magazine? Which movie did you review?
The editor called me to write something for their first spirituality issue (May 2007). She liked how quickly I worked and how amenable I was to being edited, so she gave me a full page with photo and a few weeks later, when they decided to do a last minute story on the Dr. Mayme A. Clayton archives for the August issue, they called me.
It's an amazing story -- a career librarian who single-handedly amassed the largest privately-owned collection of African American memorabilia in the world, some 3.5 million items, including thousands of early films, out of print books and correspondence. She recently died, and her son is trying to raise the funds to create a library to house her amazing collection. Casa Frela, a gallery in Harlem, was showing some of the early films she collected, which have recently been released on DVD as well. Oprah's magazine wanted me to watch and review some of the films, which star everybody, from Paul Robeson to Lena Horne to Cab Calloway to Louis Armstrong.
What kind of response have you gotten to your appearance in the women's magazine PINK?
Delighted surprise. Or is it, surprised delight?
What is the best sentence you've ever read?
One of my favorites is the first line of That Night by Alice McDermott: "That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands."