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Convocation: Honoring the Craft of Writing and Two AlumnaeNovelist and English Prof. Amitava Kumar Delivered the Address

Novelist and Professor of English Amitava Kumar says he has three full-time jobs—teaching, writing, and being a parent—but he’s not complaining. He thoroughly enjoys all of them, and he says his “parenthood” isn’t limited to his own family; it extends to the students he has mentored as they embark on their own literary paths. “Very often on Commencement day,” Kumar says, “I will say to a parent, ‘He or she is my child.’”

Novelist and Professor of English Amitava Kumar. Photo: Courtesy of Amitava Kumar
Xiaoyuan (Charlene) Ren ‘13Photo: Vanessa Lenz

Kumar draws on real-life experiences for much of his material. And if that material has the ring of authenticity, it’s because he has perfected the art of preserving those experiences in a simple, straightforward way: He writes them down in little notebooks he has carried with him for the last 20 years. He’s not just a novelist, he’s also a journalist, and that fusion of skills has enabled him to move seamlessly between fact and fiction in his latest critically acclaimed novel, Immigrant, Montana.

Kumar shared some stories about his writing when he delivered the address at Vassar’s Fall Convocation September 12 at 3:30 pm in the Chapel. And while he says he doesn’t expect his audience remembered many of the details of his talk—it’s actually titled, “You Will Not Remember All of This”—he hoped to inspire writers and aspiring writers with tips on how he approaches his craft, including carrying a small notebook wherever he goes to jot down the details that will later inform his writing.

Students in Kumar’s senior seminar are required to walk the campus for at least 10 minutes every day and write 150 words about their observations. Kumar says he does this to demonstrate that there’s really no secret to writing—it’s simply a way of expressing what life is about. “Whether you’re writing a novel or a piece of nonfiction, you’re answering the question, ‘What does it mean to be alive?’” he says. 

Kumar says he brings that message to every class he teaches. “When I was in college my teachers were very disappointing—the lectures they gave had been prepared years earlier, if not decades,” he says. “Here, everything I’m doing in class is related to what’s going on in my students’ lives, so that freshness and immediacy and urgency is always there. That’s what I try to convey in my writing, so it’s all the same for me—my life inside the classroom and my life outside.”

During Convocation, the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) honored two alumnae. For the second year, it will bestowed its Young Alumnae/i Achievement or Service Award, which recognizes an alumna or alumnus who has graduated within the past 10 years and whose personal and professional achievements already have had a significant impact within their chosen field. This year’s award was presented to Xiaoyuan (Charlene) Ren ’13. In 2014, Ren initiated MyH2O, a water quality mapping network in China, and has since built a network of over 30 university water testing teams and collected over 2,000 water data points across China.

Lynn Povich ‘65Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Povich

The AAVC’s Distinguished Achievement Award was presented to journalist Lynn Povich ’65. After graduating from Vassar, Povich began her career as a secretary in the Paris Bureau of Newsweek magazine, rising to become a reporter and writer in New York. In 1970, she was one of 46 women who filed sex discrimination charges against the magazine, the first women in the media to do so. Five years later, she was appointed the first woman Senior Editor in Newsweek’s history. Povich has written a book about that landmark lawsuit, its bittersweet effect on the women involved and women in the media, and what has, and hasnt, changed. Her book, The Good Girls Revolt, was published in 2012. Povich became Editor-in-Chief of Working Woman magazine in 1991, and in 1996, she joined as East Coast Managing Editor, overseeing the Internet content of NBC News and MSNBC cable programs and personalities.

Just prior to Convocation itself, Povich and Ren delivered talks to students at a luncheon in the College Center. The topic of Povich’s talk was, “Are We There Yet? What’s Changed—and What Hasn’t—in the Fight for Women’s Rights?” Ren’s talk was titled, “My H2O: How Water Data Make Voices Heard in Rural China.”


The Chapel was a full house at Convocation 2018.Photo: Karl Rabe
Check out the Convocation Flickr photo gallery.