Telling Life Stories
Three Radcliffe Institute fellows—a novelist, a historian, and a biographer—gave alumnae/i and friends in New York City a taste of the cross-disciplinary discussions that occur at the Institute. The fellows spoke in early December about telling life stories from their differing perspectives.
JANE RHODES RI ’13, the Joy Foundation Fellow and a professor of American studies at Macalester College, described her work writing a biography of Marie Battle Singer, a social worker and black American expatriate who left the United States after World War II. Singer eventually settled in London, where she studied psychoanalysis with Anna Freud and became a renowned psychoanalyst.
Rhodes showed pictures of Singer—who was her mother’s sister—as she drew the broad outlines of her life. Born in 1910 in rural Mississippi to parents who were highly educated, she and her siblings were taught in a school that their parents founded. After a white man killed a black teacher on the grounds of the school in 1925, the family joined the Great Migration, with Marie and her sisters moving to Boston. Marie earned an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a master’s in social work at Smith College. In 1948 she joined the International Refugee Organization and boarded a ship to Germany. She was soon promoted to assistant to the head of the IRO’s childcare program, a position that thrilled her. “It’s deeply ironic,” Rhodes said, that “getting ahead was available to her in occupied Germany.” Compared with what she was used to, Germany was luxurious, even in the wake of the war’s devastation.
RENÉE POZNANSKI RI ’13, a historian and the Lisa Goldberg Fellow at the Institute, holds the Yaakov and Poria Avnon Professorship of Holocaust Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. She discussed telling the stories of more than one individual, studying letters, diaries, and reports for her book about the Jewish Resistance during World War II. She described reading accounts by internees at the Drancy camp, near Paris, where Jews were held before being sent to Auschwitz. According to reports written by internees, conditions were at first deplorable, and people were starving. But soon the food improved, the Red Cross was permitted to visit, and the guards were not so vicious. “Hence, the conclusion drawn by the Jewish leaders,” Poznanski said. “If conditions were improving, it meant that killing Jews was not on the agenda.”
RAJESH PARAMESWARAN RI ’13, a fiction writer and the Beatrice Shepherd Blane Fellow at Radcliffe, said he likes to invent life stories. He’s currently writing a novel set on Barren Island, near New York City, where the city once dumped its garbage. His Radcliffe research partner is conducting historical research about the island that Parameswaran plans to use as a jumping-off point in imagining the novel. He engaged the audience by reading one of his short stories, “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan,” a disturbing story about a man who poses as a physician after he loses his job at Comp USA.
The Radcliffe Institute is on the move across the country—and, this coming spring, across the pond—sharing its transformative work with alumnae/i and friends in other cities.
Radcliffe on the Road events in spring 2013 will feature Radcliffe fellows and faculty members in Washington, DC (March 5), Seattle (May 9), and London (June 9). For more information about these events, contact Jessica Viklund at Jessica_Viklund@radcliffe.harvard.edu.