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Words to Live By: Drexel’s Writers Room Hosting Festival in Celebration of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’

May 11, 2016

A group of Drexel students listening to a piece written in Writers Room being read. Courtesy of Rachel Wenrick.
A group of Drexel students listening to a piece written in Writers Room being read. Courtesy of Rachel Wenrick.

A person’s words can stick with you, and a piece written as part of Drexel’s Writers Room literary arts program last year had some staying power. 

“I would love to turn my journals into memoir because there is a story I have to tell,” wrote Carol Richardson McCullough, a Mantua resident. “Much has happened. Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book in seven weeks to pay her rent. Perhaps I will do that, too.”

Hurston, born 125 years ago — the same year as Drexel University, coincidentally — wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a semi-autobiographical novel featuring a black, female protagonist. Published in 1937, the novel has become an essential in American literature and was on the list of potential books to choose for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read grant program this year.

This year, Writers Room, a literary arts program designed to bring the Drexel community and its neighboring residents together, will use the book as the basis of a dozen linked events for which they received a Big Read grant. The Free Library of Philadelphia, a partner in the project, will provide venues, guidance, and help getting the word out to people across the city.

“The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has 34 different books you can choose from, so when we saw ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ we said, ‘It has to be that one,’” said Rachel Wenrick, associate teaching professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and director/founder of Writers Room. “That quote from Carol, that’s the heart of it — how Hurston’s genius and subject matter continue to inspire.”

Programming was put together chiefly by Wenrick and Kirsten Kaschock, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and assistant director of Writers Room. Faculty across Drexel also made contributions to the programming, which will last seven weeks — fitting the legend behind the novel’s creation.

“The famous lore is that the novel was written in seven weeks, so we want to see what we, as a community, can produce in the same timeframe,” Wenrick said.

In late September, the festival will kick off with much fanfare. McCullough will introduce the event’s keynote speaker, Cheryl Wall, PhD, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers University, who will speak on Hurston’s life and work. Following that, a New Orleans-style second-line parade will make its way through Drexel’s campus and the Powelton Village and Mantua neighborhoods, ending at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, where Writers Room is housed. There, University and local music groups will perform, all to commemorate Hurston’s work with African-American folk music.

Events in the weeks following the kickoff will include literary panels and workshops, a performance workshop, soul food cooking with chef Brian Lofink, a 2003 Drexel graduate, poetry slams, children’s programming and, of course, book discussions and writing sessions.

At the end, Writers Room will host a reading of original pieces written during the seven weeks. There may also be a “zine” compiled,  “something gritty and raw,” according to Wenrick.

The hope is that the NEA Big Read program will further the goals of Writers Room: bringing together a wide range of people through the experience of writing and art.

“I hope it continues to show us that we are more the same than we are different,” Wenrick said. “Things like the Big Read and Writers Room, where we take time out of our daily existence to share an experience with someone else, those moments are transcendent.”

“You find your folks, that’s what art does. And that’s what we come together at Writers Room to do,” Wenrick concluded.