Literary giant James A. Michener would have been 100 this year. To celebrate his life and bestow a posthumous thanks for his enduring generosity, students in the Master of Fine Arts in Fiction and Poetry program this fall shared snippets from writers who have inspired them most.
Poet Diane Larson, a second-year M.F.A. student, noted that she wouldn’t have been able to afford graduate school if it weren’t for her James A. Michener Writing Fellowship.
“How can I thank the foundation? I write every day and use every resource I can get my hands on. Since your spirit may be here, hovering at this celebration,” Larson said, glancing up at the University Bookstore ceiling for a sign of Michener’s presence, “I’ll say thank you, James Michener, for your forethought and generosity. Good for me that you were drawn to Miami, just as I was.”
Larson launched into a vivacious rendition of “Red Vinyl,” a poem by her mentor Jim Ray Daniels, deftly clipping sunshades onto her glasses while reading his line, “poetry with shades on.”
Of the 13 students who paid homage to Joyce Carol Oates, Anton Chekhov, Jamaica Kincaid, and other authors both known and obscure, seven are Michener fellows. In 1992 Michener established an endowment at the College of Arts and Sciences that helped create the M.F.A. program in the Department of English.
“It’s amazing that even if you are not from America, there’s a prominent American writer who is supporting writers of all nations. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m really thankful to be here,” noted Pankaj Challa, a Michener fellow who is originally from India.
Raised by a foster mother in Pennsylvania, Michener was a prolific novelist with more than 40 titles to his name before his death in 1997. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of short stories inspired by his travels in the U.S. Navy during World War II. The book was later adapted to the Broadway musical and film South Pacific. From 1986 until 1989, Michener was a distinguished visiting writer at the University of Miami, during which time he wrote Caribbean. His appointment required no teaching, but he frequently served as a guest speaker and as a mentor to individual students.
“This event is a great opportunity to pay homage to texts that have mentored and influenced us as developing writers,” said A. Manette Ansay, director of the English department’s M.F.A. program, who sliced Michener’s birthday cake gingerly, trying to preserve the icing imprint of Caribbean in the center. “When we share meaningful work, we gain greater insight into where our own stories, poems, and novels are coming from.”