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Common Text Uncovers Shared Experiences

Prof. Andre Dubus’ Story Gets Students Talking

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Prof. Andre Dubus III discussed his memoir "Townie" with UMass Lowell students as part of the Common Text program.

By Julia Gavin

Prof. Andre Dubus III isn’t certain why so many readers have flocked to “Townie,” his coming-of-age story and accidental memoir. Perhaps readers are drawn to the elements of struggle, absence and self-discovery with a back drop of family drama build an honest and raw story that has thrilled readers and critics alike. In any case, readers – including first-year students who are required to read the book as the fall Common Text 2012 selection – love it.

As the book inspires classroom debates, self-reflection and new writing projects, Dubus is happy to be a part of the Common Text project, which is intended to give all incoming students a shared thread in their studies with accompanying assignments and events.

“I honestly can't say why so many people from varying backgrounds identify with a lot of what's in ‘Townie’ but I have a hunch it has to do with this: most people have had fairly painful and challenging childhoods. Yes, ‘most.’ That's my theory anyway,” says Dubus.
"And if I've tried to do anything in this book, I've tried to write as honestly and fairly of  my remembered point-of-view as possible. When a writer does this, he invites the reader back into the shadow of his or her own story, creating a connection with readers. I find this heart to heart connection to be nearly sacred, as  it's what writing and reading is all about.”

The Common Text project, part of the University’s First Year Writing Program coordinated by Prof. Paula Haines of the English Department, has chosen many books to highlight over the years, but “Townie” is the first written by a University professor. Sharing intimate details of one’s life in a book is difficult for any author, but is it harder working every day with colleagues and students who are discussing your past in class? Dubus says no.

“I'm really an open-book kind of guy who wants authentic connection with whomever I'm talking to, so I'm fine with being exposed in this way,” says Dubus. “The most common reaction I've gotten around campus is seeing two or three students pointing at me and whispering to each other as I walk by. It's an honor, really.”

Some of those students talking about the book attended a standing-room-only discussion with Dubus. Students from the University and other local schools had a chance to ask Dubus about his writing process (every day, longhand in notebooks, alone), how his family reacted to the book (with overwhelming support) and many other questions. 

Juan Santillan, an electrical engineering student at Northern Essex Community College, asked Dubus about his experiences as an intellectual teen stuck in a violent world. Santillan lives in the same Haverhill neighborhood Dubus grew up in.

“The book is a real page-turner and I had so many questions and ideas whenever I sat down to read it,” says Santillan. “Someone from my neighborhood got out and has been successful, that’s really important for people to know.”

Haines says the discussion with Dubus was a highlight for many students.

“Andre’s honesty — both in “Townie” and in the talk — provoked their curiosity, and his frank responses to their many questions showed them what we all stand to gain from reading, thinking and talking together.”

Dubus encouraged students to keep building on the questions posed during the semester and to share their own stories when they’re ready.

“I believe the only way to transfer feeling from one heart to another is to write the truth,” says Dubus. “Your story is worth telling. Your life is worth expressing.”

Film and Projects Expand Common Experience

Throughout the semester, the Common Text Film Series, coordinated by lecturer Robert LeBlanc, has offered students cinematic approaches to many of the themes presented in “Townie.” A recent screening of “Fish Tank,” a British drama focused on the struggles of a teenage girl, helped students draw comparisons between seemingly unrelated stories.

“The people in both ‘Townie’ and ‘Fish Tank’ seemed to be living each day aimlessly,” says Roy Van Liew, a computer science student who earlier asked Dubus about his views on bullying, a prominent theme in the book. “The days just go on and they seem stuck.”

Reaction to the film series has been very positive with lively discussion. LeBlanc says he “wanted other perspectives on difficult childhoods, stories related to Andre’s but different,” and found many to fit the bill. 

The film series will wrap up with two screenings, the movie adaptation of Dubus' “House of Sand and Fog” hosted by the author on Nov. 29 and “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” on Dec. 10. Both are free and open to the public and take place in O’Leary 222 at 6:30 p.m.

Students will have an opportunity to share their projects related to the Common Text experience at the “Townie” Fall Forum on Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. in O’Leary 222.

Video of Common Text Event