Benelli Visiting Writers Series: De Leon details the power of story
Award-winning author Jennifer De Leon recently visited Thayer to share her story before encouraging students to do the same.
Born in the Boston area to Guatemalan parents, De Leon is the author of two young adult novels, Borderless and Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From. She is also the author of White Space: Essays on Culture, Race & Writing, and served as the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education.
The Latinx novelist and essayist came to Thayer Oct. 23 as the guest author of the Benelli Visiting Writer Series. She addressed an Upper School assembly in the morning before leading a writing workshop with 8th graders at the Middle School. To finish the day, in collaboration with DEIB Director Matt Ghiden, De Leon shared lunch and conversation with the Mi Gente Latinx student affinity group.
“Education is a set of keys that can unlock countless doors,” De Leon told Upper School students that morning. The first in her family to attend college, De Leon told the story of how, as a child in Guatemala, De Leon’s mother would switch school uniforms with her sister midday so that they could both receive an education for the same tuition; the sisters would then fill the other one in on what they’d missed.
De Leon also spoke candidly about her own childhood and “Code-Switching,” or the ability or felt need to switch back and forth between one linguistic code or dialect to another. For her, it was “White Jenn” during the week in suburbia and “Latina Jenn” when she visited family and friends in Jamaica Plain over the weekend. Despite her ability to navigate both worlds, she told students, she didn’t feel entirely at home in either.
That sense of isolation continued into college, where she loved the experience but sometimes felt she didn’t have as complete a contextual blueprint as her peers did.
“What I was missing were the stories,” she said.
That changed at age 19 when she was assigned to read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros; it was the first time she had read a book by a Latina author, and she felt parts of her own experience reflected in the pages.
“I had never read a book like this,” said De Leon, who said the experience reinforced a belief that she, too, had stories to tell.
De Leon, who read an excerpt from Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From before fielding questions from the audience, remains an ardent advocate of different voices in storytelling.
“The single story creates stereotypes,” she said.
At the Middle School, in collaboration with Middle School Librarian Blodine Francois and Middle School English Faculty Brian Cibelli, De Leon led a writing workshop with 8th graders who each received a miniature notebook and a pen and were then asked to write about an important moment in their lives. De Leon encouraged the students to write more expressively by adding sensory details, personal reflections, a sequence of events, and context. The students then decorated their notebooks courtesy of Middle School Arts Faculty Destiny Palmer’s Art Room Sticker Store, and several students shared what they’d written with the entire class.
“We were very fortunate to have Ms. De Leon share her writing and experiences with us,” said Francois.
According to Upper School History Faculty and Benelli Writing Center Director Karen Jersild, who created the visiting writer series several years ago and has run it ever since, this fall marks the first time a series author has visited the Middle School and the first time a series author has met with affinity groups.
“It’s exciting to extend the series in new directions,” said Jersild, who added her appreciation that student groups had the opportunity to meet with such a distinguished author.
“Ms. De Leon's visit was a significant opportunity to provide ‘windows and mirrors,’ allowing our Latinx community members to see aspects of their own identities reflected (mirrors) and offering insights into diverse identities, experiences, and motivations for the larger community (windows),” said the DEIB director. “Ms. De Leon’s meeting with Mi Gente was an awesome chance to make further connections.”
An associate professor of creative writing at Framingham State University and a faculty member in the Creative Writing & Literature Master’s Degree Program at Harvard University, De Leon has published prose in noted literary journals such as Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is also a contributor to NPR. Readers can purchase De Leon’s works through Porter Square Books and can also follow her on Instagram.