Fall Winter 07

The Core


Summer in the City

In Fermi’s Footsteps

Seeds of Change


Editor's Note

Vox Populi

Science Beyond Boundaries

Supporting Students as They Are

Summer Stock

Head of the Class

Geeking Out

Goin' West

Go Ask Alumni

Beyond the Quads

Goin' West

Newly installed Wallace Stegner Fellow Stephanie Soileau, AB’98, aims to put post-Katrina Louisiana on the literary map.

Not so long ago, Stephanie Soileau, AB’98, was beginning to wonder if she should give up on a career in writing.

Soileau, whose path led her from Cajun roots in southern Louisiana to the University of Chicago, and later to the prestigious Iowa Creative Writer’s Workshop, was teaching classes at multiple colleges in Chicago and trying to write a novel in the crannies of her spare time. It was a losing battle. Eventually Soileau decided to apply to graduate schools in English and considered going back to school for a teaching certificate. The story she wanted to tell—of Louisiana fishing communities watching their way of life vanish along with the ground under their feet—would have to wait.

Then one day last March came a surprise as out of the blue as the cows raining down from the sky in her 2005 story “The Boucherie.”

“I was grading a stack of composition papers— like 50 composition papers—at Truman College in my office,” Soileau recalls. “I got an e-mail and read it five times before I really started to believe.” She had been selected from more than 1,400 applicants as one of ten Wallace Stegner Fellows chosen each year. The fellowship provides two years’ residence at the Stanford Creative Writing Program and an annual living stipend.

Suddenly the novel came off hold. The fishermen she had interviewed the summer before in the southern coastal areas hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, the stories she had unearthed about a mythic 1893 storm, the people who survived the flood in a boat moored to a treetop, eating oranges floating on the water—all of it came out of waiting.

By the end of her two years, Soileau hopes to have enough of her novel done to attract a publisher. Like most of her fiction, it will be set in the South. Although she considers herself a southern writer, and in 2005 “The Boucherie” anchored the Best of the South collection of short stories, her ambition is to transcend regional literature.

“Any time you write about the south and some particular ethnic group, the story is almost certainly going to be overwhelmed by a sense of place, and it becomes about the place rather than a universal story,” she explains. “I think what I’d like to do based on my experience is write a story that uses the sort of archetypes that I saw in my Cajun heritage, the sorts of characters I saw, but to make them seem more universal.”

Soileau aims to go beyond the south in a more concrete sense as well, by evoking the “symmetry” that connects Louisiana to other places affected by global climate change. Near central Asia’s dwindling Aral Sea, for example, fishing villages now find themselves dozens of miles from the shore, she says, and “the same thing is sort of happening in reverse in Louisiana—rather than drying up there’s an inundation of the sea. The land that’s so integral to the culture and the history of a very small place is being irrevocably damaged and literally disappearing.”

Among the broad range of places that have shaped Soileau is of course Chicago, where Soileau came for college in 1994 after being intrigued by the “interesting” questions on the University of Chicago’s admissions application.

“Once I arrived I knew I was in the right place. It was such a profound difference from the place where I grew up,” she recalls. “It taught me a new language for discussing my experiences. Because the Core Humanities courses force you to read widely, I think it allowed me to put my experience in a broader context than I would have been able to otherwise.”

Eventually majoring in English, Soileau took creative writing classes with English Professor Richard Stern, whose demanding approach to language proved to be “hard” but “very influential.” Another high point was a class on American Gothic literature with English Professor William Veeder, who also supervised Soileau’s creative BA thesis.

“I still remember this lecture [Veeder] gave about ‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ and it was devastating. I remember being in tears at the end of it and thinking, ‘Wow, I hope I can produce something like that.’”

More than a decade after hearing that lecture, having tackled a master’s degree—and countless freshman composition papers—Soileau may be nearing her goal.

“If I’d known it would take this long, that I’d be writing in a vacuum for so long, I don’t know if I would have proceeded,” she says with a laugh. “Or I probably would have, but I’m glad I didn’t know.”—Jerome Tharaud, AB’02