URI English professor takes a detour to awkwardness

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KINGSTON, R.I. –June 12, 2007—University of Rhode Island English Professor Mary Cappello took the road less traveled and the result is a book-length essay called Awkward: A Detour released this month by Bellevue Literary Press. It’s a literary hybrid: part memoir, part cultural criticism, part philosophical meditation.

Cappello didn’t set out to write about awkwardness. Instead a set of serendipities led to awkwardness, a singularly human condition, she says, one that is a wholly pervasive, but woefully ignored and unexamined.

“FINALLY, there is a study of awkwardness in all its many forms: speech, touch, breathing in public, clumsiness…”The Los Angeles Times proclaimed in its Discoveries section last month.

Cappello’s 2001 and 2002 experiences in Russia and Italy served as a foundation in her pursuit of awkwardness, most especially because of her struggles to adjust to life in the United States upon her return, particularly in the year following the events of 9/11.

But a seminar in Documentary Discourse and Immigrant Subjectivity convinced her that awkwardness was indeed a subject for a book.

“I was teaching Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a beautiful and dark meditation on a relationship between a young Moroccan immigrant to Germany and a German working class-cleaning woman,” she explains. “The film is structured around surveying gazes, and, consequently—people–most especially the couple in question—as they move in their bodies in ‘unnatural’ ways, stiffly, even as they try to show affection to one another. My students laughed at these stilted-seeming displays, while I was moved by them.”

That led to a classroom conversation about all that is NOT revealed. For example, Hollywood films present the body as though its owner has a perfectly seamless and “natural” relation to it and the artificiality it would require to make it so.

The class prompted Cappello to search for a passage in her Italian immigrant grandfather’s journals. She didn’t find the piece, but instead, found two letters that her grandfather had written to her when she was a child but had never sent. “The letters were intensely beautiful in their structure and sentiment, and I was struck by the writing and re-writing that was going on in them. As I turned one letter over, I saw, penciled on the reverse end, upside down, atop a page the words that my grandfather was teaching himself that day from the English dictionary, accompanied, not by their English definitions, but by their beguiling Italian counterparts. At the top of the page, the word “awkward” appeared. This was followed by “awhile,” and after that “awe.”

Cappello finds examples of awkwardness everywhere—in people of all ages, in speech and in silence, in our cultural, social, psychological, and spiritual lives. She also looks at the way awkwardness figures in the life and work of artists like Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Fassbinder.

“Awkwardness can be understood to be at the center of being alive—insofar as ‘being’ depends upon a great many inconsistencies and gaps that we daily try to avoid acknowledging. The gap between being alive and not understanding what it means to be alive is a kind of fundamental awkwardness,” the author explains.

“ The book, in a sense, is a celebration of awkwardness—it offers a revaluation of awkwardness, and maybe this is its political aspect: I think our inability to endure awkward states hasn’t served us well (I mean “we” Americans in a post-9/11 nation). The radical challenge of our current historical moment is twofold in this sense: we must give ourselves over to an awkward metamorphosis and release awkwardness itself from a definitional stranglehold that treats it as a state that is to be avoided at all costs.”

Cappello is deep into writing another book, this one on a pioneering laryngologist who collected more than 2,000 “things” from people’s airways and stomachs that are on display in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

Schedule of Readings Follow:

URI English Professor Mary Cappello, author of Awkward: A Detour and James Morrison, author of The Lost Girl will read together from their new books at the following venues in June:


Dutton’s Brentwood Books (http://www.duttonsbrentwood.com/)

Friday, June 8, 7 p.m.

11975 San Vicente Blvd.

Los Angeles, Calif. 90049

(310) 476-6263

Latitude 33

Sunday, June 10th, 2 p.m.

311 Ocean Avenue

Laguna Beach, Calif. 92651

(949) 494 5403

Philadelphia, PA

Giovanni’s Room (www.giovannisroom.com)

Queering Father’s Day

Sunday, June 17, 5:30 p.m.

345 S 12th St

Philadelphia, PA 19107

(215) 923-2960

Robin’s Bookstore (www.robinsbookstore.com)

Monday, June 18th, 6 pm

108 South 13th Street

Between Chestnut and Samson

New York City

NYC GLBT Center (www.gaycenter.org)

Wednesday, June 20th, 6 pm (reception); 7 pm (reading)

208 West 13th Street

New York, New York 10011

212 620-7310

Books will be available for sale through Oscar Wilde Books

New England

Ocean State Summer Writing Conference (http://www.uri.edu/artsci/eng/)

“The Risk of Writing”

Saturday, June 23, 3:15-4:45

Special Featured Reading Event

Mary Cappello, Talvikki Ansel, Amity Gaige, James Morrison

The Galanti Lounge, University of Rhode Island Library

Kingston, RI 02881

Books, Etc. (http://www.mainebooksetc.com/)

Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m.

38 Exchange Street

Portland, Maine 04101

Ph: 207 774-0626

Brown University Bookstore (http://bookstore.brown.edu/)

Tuesday, June 26th, 6:30 pm

244 Thayer Street

Providence, R.I .

401 863-3168; 800 695-2050

Followed by a “Come As You Are Awkward” Costume/Dance Party