Avast Ye Hearties!
- By Ruth Ozeki
On Carole DeSanti’s work-in-progress: Plunder, The Exploits & Adventures of the Notorious Pyrates Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
It is my great pleasure to introduce our Elizabeth Drew Professor of English Language and Literature, Carole DeSanti, who will be talking to us today about pirates.
Now, I have known Carole for a very long time. Currently she is my colleague here at Smith. Before that, she was my editor at Viking Penguin, where she acquired my first novel when I was just starting out, and then over the next several decades patiently taught me how to be an author and build a literary career.
But before that, Carole was my classmate here at Smith. Now this was back in the late 20th century, when the mountains were still cooling. We were taking a Literary Theory class taught by our dear professor, Ann Jones. And right here, upstairs, in Wright Hall, Carole and I started a conversation about books and writing that has spanned millennia and continues to this day.
Given how long I’ve known Carole, I could tell you many things…but I won’t. I’ll keep this professional. When Carole graduated from Smith, she was a young Marxist feminist interested in a career in publishing, and she got a sales job in Boston, going door to door, selling advertisements for Sojourner, one of the prominent feminist journals in the country at that time. From those humble beginnings, she went on to have a long and distinguished career as an editor and champion of diverse and marginalized literary voices in mainstream commercial publishing.
Now, you might have noticed something… inconsistent… in Carole’s career trajectory: she went from peddling ads for a small feminist magazine to being a Vice President and Executive Editor for one of the largest corporate publishing conglomerates in the world. And I mention this in order to draw your attention to a part of Carole that she is very good at hiding: and that is her inner pirate.
Corporate publishing is the belly of the beast, and Carole worked there for over 30 years, using her piratical, swashbuckling skills to improve the lot of marginalized writers, liberating them from their structurally imposed obscurity, poverty, and silence. This is not exactly stealing from the rich and giving to the poor…but it’s pretty close.
Carole made it her mission to break through barriers of gender, race, and sexuality, supporting and creating careers in fiction for women and LGBTQ writers, and writers of color. In the turbulent sea of publishing with its ever-shifting tides, Carole kept a gimlet eye fixed on the horizon, searching for new routes and ways to expand the reach of great books, and carving out readerships that were previously unrecognized or ignored by the industry.
Some of the outlaws—I mean the writers—she discovered or brought on board her ship were Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, Terry McMillan, (Waiting to Exhale), Lan Cao (Monkey Bridge), Melissa Bank (The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing), and many others, including Penelope Lively, Marisha Pessl, Deborah Harkness, Victoria Redel, George Hodgman, and, well, me.
Aye, we were a jolly crew of scallywags….
During this time, Carole was also writing herself. Her critically acclaimed first novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R, published in 2012, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice in fiction. Written as a response and a feminist corrective to Emile Zola’s Nana, Carole’s epic novel tells the story of a young woman’s coming of age in the tumultuous, absinthe-soaked brothels of France’s Second Empire. The novel was praised for its “elegant 19th-century-style prose”, meticulous historical research, and vivid portrait of life during the Siege of Paris, the fall of the Second Empire, and the tragically short-lived Paris Commune.
Carole has written numerous reviews and essays for the New York Times, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Women's Review of Books. She is now working on her second novel, Plunder: The Exploits and Adventures of the Notorious Pyrates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which she will be speaking about today.
But before I turn over the helm—I mean the podium—to Carole, I want to make one last observation.
Pirates—like prostitutes, outlaws, revolutionaries, and even some writers—often have a Code of Honor, and Carole has one, too. Many of you, in particular her students, have heard Carole speak about, “literary citizenship,” a phrase I think she coined and one that has guided me on my path as a writer, reader, and most recently a teacher.
Good literary citizens are thoughtful and open-minded readers. If they are writers themselves, they are ethical, enthusiastic supporters of fellow writers and their work. They appreciate literary history and understand their place in it. They approach their vocation with humility and pride.
Above all, a good literary citizen is a builder of communities, dedicated to preserving the precious culture of books and writing for future generations. Carole has devoted her life to cultivating this code of literary citizenship, and in so doing, she has brought bounty and riches to us all.
And so now, my buccaneers and hearties, please join me in welcoming aboard the swashbuckling Carole DeSanti.
Ruth Ozeki is a writer, Zen priest, and author of My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, The Face, and A Tale for the Time Being. Her latest novel is The Book of Form and Emptiness. She teaches creative writing at Smith College, where she is the Grace Jarcho Ross 1933 Professor of Humanities.