As their debut novels garner rave reviews and their names appear in major national media, two writers are settling in to new positions as faculty members in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s creative writing program.
Jennine Capó Crucet and Chigozie Obioma joined the English department as assistant professors in August. Both have had busy years – they’ve each published debut novels, which found their way on to the book review pages of The New York Times. And recently, Obioma’s novel, “The Fishermen,” was included in the long list for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
The new faculty members’ momentum is familiar among UNL’s creative writing program, a longtime campus strength. Over the years, the program has risen in status and reputation; something that played a role in attracting applicants last year, said Marco Abel, professor and chair of English.
“The creative writing program for a long time has been a core strength of the English department,” he said. “This goes back many years, perhaps decades. We have seen certainly the visibility of the program increase and we felt that there was room to expand the program. We were given one junior-level hire, which we wanted to be a fiction writer.”
Obioma, a Nigerian, is a full faculty member in the English department. Crucet, who is a Cuban American, will serve in a joint appointment between English and the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
“They fit in tremendously well with the creative writing program,” Abel said. “And (Crucet) fits in well with ethnic studies and their goals to strengthen the Latin American arm of ethnic studies.”
Crucet, who recently released “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” and Obioma cited the creative writing program’s vigor as a main reason they came to Lincoln.
“I’ve known for quite some time about UNL’s excellent reputation and the amazing work coming out of the program here,” Crucet said. “I have a lot of amazing writer friends who are graduates of UNL’s English Ph.D. program, and I’m a huge admirer of their work and them as human beings, and everything I’d heard about it from them terribly impressed me.”
For Obioma, the decision took a personal turn when he learned of initiatives in the program.
“What actually pushed UNL up the top of my list was the desire to be a part of the amazing things the creative writing program, led by Kwame Dawes, is doing for African literature, mainly through the African Poetry Book Fund, and Prairie Schooner,” he said. “I’d been complaining for a very long time about the death of a reading culture amongst Africans of my generation. To see that there was a place actually doing something to combat that phenomenon was very encouraging.”
Abel said Obioma’s arrival will coincide nicely with a planned expansion into African literature.
“We are trying to implement some of the directives from Chancellor Perlman and Dean (Joseph) Francisco, trying to push the university more outward-looking, more global-looking, becoming more international,” Abel said. “One of the things we’re looking at creating is an African Poetics Institute. It doesn’t exist yet, but it is a long-term effort.
“We have several faculty members with an interest in African literature. With Chigozie, there is another added scholar. We’ll be adding two more faculty in African poetics this year.”
Crucet will be the first new faculty member to benefit from a new re-apportionment initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences wherein faculty members with joint appointments will have differently structured teaching loads. The move drew national attention and gave Crucet another indication that UNL was the right place.
“No other school came close to acknowledging, in such a tangible and codified way, the extra mentoring and service work that often falls on joint appointed faculty,” she said. “I was seriously impressed by their efforts and it signaled to me how much they value the kind of work I was already doing.”
Coming from different backgrounds, teaching creative writing will look vastly different in each of their classrooms. But both said they would challenge students to be critical readers, which is tantamount in becoming a better writer.
“Once you acquire that skill, it will help you not only in your own writing, but also in understanding the writing of others,” Obioma said.
“I bring a lot from my sketch comedy background – there’s a lot of jumping around and playing involved – but we also do a lot of serious, close reading in my classes,” Crucet said. “It’s any professor’s job to bring in material that will challenge their students. It’s our job to disrupt any easy ways of thinking about things, so I push my students out of their comfort zones often in the hopes of expanding those comfort zones.
“Also, I’m big on snacks.”
As Obioma takes on his first faculty teaching assignment, he said he is ready to learn just as much from his students as they’ll learn from him.
“I simply look forward to challenging my students for the better, and to be challenged by them for the better, too.”