<em>Reading Up to the MFA Program</em> by Gabrielle Girard

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Reading Up to the MFA Program by Gabrielle Girard

Posted on November 18, 2022

Looking back on the books I read in the months before moving to Greensboro, I see the UNCG application process and my whole winter, spring, and summer. Sometimes I was trying to plug gaps in my reading history. Mostly, I was drifting through my local public library letting my intuition guide me, the way I did when I was a kid. Before I knew whether I would be accepted to grad school, I read a lot, trying to claim my identity as a writer and a reader. Here are some of the books I finished in the liminal period before I enrolled at UNCG for my MFA in fiction, in no particular order.  

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion broke a reading hiatus for me. I chose it because I enjoyed Play It as It Lays. I had exited my nine-to-six writing about IRS tax forms, and in a slew of part-time jobs, started craving novels again. I appreciated the journalistic quality of this book, the emphasis on spin, truth obscured by perception, and the mother-daughter relationship in the background of it all. The facts layer together slowly to form a complete picture. I finished reading this book in a coffee shop that was giving away bouquets of red roses without explanation.

Around the same time, I was drawn to The Ash Family by Molly Dektar, a story of a cult that prioritizes environmental advocacy, set in North Carolina. The protagonist, Beryl, is lured away by a man at a bus station on her way to college. In addition to the compelling premise, the descriptive language held me the whole time. There is one image of a sheep’s eye that I can still see in my mind. I mostly sat outside in North Carolina in the spring to read this one, but I would have been fully immersed in Dektar’s depictions of nature anywhere.

Next, I read The Mothers by Brit Bennett. The story follows the life of a young woman grieving her mother’s suicide, catching the lives of the character’s around her: a high school romance that stays with her, a best friend, and the collective voice of the mothers of her childhood community’s church. This book, with its complex consideration of pregnancy, motherhood, interlocked lives, and love, moved me so much that I followed it up with The Vanishing Half. Bennett’s second novel traces the thread of two twin sisters who run away from their fictional Louisiana town in 1954, one choosing to pass as white, the other living her life as a black woman. The plot spans generations, held together by the connecting thread of the fractured family, playing out the nuanced implications of racism, violence, colorism, love, gender, and identity.

Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, came to me during a time when I was meditating on religion and trauma. It recounts her experience growing up deprived of traditional education in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho. I was touched by her compassion while grappling with themes of mental health and abuse. Westover’s formal education eventually culminated with a Harvard fellowship and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and her story inspires me endlessly.

This was the year that I finally read Harlem Renaissance classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. This is something I have always meant to read and found one day on my partner’s bookshelf. It follows protagonist Janie Crawford, from an arranged marriage through a full and varied life, bringing up themes of home, race, personal autonomy, oppression, and love in the American South. I found myself reading it with reverence.

I had the pleasure of reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway on a summer road trip to Miami. On a detour to Key West, I visited the Hemingway Home and Museum and picked it up in the gift shop. It was a little surreal to read about so many authors, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, from the perspective of someone who saw them at their worst (and drunkest) and humanized, cared for, and criticized them. This book also captures the feeling of Paris as a literary hub in the 1920s, when so many now-celebrated figures were still aspiring artists, and it was interesting to read it in a place where Hemingway once lived. 

Finally, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The protagonist, Theo Decker is a young boy in New York City, caught by chance in the bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mother does not survive. When Theo emerges from the rubble and flees into the city, a small painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius titled “The Goldfinch” goes with him. The novel follows him into adulthood, and by the end, I felt as though I either knew him or had lived his life. I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge, research, and specificity that was necessary for the creation of such a tangible world.  

When I look back at all of these books, I see myself holding on to themes of family, identity, trauma, and the complexities of what it means to be emotionally, physically, and psychologically free. Now, halfway through my first semester at UNCG, I feel like I am carrying these books with me, and am excited for what I read next.  


GABRIELLE GIRARD is a first-year fiction writer. She currently serves as a Consultant for the University Writing Center.