Which book has had the biggest impact on you?
That’s hard to say and impossible to narrow to down to just one. The Friends by Rosa Guy, Sula by Toni Morrison and Beyond A Boundary by C.L.R. James are all books that made me look at the world differently. There were also the books that my parents read to me and then I read them over and over again myself. Of those, Black Folktales by Julius Lester, illustrated by the amazing Tom Feelings, the Narnia books, and James and the Giant Peach were absolute favourites—the legend of Stagolee, that magical wardrobe, the one hundred boots needed for a giant centipede! And I have to include From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisburg: having a little brother was a fantasy, but running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art seemed tantalizingly possible.
What do you do in your spare time?
I am a devoted Parkrunner; I think the whole concept of Parkrun is sheer brilliance. On a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning I might meet a friend for a walk or a coffee or a gallery visit. Video calls with our adult son who lives abroad are always a treat. The same goes for dinner with friends. I have a garden that just about survives despite the sporadic attention I give to it.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?
I love London where I have lived with my family for nearly twenty years, but I am a born and bred New Yorker, so if I could just shrink the Atlantic Ocean, in a non-climate disaster way, and pop over to ‘the city’ for some proper bagels every once in a while, well that would be amazing.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an artist. I had no talent whatsoever but I could spend hours with a sketch pad, pencils and a big box of Crayola crayons.
Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?
My parents. They were smart, hard-working, political and kind. Both of them were passionate teachers with serious sustained interests beyond work. Obviously, they weren’t flawless, but I wanted to be like them and they are still role models for me. I miss them very much.
Who were your childhood heroes?
On TV, I loved The Mary Tyler Moore show and one of its spin-offs, Rhoda. The female leads were funny, independent, professional women and their lives seemed fabulous! In sports it was Bjorn Borg not John McEnroe and Evonne Goolagong not Chris Evert, for me. And I was in awe of Sheila E. (Escovedo), who I first heard of as the percussionist in Prince’s band but she was (and is) an amazing musician in her own right.
What teacher had the greatest impact on you?
I had so many great teachers! At P.S. 75 in Manhattan, there was Michael Tempel who was the most creative teacher I have ever known. At university, Professors Emory Elliott and Valerie Smith both broke open American Literature for me and urged me on to postgraduate study. Whilst doing my PhD, my supervisors Professors Sandra Pouchet Paquet and Betsy Erkkila gently but firmly pushed me to develop as a scholar whilst also generously modelling ways of being in the academy.
Do you have pets?
Not anymore, but I once had a large, black and white cat named Soca and, a bit later, a gentle chocolate Labrador named Marley.
Were you popular as a teenager?
I was not unpopular. My high school was pretty low key but I definitely benefitted from the popularity of my best-friend, Jackie. She was more out-going than I was, so I happily moved along in her wake.
How would your friends describe you?
I think they would say I am kind and patient. They would also have a little laugh about me being both sceptical and inept whenever I encounter a new form of technology.
What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
Teaching tops the list of what I like most, followed closely by the satisfaction of writing well and getting to grips with a new or complex idea. The bit that I like least is marking, it never seems to end!
If you weren’t a member of the English Faculty, what would you be?
Goodness, who knows? In another life, a tennis player, an artist? In this life I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve worked in non-academic jobs and in some other terrific English/Literature departments.