Penn prof. Jay Kirk talks new genre-bending narrative nonfiction book at KWH digital occasion
Although Professor Jay Kirk’s book Avoid the Day: A New Non-Fiction in Two Sentences is based on archival research, it heavily contains his own perceptions and experiences.
Penn professor Jay Kirk discussed his latest book “”Avoid the Tag: A New Nonfiction Fiction in Two Sentences“” at a virtual event hosted by Kelly Writers House on Tuesday.
Kirk is a renowned writer and professor in Penn’s Creative Writing Department, teaching ENGL 135, “Narrative Nonfiction: The Art of Experience”. There, students have the opportunity to explore long-form non-fiction books and publish their work in the experimental non-fiction book XFic. Kirk is best known for his 2010 book Kingdom Under Glass, which was recognized as one of the best non-fiction books by the Washington Post. He has been teaching at Penn since 2005.
Described by Kirk as “new non-fiction”, “Avoid the Day” tells Kirk’s travels as he reconstructs the story of Penn professor Otto Albrecht, the namesake of Penn’s music library, and his restoration of a once missing signed manuscript by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók ” String Quartet No. 3 “, performed in Philadelphia in the early 20th century.
Kirk tells the story of places like the Van Pelt Reading Room in Transylvania and an ecotourism cruise ship in the Arctic. Kirk’s unique approach to non-fiction brings his own perceptions to the fore. Although the story is rooted in his archival research at Penn, Kirk tells the story through the personal lens of his own humanity, struggling with addiction and grief for his dying father.
“I don’t want to sound like a Wikipedia entry. Who says the writer should always be right? “Asked Kirk.” Here I am, I’ve got my experience. I’m trying to understand and screwing this up … So if I deleted this, it just feels like an omission. You know, I don’t have to clean with an airbrush yourself. ”
The second sentence of the book revolves around an ambitious travel documentary turned horror film that Kirk and filmmaker Darren Mann made on the Arctic cruise ship. The making of the film Dissonance is described in Avoid the Day and is due to premiere at film festivals this fall.
2018 college graduate Kudakwashe Mawunganidze, despite being pre-medical, took two of Kirk’s classes with Penn and tuned in to Tuesday’s event.
“The way he synthesized and even put these experiences together was mind-boggling,” said Mawunganidze. “The book is really, really nice.”
The moderator and KWH program coordinator Alli Katz and the KWH employees prioritized the engagement of the audience despite the online platform.
“They were both able to keep an audience busy,” Mawunganidze said. “I kept looking at the numbers and it seemed like the numbers were up for the most part, you know, so it wasn’t like random people walking in and saying, ‘This is boring’ and then leaving. It was like : “Okay, I’m here. I will stay because I really enjoy it.” ”
Sydney Gelman, former editor-in-chief of XFic, praised the virtual format of the event.
“It’s kind of an attempt to replicate yourself like an intimate environment, but on the internet where everyone is disembodied, but I actually thought it worked pretty well,” Gelman said.
Kirk’s work has special meaning to Penn students who have attended his classes.
“I just thought the conversation was a really cool way of culminating what he was saying in class into something very tangible, which was this book,” Gelman said. “I just think he has a really cool idea of what non-fiction books can be that are so much more creative and personal.”
In his new approach to nonfiction, Kirk has developed a close relationship with Penn Libraries, where he has done some of his research.
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“I couldn’t have written any of my books, Kingdom Under Glass or Avoid the Day, without Penn Libraries,” he said. “I spent as much time there writing Kingdom Under Glass as I did in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History. I mean, that’s how extensive your collection of colonial texts is. ”
When Penn turned away from a hybrid class model to do the coursework entirely online, Kirk said XFic was on “pandemic hold”. However, he hopes that while reading Avoid The Day, students can get some insight into new nonfiction books.
“I would hope that if they can see my process, it would help them find their own voice. I always think that is the most important thing a student can get out of a college education,” said Kirk. “It took a long time to find mine.”