Culture

Contemporary Writers Series: A day trip to Florence, Italy

Story by Yashowanto Ghosh, Staff Writer

Picture courtesy Yashowanto Ghosh

Jessie Chaffee reading from her novel Florence in Ecstasy.
Photo Yashowanto Ghosh/The Saint

The 2020–2021 season of Aquinas College’s Contemporary Writers Series has now officially reopened for the spring semester, featuring novelist Jessie Chaffee in two events that both took place on Zoom on Thursday, Feb 25. 

The first event was an invite-only master class, where Chaffee took over Professor Dan Mancilla’s class (plus a few curious outsiders, such as myself) and taught a creative writing lesson.  The main event was a well-attended public reading in the evening, where Chaffee read three excerpts from her acclaimed, internationally well-received debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy. 

Having the master class was a welcome upgrade over previous years, when the daytime event used to be a question-and-answer session.  Depending on the writer, the Q&A could be deeply interesting, but the master class went for a higher level than being interesting—it was substantial.  Depending on what you ask, and depending on how open the writer feels toward you, you can come away from a Q&A with fresh insight into the writer’s work; the master class gave us an idea of Chaffee’s process—which is insight into her work—but we also came away with something of our own, because we got some fresh technique and even generated some fresh writing.  

In the public reading, Chaffee first gave us an overview of the novel, and then read us excerpts from three different parts of it.  The novel is set in Florence, with an American protagonist who is an art historian suffering from an eating disorder and its multiple negative consequences.  One of the excerpts Chaffee read us was the protagonist’s first discovery of the secret life of Florence upon her joining a local rowing club—this section felt off-the-wall real to me.  Another excerpt was the protagonist’s visit to Siena and prominently featured Saint Catherine of Siena.  This part had come up earlier too—in the master class, where the focus had been on ekphrasis, Chaffee had shown us a fresco from Siena and spoken about the protagonist’s reaction to it.  In fact the novel, as well as Chaffee’s process in general, came across as deeply founded in art and, more broadly, the culture of Italy.  Chaffee took us to Florence for the day.  

And, in case you missed that plane, there is good news:  You can still come along, because there is a Zoom recording (Passcode: 4?68fLNT).  The season finale of the Contemporary Writers Series will feature poet Traci Brimhall on Thursday, April 15.

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