Converse College is celebrating the life and accomplishments of alumna and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Julia Mood Peterkin, with a public reading by the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award Winner, Laura van den Berg, from her new fiction collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and the premiere of the South Carolina Educational Television documentary The World of Julia Peterkin: Cheating the Stillness. A reception and book-signing for van den Berg will start at 7 pm on Tuesday April 20 in the Wilson Hall Lobby, followed by the reading at 8 pm in the Bain Room. The event is free and open to the public. The documentary premiere will be held at 8 pm on Thursday, April 22 in Twichell Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public, but a ticket is required for admission. To reserve a free ticket, call 864-596-9725 or e-mail Kathy Worley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets can also be obtained at the door during the event.
Van den Berg Reading
Converse has long celebrated Peterkin’s contributions to Southern literature. The Julia Peterkin Award was established in 1998 by the Department of English and Creative Writing at Converse to honor the finest young poets and writers in America. Alternating between poetry and fiction, the national award provides a $1,000 prize and travel expenses for the recipient to give a reading at Converse. Laura van den Berg, the 2009 winner in fiction, was selected out of a highly-competitive field of over 360 applicants. “A lot of the stories submitted were well written and psychologically compelling, but Laura’s story stood out because it was so different, and surprising, in a very good way,” said Susan Tekulve, associate professor of English at Converse. “Her story was about a woman who decides to follow a troupe of acrobats through Paris shortly after her husband leaves her. At first, the woman’s actions seem random and desperate, almost unexplainable. She doesn’t even know why she’s following the acrobats, but as the story unfolds, you become invested in her strange journey. You also feel her grief and loss lessoning, thankfully. In short, the Peterkin Award was established so that we could recognize talented writers who have a long and successful career ahead of them. Laura van den Berg fits this description perfectly.”
A native of Florida, van den Berg received her MFA at Emerson College. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and the 2009-2010 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College. Her fiction has or will soon appear in One Story, Boston Review, Epoch, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among other publications. For van den Berg, winning the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award was a tremendous honor. “Peterkin herself was an inspiring author, and the recognition and monetary support that accompanies the prize is a deeply welcome and appreciated thing for an emerging writer. I’m so grateful to Converse College for the award, and I’m happy that I’ll soon have the opportunity to visit the college and offer my thanks in person.” The winner of the Dzanc Prize, van den Berg’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was recently published by Dzanc Books.
Peterkin Film Premiere
Produced by award-winning documentary filmmaker and Converse alumna Gayla Jamison ’69, for South Carolina Educational Television, The World of Julia Peterkin: Cheating the Stillness chronicles the story of Peterkin who revolutionized American literature and rebelled against what was expected of a Southern lady. “I read Peterkin’s books as a child growing up in South Carolina. Her stories inspired me to write and opened a window into another culture, as it did for readers in the 1920’s. As a filmmaker, I was also drawn to Peterkin’s complex and often contradictory life, her amazing talent and her courage to write plainly about what she saw.”
The World of Julia Peterkin: Cheating the Stillness unfolds against the backdrop of 20th century African-American history—the era of Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance and the early achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Brought to life through dramatizations of Peterkin’s groundbreaking literature, haunting images of the South Carolina countryside, evocative archival photographs, music performed by Converse Babcock Professor of Piano Dr. Douglas Weeks and through interviews with writers, scholars and others who probe the paradoxes of this controversial woman, a fearless and unapologetic narrative unfolds.
The first woman and only South Carolinian to win the Pulitzer Prize in literature, Julia Mood Peterkin graduated from Converse College in 1896. At the turn of the twentieth century she married William Peterkin and became mistress of Lang Syne, a cotton plantation located near Fort Motte, South Carolina, about 40 miles southeast of the state capital of Columbia. The farm was home to 400 black workers, whose hardscrabble lives and African heritage Peterkin would later chronicle with a sensitivity and sympathy rare in the era of Jim Crow.
It wasn’t until Peterkin reached the age of 40 that she began writing as a way “to cheat the stillness” of the countryside. Her 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, is the gritty tale of a fiercely independent single mother set in a South Carolina Low Country farming community. Her startling tales of struggling black families captivated readers just as the Harlem Renaissance gained momentum.
The book was a best-seller at a time when American readers were not interested in rural African American life. So accurate was Peterkin’s portrayal, many who read the book wondered about the race of its author. According to African-American scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois, she was a Southern white woman with “the eye and the ear to see beauty and to know truth.” But with fame came a double life—the bold, witty and much sought-after writer at New York cultural events, and the plantation mistress who many back home felt had betrayed her race, class and gender. Peterkin could not have both lives. She had to choose; and the choices she made tell much not just about her life, but what it meant to be black or white, male or female, in 20th-century America.