Fall Assembly Series to focus on making connections, telling stories, sharing truths

Human beings are programmed to search for connections, whether big or small; conscious or unconscious; direct or indirect; literal or figurative.

“It’s what our brains do naturally,” said Luke Dittrich, one the speakers on the fall program schedule of Washington University in St. Louis’ Assembly Series. “Our brains … make connections in the literal sense, in that our neurons are promiscuous, always reaching out with their yearning axons to bond with other neurons,” Dittrich wrote in his book, “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.”

“They also make connections in the figurative sense, in the way we’re all familiar with, provoking endless little leaps of time travel during our daily lives.”

How we make those figurative connections is through storytelling. Good stories feed us universal truths and instruct us on how to live more fully in this world. The best stories entertain and enlighten us.

This fall, the Assembly Series, the university’s premier lecture series, is presenting many gifted storytellers to share their truths. Some have sprung from their imaginations, others from life experiences. All are compelling and reach out in an attempt to make deeper connections.

The series begins with a grand teller of tales — his own and others’. As a young boy, Qiu Xiaolong lived through the terrors of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution. With a little luck and a lot of hard work and courage, he migrated to the U.S. and forged a successful literary career.

This semester’s lineup also offers a global perspective, including a distinguished judge from the International Criminal Court in The Hague as well as a cultural critic from England.

Closer to home, other speakers will cover a range of topics, from a deep dive into immigration policy to a contemporary interpretation of “Frankenstein.” Speakers will offer an insider’s view of the #MeToo movement and explore the thorny history of memory research.

All Assembly Series programs are free and open to the public. For parking information, visit parking.wustl.edu.

The fall semester program schedule follows.

5 p.m. Sept. 12, Graham Chapel

Qiu Xiaolong: “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Books Make Readers”

”Picture a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”

This awakening, experienced by the narrator in the Class of 2022’s Common Reading Program novel, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie, dramatically illustrates the redeeming nature of great literature and serves as a prime example of why authoritarian governments ban books — because stories free the mind to think and feel as an individual, while simultaneously introducing universal truths.

The semi-autobiographical story centers around two teenage boys who fall for a beautiful but illiterate local seamstress while undergoing their forced ‘re-education’ process on a remote mountain in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. Under Mao Zedong’s regime, most books were outlawed.

When the pair stumble upon a suitcase full of smuggled classic Western novels and read Balzac’s “Ursule Mirouet,” they experience an intellectual and emotional transformation and decide to share their treasure with the seamstress.

As someone who lived through this brutal era in Chinese history, and as a contemporary of Dai, the prolific author, translator and poet Qiu Xiaolong will share his unique personal perspective for the Assembly Series’ annual Common Reading Program Lecture.

Victims of the Cultural Revolution

Qiu Xiaolong

There are more than a few similarities between Qiu and his literary colleague, Dai. Qiu, who earned his PhD in comparative literature from Washington University in 1995 and taught Chinese literature and comparative literature here, was born in 1953; Dai was just one year younger. They were born at the dawn of the “Mao era” that ushered in the massive agrarian land reform and industry expansion movements, and were young adults when Dai was sent to Sichuan Province in 1971 to be re-educated by the “virtuous peasants.”

Both were among the 12 million “black puppies” — children of professionals deemed enemies of the people — whose lives were upended by the blacklisting.

The family of Qiu, who grew up in Shanghai, suffered because his father owned a small perfume factory, marking him a class enemy.

“My sick father had to be mass criticized, to stand on stage as a target, where people denounced him and chanted slogans for hours. Standing beside for his support, I tried imagining myself into a human crutch, stiff, sturdy, unbreakable, without thinking or feeling. The effort was not that successful,” Qiu remembered in his new booklet, “Stories about Inspector Chen and Me.”

As the Cultural Revolution came to an end upon Mao’s death in 1976, Communist leaders instituted major economic reforms, and members of disgraced families, such as Qiu and Dai, were allowed to proceed with their educations.

China’s emerging superpower

In 1988, Qiu, already an established translator of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study abroad. He chose to study in Eliot’s hometown of St. Louis, intending to return to China at the conclusion of his fellowship. But when the Tiananmen Square tragedy created another round of persecutions, Qiu decided to stay and pursue a doctoral degree at Washington University.

Qiu watched the dramatic changes taking place in his homeland. As a writer and poet, he sought a way to capture the conflicting culture of the times. Thus was born Qiu’s popular mystery series starring Detective Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department. Readers met Chen in “Death of a Red Heroine,” published in 2000; the 11th in the series, “Hold Your Breath, China” will be published soon, first in Italy and France. They have been translated into 20 languages, with more than 2 million copies sold.

4 p.m. Sept. 20, Anheuser-Busch Hall, Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom 

Panel of Nicole Cortes, Stephen Legomsky, Katie Herbert Meyer, Karen Musalo and Robert Sagastume: “Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Crisis in U.S. Policy”

Department of Homeland Security statistics tell the story: in May 2018 alone, border patrol agents made 40,344 arrests; total families attempting to cross the border illegally increased by 435 percent compared to May 2017; nearly 11,000 migrant children were in government custody. Many of these are asylum seekers who say they are fleeing danger in their native countries.

Each panelist is either directly involved in the ongoing legal discussion or has been directly affected by U.S. policies regarding their non-native status.

5 p.m. Sept. 27, Graham Chapel

Luke Dittrich: “Lobotomies, Pain Guns, and Shreddy Data: Patient H.M. and the Ethics of Human Experimentation”

“Memories make us. Everything we are is everything we were,”wrote Luke Dittrich in “Patient H.M: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.”

Henry Molaison lost the precious ability to store memories during an experimental lobotomy, and it changed his life — and the history of memory research — forever.

In his conversation with Rebecca Messbarger, professor in Arts & Sciences, Dittrich, the surgeon’s grandson, will describe the true story of “Patient H.M.”  and explore how it raises troubling questions about research ethics, exploitation and informed consent.

Noon Oct. 8, Anheuser-Busch Hall, Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom 

Christine Van den Wyngaert

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Located in The Hague, The Netherlands, the independent judicial body has jurisdiction over persons charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

For much of this time, Van den Wyngaert has served as a judge for the ICC, as well as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice. To honor her distinguished service, she will receive the World Peace Through Law Award in a ceremony that will include her lecture on the need for international instruments for justice.

4 p.m. Oct. 25, Graham Chapel

Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke: “Me Too”

It may seem as though the #MeToo campaign came out of nowhere; in fact, it was 25 years in the making, built on the back of Tarana Burke’s lifelong dedication to developing support structures for young women of color who survived sexual violence.

A survivor herself, Burke has now joined forces with the #MeToo movement to assist survivors and those working to end sexual violence. Her talk will be a poignant and inspiring reminder of how one person can create an international effort that moves society in the right direction. (Note: seating for the public may be limited for this event.)

7 p.m. Oct. 31, Women’s Building Formal Lounge

Victor LaValle: “Making Monsters: A Conversation and Reading”

It took quite an imagination for the young Mary Shelley to conjure up the now 200-year-old study of medical/technological hubris known as “Frankenstein,” and it took an equally imaginative mind to extend this legend into contemporary culture to make a statement about race in America, as LaValle did in a fascinating comic book called “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer.”

LaValle’s horror stories are infused with messages and meanings — and will leave readers not just scared or disturbed, but thinking.

5 p.m. Nov. 5, Umrath Lounge

Sue Vice: “The Holocaust in Literature and Film: Revisiting Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’”

First-person narratives from those who have lived through horrific experiences such as the Nazi Holocaust are especially powerful, and they enter our collective cultural conscience through a variety of artistic expressions. One of the most riveting representations of the Holocaust, told through the voices of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators, is the landmark film “Shoah” by the late Claude Lanzmann.

For this year’s Holocaust Memorial Lecture, British cultural scholar Sue Vice will explore why “Shoah,” and the footage cut from it, holds a special place in the pantheon of Holocaust studies, bridging the gap between historical and aesthetic approaches to understanding the Holocaust era.

4:30 p.m. Nov. 13, Umrath Lounge

Marilynne Robinson: “Holy Moses: An Appreciation of Genesis and Exodus as Literature and Theology”

Exploring big questions and ideas from ordinary American folks is one of the acclaimed author’s signature styles. Robinson’s major awarding-winning novels and essay collections reveal a sophisticated mind, formed from a lifetime of reading, writing and teaching great literature — such as the Hebrew Bible, in which she is well-versed.

Now retired after 25 years of teaching at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, Robinson will share insights on the subject during her campus visit, which includes three linked lectures for the annual Humanities Lecture Series.

For more detailed information regarding the upcoming programs and to sign up to receive updates and announcements, visit the Assembly Series website or call 314-935-4620.

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