Walking and Talking with Susan Jane Gilman, New York Times bestselling author, class of ’84.
“Wow. Nothing has changed, ” says Susan Jane Gilman. She looks back at me and gestures to a brick house on the corner of Thayer and Lloyd. Rounded balconies with wide white columns for legs jut out from the first and second stories. “This is where I used to live my senior year. That was my room, in the turret, and of course guys used to come up—” she pauses, glancing at me, reminded that she’s being recorded, “well, people could go out on the balcony and then climb in my window.” She laughs and strides away from the house, leading me down Lloyd toward campus. Her heels tap along the broken stone tablets of the old sidewalk, muffled by fallen leaves. We’re on the Susan Gilman tour of Brown: a junket through the university as it was in the 1980s and a glimpse into the college years of an alumna who now makes her living as an author.
The tour also functions as a spoken circuit of Gilman’s writing career. She attended the MFA program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and after obtaining her master’s degree, she moved from New York to D.C. and wrote two books of nonfiction. Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess was a sassy response to the mewling “how-to-snag-a-man books” on the shelves in the 1990s. “Eyyuch! They were real, you know, ‘your hymen for a diamond’ books, like my grandmother used to say. Don’t give in ‘til you get the ring!” Her next book, Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress, recounts her experiences growing up in a tough Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York, navigating adolescence, college, her first menial jobs at newspapers, and her marriage.
We turn left on Brown Street and head toward campus, sunlight lancing yellow through the gaps between buildings. Gilman points a sweater-clad arm at the English building. “I majored in something that I’m not sure exists anymore, called Literature and Society—an interdisciplinary major between the English department, History and Semiotics. It was intellectual history.” She asks me if Brown still uses the term concentration; I tell her yes. “Concentrations in the land of the unfocused and the age of ADD—that’s pretty funny.”
Gilman has an incisive, startling ability to identify the ironies in her surroundings and in her own speech. At times, she edits her responses as she gives them, backtracking and modifying her answer to a question before finishing her first sentence. Occasionally, she forgets the practiced caution of the interviewee—spurts of bawdy, delightfully unpolished humor erupt out of her. At other points on our tour, she unfurls articulate one-liners, as if she had been keeping them tucked neatly in the pocket of her blue jeans all morning.
When I ask her about Providence—a different city in the 1980s, with a paved-over river and a decrepit downtown—she says, “Every time I come back to Providence, it’s like this striptease: the river is revealed, sexily. More and more, the concrete comes off, you see more of the beauty laid bare.” This time, she’s back for a book tour: her newest work and, following three previous nonfiction titles, her first venture into fiction, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, hit stores in June of 2014.
We stop at Machado House, where she lived as a sophomore. She remembers calling it simply “the Spanish House.” She didn’t speak Spanish, but she liked the architecture of the place. In her interview for the room, she talked about Spanish food and Spanish writers. “I was like, ‘Oh! Lorca!’”
Gilman knew she wanted to be a writer by the age of eight or nine. As a teenager at Stuyvesant High School in New York, she took English with Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt. He encouraged her to submit her work to the Village Voice, which published her work when she was 16. Still, she took a pragmatic approach to her education: “I thought I better have some intellectual underpinnings.” Brown students today may be familiar with the cherry-picking of courses that Gilman recalls—she sifted through classes and took only those that interested her most. “I felt like it left me with certain holes in my education that I filled in graduate school.”
We approach the green shimmer of the Main Green through the Faunce Arch. Gilman clicks to a halt and pauses, our path of brick and sidewalk suddenly splayed flat like a grass palm. She pauses reverently, then says, “The wave of nostalgia!” She clicks forward again, leading me toward the quiet green. “I’ll show you the clock tower where my boyfriend broke my heart.” She worked at the Rock all through college; one day she took a break to lie in the grass at the foot of the clock tower with her boyfriend. He told her that he wasn’t sure he loved her very much. “You know, I took Classics with Martha Nussbaum, I had some incredible professors, but that’s what I remember: having my heart broken in the grass beneath the clock tower.”
She remembers, too, writing an opinion column for the Herald (called “Gilman’s Glimpses”) in which she lambasted Brown President Howard Swearer for the apologetic letter he sent home to parents after students protested Apartheid and the CIA’s involvement in Central America—events which run remarkably parallel the Ray Kelly protests and Christina Paxson’s response in 2013. Gilman also founded a now-defunct lit magazine named Banner and contributed to ISSUES, a campus literary journal. She rolls out her extracurriculars as if she’s unfurling her resume for me. She has been focused on building herself as an author for a long time. When listing her accomplishments in and out of college, she has a pointed clip to her words, something I label ambition but which also carries a warmer determination and hope.
During her senior year, she sat in a restaurant on Thayer Street with a friend. Twirling forkfuls of pancake through syrup puddles, she and her friend agreed to go travelling together after graduation—they’d begin their trek in the People’s Republic of China, which had just opened to backpackers. Her experiences there became her third nonfiction work, Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven, published in 2009.
Gilman had planned to tell the story of Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven as a work of fiction. She shifted to nonfiction, though, in reaction to bestselling phenomena like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun. The shift was just as much a reaction, though, to the initiation of America’s political and military ventures in the Middle East. “All around me there seemed to be this idea that foreign countries were just there for our own enrichment.” She breaks into rapid-fire mimic, “Oh my god, the Italians! They make the! Best! Pasta! And Fabio’s really helping me get over my issues!” Gilman’s experience in China was at odds with this way of thinking. The experience isolated her in a country where she could not speak the language, where the government surveilled her incessantly, and where her travelling partner and only link to the U.S. began a scrabbling, erratic descent into a psychological breakdown.
We step through Wayland Arch, where Gilman remembers a speak-out against sexual violence. Her memory parallels the recent student protests across the Ivy League that have surrounded the current Title IX investigations. In 1984, her senior year, hundreds of women gathered in Wriston Quad. “Women would get up from the group and they would testify about being harassed—woman after woman got up and talked about being raped, being sexually harassed, being molested.”
Gilman refers to herself as a feminist several times over the course of our tour. When I ask her about it, she elaborates: “Feminism gave me my education, it enabled me to be taken seriously in a math and science-heavy high school, to use my brains and come to a school like Brown, to have a great sex life and know my body, to not be a mother against my will and have total agency, and think that I could go out and travel and have a place in the world…all the good things in my life—my love, my work, my creative life, my education, my freedom—it’s all feminism.” She aligns herself with a slew of other writers, mostly women, who have publicly protested the poor representation of female-authored books in New York Times and New Yorker review lists.
Our tour ends at the beginning—that is, at her freshman dorm, Archibald House. “They’ve changed the carpet since I was here!” she says, disappointed, though a new carpet since the 1980s is, in my opinion, inarguably a good thing. She tells me about the code she and her roommate used to let each other know a boy was in the room—“We’d write, ‘the refrigerator is broken’ on our whiteboard”—and expresses her surprise at the gender-neutral bathrooms. She’s shocked that there’s an elevator now, and pauses to look it up and down enviously—“Dang! When I was a young’un, we used our two feet!” She tells me about her writing, in college: awake at 3 AM with her poet roommate, clackity clacking away on their electric typewriters, the keystrokes slowing to a halting stutter as the night drizzled on.
On our way back across the green, Gilman remembers one last thing when she spots a meandering herd of tour group crossing the campus. “We used to screw around in front of those groups,” she says. “My friend John would shout: I hear you’re not pregnant! Or my friend Larry, with a mohawk, would make out with me.” We keep walking. “I think that’s why the alumni association doesn’t reach out to me much.”
So ends the Gilman Tour—we walk back through the arch. Our footsteps thump back up Brown Street, and our hair catches the sun and throws it back out into the street. The university’s history makes up a cycle of upheaval and calm, student protests, heartbreak and academics, vacillations as repetitive as the rise and dip of telephone lines. Susan Gilman left Brown and found a life as an author, but the university stayed here. I imagine that it’s hard to tell, returning to an old haunt twenty-odd years after leaving your life there, whether it’s the place or yourself that has changed. “I used to get this little turn in my stomach when I rounded the corner on I-95 and saw the Providence skyline” she says. “It still happens, a bit!”