Living, learning, writing, teaching

Author and lecturer Andrea Lawlor alongside an image of the cover of “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl.” The cover is pink, with black block text over an image of what appears to be a sculpture draped in pink cloth.

Andrea Lawlor, visiting lecturer in English at Mount Holyoke College, is an explorer — a groundbreaker in life and in literature. Lawlor’s first novel, “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” was released last year by independent publisher Rescue Press and is slated to be reissued by Vintage/Anchor and Picador UK in 2019. Lawlor was recently featured in a New York Times article about transgender fiction writers, “The Coming of Age of the Transgender Novel.”

Lawlor’s novel explores themes of sexuality and gender identity through the eyes of the protagonist, Paul, who has the ability to change his bodily form at will. In freeing the protagonist from the strictures of bodily realism, Lawlor frees the reader to consider how much of life is informed by the physical forms of the individuals who live it.

While the bold, genre-bending work is the result of 15 years of labor, Lawlor does not require students to read it. The opposite, in fact.

“I’m always telling my students they don’t have to read my book. I tell them to at least wait until they’re done taking a class with me,” Lawlor said. “It can be too much pressure. What happens if you don’t like your professor’s work? And if you do like their work, then there is an anxiety of influence.”

Instead, Lawlor prefers to give students the freedom to explore and grow into their own styles of writing.

Lawlor teaches a number of writing courses, from introductory to advanced, at Mount Holyoke. The author recently discussed writing and teaching with Keely Sexton from the Office of Communications and Marketing.

What do you like best about teaching at Mount Holyoke?

I love teaching at Mount Holyoke for many reasons, including the flexibility. When I first started teaching in the ESOL program, or English for Speakers of Other Languages, I taught academic writing courses for multilingual speakers. My students wanted more writing classes and were very interested in writing poems and stories. So I suggested that we offer a creative writing course designed for multilingual students, which would allow them to explicitly use their strengths as multilingual writers and speakers. The ESOL coordinator, Mark Shea [also senior lecturer in English] said, “let’s do it.” So we did.

There are so many amazing students here, who work in multiple languages, who self-translate, who create hybrid texts.

I’m often in a creative writing classroom, and there are 10 or 13 different languages in the room. It’s very common to have so many students speaking and writing in so many languages here, and that is such a strength.  

How do your students inform your teaching?

I always want to open up possibilities for students who might not see themselves as creative writers, or who might not see themselves as writing creatively in English. Ultimately, I think the inclusion of many voices, languages and perspectives changes literature and literary culture. When I’m reading, I’m always looking for writers who have something fresh to say. When I’m working with all these students who have so many urgent things to say, I think of it as a way to support emerging literary cultures.

For the past few years, I’ve taught a queer and trans writing class. It’s a creative writing course in which we read published work and think about what queer and trans modes of writing might be. Among other things, we think about queering texts, about coming out narratives, about trans memoir, about agitprop — and then we write in those modes.  

In my Writing Fabulist Fiction course, it’s been really, really exciting to work with students who may be well-versed in literary realism and who may, for instance, read a lot of science fiction or fantasy, and then to look at the border of the two. To, hopefully, help them find a kind of creative or aesthetic lineage they might not know they have.

What do you learn from your students?

Everything.

My students are amazing. I learn literary techniques. I learn linguistic innovations. I learn new music. I learn what it’s like to be in college now.

My students are really interesting and they write great stuff. I learn about their struggles and their pleasures — and how they’re different from and similar to my own. I think of the creative writing classroom as a place where we’re all learning together. That’s really an important part of my pedagogy.

In the queer and trans writing class, one of the things that’s really beautiful is that there’s the possibility for this community to form around making art. Around creative writing, but also with a sort of shared interest in certain kinds of cultural practices and productions.

So, everything.

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