Check out “Reading Columbia: An Evening with Faculty Authors” – a new Office of University Life series

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

“Reading Columbia: An Evening with Faculty Authors” brings university faculty authors, students and staff into conversation about recently published work, creative processes and relevant issues of the day.

You can also watch this great conversation with School of the Arts professor Victor LaValle on his book, The Ballad of Black Tom, on YouTube.  


For its first in a new series – “Reading Columbia: An Evening with Faculty Authors” – the Office of University Life featured School of the Arts professor Victor LaValle on his book, The Ballad of Black Tom – a thrilling work set in 1920s New York that explores racism and xenophobia. (Watch this great conversation on YouTube!) The series, which continues in Spring 2017, brings university faculty authors, students and staff into conversation about recently published work, creative processes and relevant issues of the day.  

“What I admire most about Victor’s work is its generosity,” said Barnard College English Professor Monica Miller, who moderated the event.  “I love and connect with the way Victor values ‘nerds’ and ‘losers’ and not only values but uses [them] for the basis of heroic narrative.”

As Professor LaValle explained, he intended his novella to be in direct dialogue with H.P. Lovecraft – a writer who often depicted immigrant and minority populations as outsiders and “monstrous.”

“I started to realize, ‘I think this guy [Lovecraft] has some really objectionable views about anybody who’s not a white male from New England,’” LaValle said. “He is afraid of everybody in the world. And so I had issues with him because of that fear, because of the way that prejudice bubbled up in the work.”

Though Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s (also the setting for LaValle’s novella), the themes LaValle explores in The Ballad of Black Tom are ever present.   

“When he’s [Tom] in Harlem, he’s a black man among many black men and so there he is on some level – he’s Tommy, he’s the way he dresses, he’s the fact that he’s a bad musician, he has personal qualities,” LaValle describes, “But as he leaves Harlem and he goes to other parts of New York that are less and less all-black, he is no longer one of many, he becomes singular, and suddenly, the world starts to tell him about himself and it starts to teach him the way it expects him to act in the world.”

As the discussion made clear, Professor LaValle’s work reinforces fiction’s role in fostering empathy and understanding.

“It all stemmed from the idea that the body matters,” LaValle said, “One of the pleasures to read about another character is to learn how they think differently in the world, but is also to understand how they live differently in the world – how the world does not let them live the same way as you.”