A New Chapter

For all the administration’s best efforts, UCSD is full of reminders that we are first, last and foremost a science school. The Library Walk banners focus on our CEOs and Nobel Prize recipients—in chemistry, of course—and students are hard-pressed to come up with notable artistic alumni other than “the guy who wrote Kite Runner” (Khaled Hosseini) and actors Dileep Rao and Benicio del Toro. And del Toro never even graduated, opting to try his luck in New York City instead.

Enter surrealist writer and alumnus Aimee Bender, the rallying point for alienated humanities majors from Sixth to Eleanor Roosevelt College. Bender, the daughter of a choreographer and psychoanalyst, arrived at UCSD in 1987 and left four years later with a literature in Literature/Writing and experiences that incubated into the dream-like prose that has won her New York Times accolades, Haruki Murakami comparisons, and numerous Pushcart Prizes.

“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution,” say the main character in the opening lines of a story from Bender’s first collection, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.” Just last year, Jessica Alba played the main character in “An Invisible Sign,” a movie based on Bender’s book about a math teacher who knocks on wood to stave off her father’s death and eats soap to prevent herself from pursuing sex. Her latest novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,” deals with young girls and food, but not via the ubiquitous eating disorder narrative—instead, nine-year-old protagonist Rose Edelstein can literally taste the feelings of others through food. Every dinner becomes a struggle as she becomes privy to her mother’s affair and brother’s unhappiness.

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“…and then I ended up at Revelle as one of two theatre majors…”

But before Bender became a writer whose fiction has been translated into 16 languages—before she even knew she wanted to be a writer­—she made the same mistake that generations of UCSD students after her have made and will probably continue to make.

“I wasn’t the most decisive person when applying to college,” she said. “All I knew was I had a strong interest in theatre and I checked the boxes about which college without researching them. Then I ended up at Revelle as one of two theatre majors at freshman orientation. I thought it would be easy to switch colleges. It was so hard to switch that I never did.”

Though Revelle College is, to put it lightly, not the optimal college to study the humanities, Bender said that her exposure to more science-minded classmates provided a welcome contrast to her own interests.

“I lived with these kind of science and rocker guys who taught me how to play guitar, and we’d take our guitars to the cliffs and that was very San Diego, very beautiful,” she said. “I loved being around science-minded people, maybe because I wasn’t really one of them.”

This influence would later show up in “An Invisible Sign of My Own,” which features the aforementioned wood-knocking and soap-eating math teacher.

There usually exists a schism between humanities and science, leading many writers to develop a phobia of numbers, but Bender believes fiction is a word problem of sorts, and that writing is “a math problem on the page,” because the process of developing plot lines is akin to working out a logical equation that must balance out.

Although Bender remained involved with theatre throughout college — it still tops the list of her strongest UCSD influences — she changed her major to creative writing in her sophomore year.

“I wanted to be an actress when I was younger, hence the theatre major, but I figured out pretty quickly that I’m terrible at it — the switch was because I think I was enjoying my playwriting classes and wanted to be doing more fiction,” she said. “It was just a natural move to then take more workshops based in the English department.”

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“…a little piece of New York on a La Jolla campus”

Bender hasn’t been influenced by UCSD quite as overtly as Rao — we won’t be reading about any Geisel-shaped snow fortresses in her books—but the first publication to accept her stories was none other than a campus literary journal, the forerunner of today’s Mania Magazine.

I’d never thought of myself as a writer before,” she said. “I knew I wanted to write, but I kind of kept it on the back burner and [getting published by the journal] was very encouraging.”

The journal is gone, and along with it the Grove Café (once Bender’s choice lunch spot), and the tiny 409 theatre that served as a crucible of undergraduate art.

“Every Friday night there would be a 10 o’clock student-run show in the 409 theatre and I saw so many of those—it was enormously influential for my way of thinking, a little piece of new York on a La Jolla campus,” she said.

Bender can still pinpoint the exact play that made her rethink writing and performance. The play, an experimental two-part Caryl Churchill piece called “Cloud 9,” skips from colonial Africa to 1979 London with actors playing different roles in each act to bring home the themes of colonialism and oppression across time.

“I saw an incredible Caryl Churchill [play, “Cloud 9,”] at Mandell Weiss theatre, and the writing was so compelling and it took some risks — it had a huge impact on me and my writing,” she said. ‘She wrote her plays based on the improv of the actors, and I remember seeing that and being awestruck. Those plays, those kind of surreal ideas, they were a huge influence.”

New students still complain about her former homes, Argo Hall and Matthews apartments, in comparison to the grandeur that is I-House. But Groundwork Books and Price Center (which was completed while she was still a student) are still standing strong, as are some of her favorite teachers, like professor emeritus of literature Fanny Howe.

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“…I’ve already done my own writing, so I feel ready to give to others…”

After graduation, Bender applied to a variety of MFA programs. After being rejected across the board, she decided to teach elementary school for a few years before reapplying, then decided to attend the UC Irvine MFA program, which has turned out writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold and Helena Maria Viramontes. There, she started writing every day, literally in the closet.

“I liked the idea of going into the closet as a kind of entry into the world of childhood’s shadowy scary places,” she said in a July 2010 interview with literary journal Failbetter. “Instead of a repression (going in the closet), it’d be an unearthing (what’s hiding in the closet?). It was dusty, and I wrote in there for a shocking almost-three years.

Today, as a professor of creative writing at USC, her writing area is more spacious, but her schedule is no less strict.

“I write for two hours every morning before going to work, so I’ve already done what is really important personally when I show up to teach,” she said. “I’ve already done my own writing, so I feel ready to give to other people.”

Bender’s influences range from realistic writers like J.D. Salinger and Flannery O’Connor to pioneers of magical realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But her most frequent comparison has been to Japanese author Haruki Murakami, also one of her favorites.

“For some reason, the choice that [Murakami is] making, it feels so right to him, so 100 percent behind the strangeness that you just accept it no matter how strange it gets and it’s an amazing experience, it’s like you’re dreaming with him,” she said. “For myself, I will have ideas that feel a little bit thin and it won’t go anywhere and that’ll l
et me know that there’s not a kind of charge or feeling to that idea and I’ll just drop it. And I’ll just start a lot of different lines, and somewhere one of them will catch me, and I think those ideas are the ones that have more meat behind them.”

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“I write a sentence I really like. Then, I want to write another sentence I really like.”

As a graduate of a creative writing program and current creative writing professor, Bender is very much a product of the American MFA system. Amongst the ever-present controversy over whether good writing can be taught, she comes down firmly on the side that it cannot — but that misconceptions about writing can be eliminated.

“I do not think that writing can be taught,” she said. ‘The best writing is the one that’s not overly crafted. I write a sentence I really like. Then, I want to write another sentence that I really like.”

But, she says, creative writing programs help loosen the blocks students often have about writing and help to guide them to their own voice.

“There’s so much pain for some people in writing, but none of that is actually writing, it’s the agony around writing, which every writer has,” she said. “And it’s certainly normal, but it’s separate from writing itself, and I think then that the challenge for me as a teacher is to clear some of that away. Let’s pull out that torment and stop trying to get everything right and get to the place where you’re just experiencing something about language on the page.”

Bender tells aspiring writers not to “write what they know,” but to write what they want to write, without worrying about genre or praise or greatness. The advice is expected from someone who has strayed from writing about conventionally accepted “literary” topics, such as dysfunctional family sagas a la Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen.

“I think there’s a lot of worry about what makes a story ‘literary’ or what makes a story ‘serious’ and people can put on a false front instead of really trying to jump into whatever they actually want to write about,” she said. “Try to think about what that person really wants to write about and what really truly interests you.”

Bender has come a long way from her days lying on the hump outside the Old Student Center.

“I remember this guy in workshop and he said to me, ‘Sometimes I sit on my bed and just shake thinking about the future,’” she said. “So that’s my memory of being an undergrad— so worried for the future, just like everyone else.

Aimee Bender will be at UCSD for the New writing series of Tuesday, March 1 at 4:30 p.m. in the Visual Arts Facility. To read some of her short stories, go to her website at www.flammableskirt.com.

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