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creative writing

Ryan Leigh Dostie, BA, '11, MFA, '16

A 21-year-old soldier is raped in her barracks by a fellow soldier, and she reports the assault right away. But Army commanders don’t trust her story, and instead of trying to bring the rapist to justice, they look for ways to delegitimize the woman. It’s a familiar narrative in today’s #MeToo environment, and in alumna Ryan Leigh Dostie’s memoir, Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line, published on June 4, the reader accompanies Dostie – who was raped at 21 while serving in the U.S. Army – on her journey of pain, outrage, trauma, and survival, as she navigates the military and life beyond its hierarchy as a rape survivor.

Dostie, who holds an MFA in fiction writing and a bachelor’s degree in history from Southern, has been receiving a lot of attention for her book, even well before its publication. Last November, Formation was selected as Shelf Awareness’ “Gallery Love of the Week,” in an industry newsletter that reviews books not yet published. More recently, Formation was chosen by Amazon editors as June’s top debut, and it is listed as #2 in Esquire’s “Best Books of Summer 2019.” BookRiot named Formation one of its “50 of the Best Books to Read This Summer”; Patch named Formation one of “The 10 Best Books To Read In June”; and PureWow listed it as one of “9 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in June.” The book has also been reviewed on Publishers Weekly, Amazon, and Goodreads.

When Dostie joined the Army in 2000, she did so as a linguist. By now, she has studied six languages, and she had spent a year of high school studying in Japan. When she joined the Army, she intended to become a Japanese interrogator. However, the Army had other plans for her and sent her to the prestigious Defense Language Institute of Monterey for an intensive program in Persian Farsi, the language spoken in Iran.

In 2001, an enlisted man in her unit raped her, and she immediately reported the assault to her superiors, who were at best skeptical and unsympathetic. Even after reporting, Dostie was forced to continue working with her rapist. The commanders who questioned her about what happened pressed her on whether or not she had told her rapist “no,” and they tried to paint her as promiscuous, or to portray her as trying to protect her reputation by accusing her attacker of rape. In the end, the Army dropped the case, and Dostie was left with PTSD, which would eventually take a toll on her mental health and ability to function.

“The book is about rape and how the Army handles it,” Dostie says. But it also is a devastating account of what happens to a rape victim when she reports and is not believed. Dostie stayed in the Army after her attack, and in April 2003, when the Iraq War was well under way, she was sent to Iraq. She had been told that her PTSD “could be a problem if she was deployed,” and it was: she says of that time, “I was not mentally sound.” She did spend 15 months there, however, and her presence in a war zone, compounded by her PTSD, essentially added one trauma to another.

In April 2004, when the uprising in Sadr City occurred, after Saddam Hussein was caught, Dostie says, “We were all packed to go home, and then they said we had to stay.” She did return to the United States eventually, and says at first she felt fine but then started showing signs of PTSD. She got out of active duty in 2005 and eventually returned home to Connecticut, which helped her PTSD. She began to attend Southern and date the man who would become her husband.

An Honors College student and history major at Southern, Dostie wrote two honors theses: one was in history and one, a creative writing thesis, was the beginnings of Formation. She says the manuscript that would eventually become Formation had actually started in an introductory fiction writing class as a “sci-fi futuristic Civil War-type story about a woman in the infantry – a woman working with all men in this masculine military environment.” When she told English Professor Tim Parrish, who taught that course, that she had been in the military, he advised that the story should be about her own experience. She rewrote it into a story about a woman in the military in Iraq, and it became her honors thesis.

She graduated with her B.A. in 2011, and when she joined the MFA program in creative writing a few years later, she rewrote the honors thesis into her MFA thesis. Parrish says, “Having worked with Ryan on this material from the time she took her first Intro to Fiction class through her MFA thesis, I’ve seen how she earned this book, not only in terms of her incredible work ethic and steadfast growth as a writer, but maybe moreso as a person with the courage and steadfastness to confront and process so much awful history, to survive, and to make great art from her experience. This book is not only outstanding, it’s important.”

Dostie sold the book several days before the #MeToo movement broke, and she says now #MeTooMilitary is gaining traction. There has been a spike in the number of reporting sexual assaults in the military, she says, adding, “They’ve changed how you report it, but if you report, it can still affect your career.”

The Army is now doing SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention) briefings to teach soldiers about sexual assault and harassment. The briefings can be effective, Dostie says, “but people have to take it seriously. They are learning about consent and what is sexual harassment. It’s about trying to change the culture.”

Learn more about Ryan Leigh Dostie

Dostie will be a featured reader at the SCSU MFA Program’s 10 anniversary celebration in fall 2019. Find out more about her upcoming local events (readings, book signings, etc.).

Xhenet Aliu

Southern’s English Department and its creative writing program, as well as the university in general, have turned out a number of successful writers over the years. One such Owl alum, whose 2018 debut novel has been enjoying critical acclaim, will bring her talents back to campus to kick off the university’s celebration of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing Program‘s 10th anniversary.

On March 7 at 7:30 p.m., alumna Xhenet Aliu, ’01, will read from her novel, Brass, followed by a Q & A and refreshments. The reading, which will take place in Engleman A120, is free and open to the public.

Aliu graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English and went on to earn an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an MLIS from The University of Alabama. A native of Waterbury, Conn., she was born to an Albanian father and a Lithuanian American mother. She now lives in Athens, Ga., and works as an academic librarian.

Her debut fiction collection, Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, and Brass was published by Random House in spring 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Barcelona Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere.

English Professor and Creative Writing Coordinator Tim Parrish was Aliu’s thesis director. He says, “Xhenet Aliu is a fantastic writer who perfectly exemplifies the exceptional quality of authors coming out of Southern’s undergraduate and Master of Fine Arts’ Creative Writing programs.”

The MFA program is a full-residency, terminal-degree program, preparing students for careers as publishing writers, teachers, editors, and professionals in the publishing world. While the curriculum focuses heavily on the writing workshop and the creative thesis, the MFA also requires students to study literature at the graduate level and provides opportunities for students to train for teaching collegiate-level writing, and in some cases to teach their own courses. The year 2019 marks the program’s 10th anniversary, which will be celebrated over the course of the coming year, culminating in a weekend of special activities in October.

Since its publication in early 2018, Brass has received the following honors, among others:

  • One of Entertainment Weekly‘s “10 Best Debut Novels of 2018”
  • A San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Book of 2018
  • Named a “Best Southern Novel of 2018” by Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • One of Bustle‘s “31 Debut Novels from 2018 That You Seriously Shouldn’t Miss”
  • Named a “Best Book of 2018” by Real Simple
  • A Spring 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection
  • Starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal
  • New York Times’ Book Review Calendar of “Must-Know Literary Events in 2018”
  • Elle‘s “21 Best Books of 2018”
  • Southern Living‘s “Books Coming Out This Winter That We Can’t Wait to Read”
  • Huffington Post’s “60 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018”
  • Book Riot‘s “101 Books Coming out in 2018 That You Should Mark Down Now”
  • Elite Daily‘s “2018 Book Releases That’ll Make Reading More Your New Year’s Resolution”
  • Bookish‘s “Must-Read Winter Books 2018”
  • The Millions‘ “Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview”
  • Christian Science Monitor‘s “5 New Titles to Check Out in the New Year”
  • Kirkus Review’s “11 Debuts You Should Pay Attention To”

From reviews of Brass, which is set in Waterbury, Conn.:

“Lustrous . . . a tale alive with humor and gumption, of the knotty, needy bond between a mother and daughter . . . [Brass] marks the arrival of a writer whose work will stand the test of time.” — O: The Oprah Magazine

“Aliu is witty and unsparing in her depiction of the town and its inhabitants, illustrating the granular realities of the struggle for class mobility.” — The New Yorker

Brass simmers with anger — the all too real byproduct or working hard for not enough, of being a woman in a place where women have little value, of getting knocked down one too many times. But when the simmer breaks into a boil, Aliu alchemizes that anger into love, and in doing so creates one of the most potent dramatizations of the bond between mother and daughter that I’ve ever read. . . . I left this book with the sure sense that the characters were alive beyond its pages, though I wouldn’t dare try to guess what they are up to — Elsie and Lulu are too real for that.” — The New York Times Book Review

A new year always brings thoughts of self-improvement or changing one’s life course, but making life changes are not always as simple as they may seem.

This month, Creative Writing Professor Michele Merlo is making a fresh start in a familiar place. Merlo had a long career as an actor in New York City before she began teaching English at Southern in 2011, and because of her love for the stage, she is now returning to that career, marking a new chapter in her professional life.

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Michele Merlo (Photograph by Julia Gerace)

From January 25 to February 11, Merlo will appear in Schreiber Shorts, this year’s 10-minute play festival – an annual tradition — at the renowned T. Schreiber Studio in New York City. Established in 1969, the T. Schreiber Studio is recognized as one of the foremost professional theater studios in New York City.

Terry Schreiber himself is Merlo’s former acting coach; she was first a student of his over 20 years ago. “The studio has a great history,” Merlo says, adding that Schreiber has been in the business for 45 years.

Merlo, who grew up in New Haven, fell in love with the theater after high school, when she worked in the box office at Long Wharf Theatre. A friend had moved to New York to become an actress and encouraged Merlo to join her and give the stage a try. Merlo found success, and acted professionally in New York for 20 years, in off- and off-off-Broadway theater. Some favorite theater credits include La Ronde, The Miser, Miss Julie, and The Wild Duck. She also appeared on television, in principal roles on NBC’s Another World.

“I love the rehearsal, the process, the frustration, the discoveries” of acting, Merlo says.

Then around 1999, Merlo’s parents back in New Haven became ill. “I came home to look after them,” she says. She moved back to Connecticut, got a job at a New Haven law firm, and decided to pursue her second love – writing and English literature. She earned her B.A. in English at Albertus Magnus College, where she was valedictorian of her graduating class, and then came to Southern for the M.A. in English, with the creative writing concentration. She was accepted to become a graduate teaching assistant under the mentorship of English Professor Will Hochman, for whose guidance she is grateful, and she has been teaching composition and creative writing to Southern undergraduates ever since.

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Michele Merlo and Kevin O’Connor in Moliere’s “The Miser” (Photograph by Joseph Clementi)

Merlo says she took the M.A. program for her own enrichment and “didn’t ever think about teaching, but it presented itself to me,” and she found she loved it. “Teaching is something like acting,” she says: both require preparation and performance. Although she’s very happy teaching English at Southern, she decided over the past two years that her love for the stage had not left her and she wanted to get back into acting.

Although she missed acting “with every bone in [her] body,” she says she was “scared because I knew how hard it would be.”

She called Schreiber – “whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years” – and “he said ‘welcome back,’ like I’d never left.” To prepare herself to audition, she worked with SCSU theatre alumnus Raphael Massie, ‘99, resident artist and curriculum supervisor of Elm Shakespeare Company.

To cast Schreiber Shorts, the studio held three days of auditions for people who had studied there. Merlo auditioned, and a few days later, got a callback. She was thrilled to be cast in the show.

“I’m having so much fun,” she says, admitting that in this new chapter of her life, she’s lucky to have the best of both worlds: acting in New York and continuing to teach at Southern.

For more information about Schreiber Shorts and tickets, visit the T. Schreiber Studio website. 

For a poet to be mentioned in the same breath as Wallace Stevens, the great American poet of the 20th century Modern period, is a rare honor. For poet Elizabeth Hamilton – a graduate of Southern’s MFA in creative writing program and an adjunct professor in the English Department – having her poems share the bill with Stevens’ work at a February 20 event at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford seems a bit surreal. At “Voices of Connecticut Poets: Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Hamilton,” the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra (HICO) will perform a celebration of these two poets in in a concert of contemporary chamber orchestra music. Hailed as “an invaluable addition to the Hartford musical scene” by composer-critic Robert Carl, HICO will present the music of Thomas Albert and premiere a commission by composer Jessica Rudman. Albert’s music uses Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird,” and Rudman’s piece uses Hamilton’s poetry.

Poet Elizabeth Hamilton, MFA, '14
Elizabeth Hamilton, MFA, ’14

Hamilton graduated from the MFA program in 2014, and over the past year and half has collaborated with Rudman after the two met during a three-week artist residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida. Hamilton was chosen by the poet Richard Blanco to participate in that residency; Blanco is perhaps best known for reading his poem “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.

Hamilton applied for a writing residency at The Center after finishing her MFA. She explains that the poet in residence at The Center chooses the poets for the three-week residency, and Blanco was poet in residence at the time. He chose Hamilton and a few other poets, and during her three weeks in residence, Hamilton worked on her writing with Blanco and says “he was such a help to me. I can’t say enough about him.” While in the MFA program at Southern, she worked closely with Jeff Mock and other members of the creative writing faculty, all of whom she says were great to work with.

While in residence at The Center, Hamilton explains, “I was there with other artists of various disciplines. We all hung out together and learned about what each other was doing with our work.” At the beginning of the three weeks, each artist had to present his or her work to the group. “This is instrumental in building relationships with other artists,” says Hamilton. For her presentation, she chose to read poems she had written for her MFA thesis. Afterward, a few of the artists approached her and asked if she would consider collaborating with them. Of these artists, composer Rudman was most persistent in following up with Hamilton. She, like Hamilton, is from Connecticut, and she has a relationship with the Hartford Chamber Orchestra.

Following the residency, after they had both returned to Connecticut, Rudman contacted Hamilton, and they began to meet to work out the details of their collaboration.

“She’s been busy composing and I’ve taken a full-time job,” says Hamilton, “so I haven’t yet had a chance to hear the work.” A vocalist will sing her poems verbatim, she says, and the piece will be performed for the first time alongside Albert’s piece based on Stevens’ famous poem. Hamilton says she still can’t quite believe it when she sees her name paired with Stevens’.

The concert begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are available by calling (860) 247-0998.