Lawrence alumna inspires during book reading

Lawrence alumna Madhuri Vijay ‘09 reads to a packed audience in Main Hall.

Photo by Julia Balestri.

Running in from another class, I burst into the Main Hall lecture room on Jan. 16 to find it packed with buzzing students and teachers. Madhuri Vijay ‘09 stood at the front of the room speaking with the English teachers who had read her first attempts at story telling. Approaching the podium with a grace that made it hard to believe this was her first novel tour, Vijay paused to take in the scene before her. “It’s rare to be in a room with all of the people who shaped me,” she began, acknowledging each member of the English department, most of whom were present and beaming.

As a student at Lawrence, Vijay was driven, curious and did not think she was going to become a writer. In fact, she was initially a psychology major, planning on doing research after graduating. Instead, she received the Watson scholarship and spent her first year after college traveling the world to study Indian literary communities and diaspora, documenting their stories along the way. Inspired by the experience, and after winning the prestigious 30 Below writing award, she decided to throw herself into writing and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a prestigious program that has formed many great authors. Post-Iowa, determined to write a novel, she left everything and everyone she knew behind to volunteer as a teacher in Kashmir and find a space to create in.

Vijay spoke eloquently about the power of words and language, mesmerizing us with her smooth, welcoming voice and seamlessly transitioned into the reading of her new novel, which was released that day, “The Far Field.”  The story follows Shalini, a privileged young woman from Bangalore whom, after losing her mother, goes on a journey to Kashmir to find the salesman who frequented her home when she was a child, as she is determined he has something to do with her mother’s death. As Vijay read the first pages of her book, a quiet rapture settled over the room as we took in her powerful words. Shalini’s voice, the voice of a “little beast,” as Vijay writes, told of her childhood home and the shifting relationships between her and her parents as we all got a taste of the author’s masterful story-telling, instantly transporting us to a Bangalore most of us have never seen. Her attention to detail, both big and small, of how each room felt or smelled, and how each character thought, easily proved the statement she opened the evening with: “Language changes the way you think.”

“The Far Field” has already gotten rave reviews from many major literary critics and Lawrence could not be prouder of her. Vijay’s initial surprise that so many people showed up to her reading will hopefully soon fade as her tour progresses, for her first novel is a powerful example of giving life to words on a page. After the reading, a student raised their hand, asking how she went about making a foreign culture accessible to all. She responded without hesitation, saying, “Books can do that—cross cultural boundaries. All I’m doing is trying to give these people a life.” Well, this young author has definitely succeeded in both respects, crossing boundaries and emanating humanity from the core of her first novel.