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Setton joins exclusive book club

Ruth Knafo Setton's essay appears in an anthology of works by some of the world's most famous women.

Ruth Knafo Setton, professor of practice in the English department and writer-in-residence for the Berman Center for Jewish Studies, joins a number of internationally known authors and artists such as Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Meryl Streep, Beverly Sills, Kate Winslet and Janis Ian in a recently published anthology of inspiring original essays titled Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female.

The anthology, which debuted to critical acclaim in mid-April, is donating royalties to anti-violence groups such as the Family Violence Prevention Fund, Equality Now and V-Day.

Setton’s contribution, titled “The Smell of Women,” recalled a junior high school creative writing assignment from Miss Miller “of the dreaded squat body, tadpole eyes and lipless mouth, the school’s self-appointed guardian of morality.”

Drawing upon her furtive bedtime reading of the works of Colette, whose heroines “purred like cats and licked their own flesh,” the young Moroccan immigrant girl crafted a vignette about a lusty encounter between a jealous woman and her angry lover.

Setton recalls that she handed in her masterpiece, painstakingly typed on yellow-lined paper, and “dreamed of the glory that would be mine.”

Instead, her teacher ripped up the assignment and castigated her for her lewdness in front of the class: “I will show you what we do with filthy stories. We destroy them still-born!”

Although the experience temporarily shook her confidence, Setton persevered. Since then, the long-standing writer-in-residence authored her first novel (the critically acclaimed The Road to Fez), studied literature and creative writing at universities around the world, and has had her fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction published in countless journals and anthologies. Setton has also been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Like Setton, the other female authors and artists included in the Becoming Myself anthology reflected on what it means to grow up female. Some, such as Setton and acclaimed writer Maya Angelou, discussed the paucity of female role models for women of their generation. Others, such as pro-choice advocate Kate Michelman, shared the traumatic circumstances that helped shape their political views.

“People really exposed themselves in this book,” says Becoming Myself editor Willa Shalit, who discovered Setton through Jewish writing circles.

Painful, yet pivotal event

Setton, who was contacted by Shalit more than a year ago, said the choice of material was simple.

“I was asked to submit an easy about a turning point in my life,” says Setton. “For me, growing up to be a woman and growing up to be a writer were always very much intertwined, and this experience—painful as it was—was pivotal.”

Fortunately for Setton, her love of both writing and appreciating the works of others was not diminished by the harsh treatment of her former teacher, and she’s enjoyed a nearly 30-year career of creative fulfillment that includes teaching at Lehigh, and completing her soon-to-be-published second novel, Darktown Blues.

“It’s set in the fall of 1963, and involves a Moroccan Jewish immigrant family who opens a restaurant in New Jersey called ‘The Couscous Caboose,’” says Setton. “It takes place about the time of the JFK assassination, which was a critical time for the country, of course. And for these immigrant families, America was always seen as a land of promise and dreams. So it’s really a story about this country, and what it gives, and what it takes AWAY.”

As one of the key figures is a jazz musician, Setton thought that including an original jazz composition would add a note of authenticity, and colleague Bill Warfield, associate professor of music and accomplished jazz musician, was happy to oblige.

“We’re going to include the lead sheet of the song he wrote in the novel,” says Setton. “Bill did a wonderful job.”

Star-studded family

In addition to writing and teaching Lehigh courses in fiction writing, Jewish literature, and immigrant women’s literature, Setton says she finds inspiration in nurturing the creative talents of her children—an investment that is already paying off.

Her eldest son, Ishai, recently premiered his first feature-length film, “The Big Bad Swim” at the Tribeca Film Festival, which also starred her younger son, Avi, who is a film student at NYU. While Avi works on his own documentary, Setton’s daughter, Arielle, continues to work in art therapy.

Although Setton’s work was always warmly received in literary circles, her inclusion in the Becoming a Woman anthology will expose her to a wider circle of appreciative readers, she says.

“The book has already gotten quite a bit of publicity, and was featured in People magazine and on ‘The Today Show,’ ” Setton says. “And it’s quite an honor to be included with writers I’d always admired. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, is someone I’m in awe of because she’s not only prolific, but capable of maintaining such a high level of quality in her writing.”

Setton says she’s also grateful for the opportunity to be part of an empowering, meaningful project that could serve to inspire a generation of new artists.

“Aside from the fact that it’s an amazing group of women to be included with, it’s very moving to be asked to share something so personal,” she says. “I wanted my essay to speak to the transformative aspect of an experience, whether it’s funny, or hurtful or embarrassing. I wanted it to be real, because when you hit on a note that’s true to you, it will be true to someone else, too.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, May 30, 2006

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