Melinda Moustakis, Hodder Fellow, strides onto the Berlind stage in one smooth motion and, with a few well-delivered jokes, totally disarms the audience, shaking us out of the half-hypnotized, half-bored haze we’re wrapped in like tangled sheets. With long, dark hair and a voice made crackly by her suffering immune system, she’s instantly likeable in a way the previous two readers, James Arthur and Yasmine El Rashidi, haven’t been.
“I wasn’t really sure what to read,” Moustakis begins. “I always wonder whether I should punch the reader in the face or just read something where the language washes over you.”
She pauses. “I chose the latter.”
The audience laughs appreciatively. As Moustakis reads, the appropriateness of her phrasing becomes apparent: she reads of whales and ocean, using a language and rhythm something like water. Her prose is half-poetry, sparse and elegant, full of sudden shifts and swings. She speaks of mothers, childbirth, hunting, lipstick. Her work seems otherworldly, written of a place where a mother’s love has to be earned, where children hold eyeballs in their hands.
Moustakis is one of four promising young writers to be awarded the prestigious Hodder Fellowship by Princeton in 2012, a year they will spend in a state of “paid scholarly leisure” as Michael Cadden, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, puts it. However, prestige in the literary world is rarely translated to prestige in the non-literary world, and the reading in the Berlind Theatre on Wednesday, September 19, is sparsely attended—maybe 50 people total.
It’s a shame, because Moustakis is really good. I am an assistant for the Writer’s Series, so I am assigned door duty, and I miss Arthur, whose poetry a friend describes as “perfect and boring.” I come in just in time to hear El Rashidi, an Egyptian non-fiction writer, read an account of the Arab Spring. Her demeanor is unassuming, a sweater draped around her shoulders, and I find myself drifting, wishing for less intellect and more emotion. The last is A. Rey Pamatmat, who has requested that two students from Princeton read aloud from his play “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” which others will later tell me was very impressive; I’m not paying much attention, though I do find the protagonist fascinating.
It’s embarrassing how I struggle through readings, how I drift in and out, how I quickly find myself wondering what I’ll eat for dinner instead of listening. And though I accept the blame for my own fractured attention span, my weak power of concentration, I would also like to place some responsibility on the writers: soft-spoken, shy, withdrawn types, whose talent is impossible to spot through the coats of smooth and boring and modest they’ve painted on themselves.
This is where Moustakis stands out. She’s good because she has a personality, because she’s not afraid to be human as well as a writer, because even in the very specific and literary sphere that is a Hodder Fellowship, the people who are interested in hearing these writers read want more than perfectly executed yet dry lines about fatherhood or politics. A self-deprecating joke, a smile, an ironic hand gesture—anything that shows the person we’re focusing on realizes she’s being focused on. We want someone who laughs with us, who gives a likeable face to an art that can be elitist and overwhelming and unexciting, and then who shows us how words can be beautiful because they just are, and not because we know they should be.