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'Ancient Plots, Modern Twists': Creative Writing and the Classics

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Published Date

February 8, 2021

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Classics Professor Yelena Baraz teamed up last fall with author and Professor of Creative Writing Jhumpa Lahiri to teach a class called “Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities: Ancient Plots, Modern Twists". Offered through the Humanities Council, the seminar examined how today’s writers reimagine classical narratives so as to illuminate contemporary issues.

Baraz explained that she had proposed the course as her capstone project for her Behrman Professorship at the Humanities Council. She intended to focus on ancient texts along with their modern interpretations and adaptations. At the recommendation of the Council’s Executive Director Kathleen Crown, Baraz approached Lahiri to gauge her interest in co-teaching the course.

Lahiri sought to incorporate a creative writing component into Baraz’s idea, by concentrating on literary elements, such as plots and themes. The course thus shifted toward more open-ended, broader themes and storytelling techniques, with encouragement for students to produce their own creative work.

Baraz and Lahiri started their collaboration by discussing the texts that excited them and finding connections among these selections. They grouped readings into four themes: Abandonment, Monster, Plague, and Metamorphosis. The ancient side included Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea, about the eponymous princess’ revenge on her husband Jason after he leaves her for another woman. It also included Ovid’s Latin narrative poem Metamorphoses, which recounts history from the world’s creation to the death and deification of Julius Caesar in Rome. Contemporary texts encompassed South Korean novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, about how a homemaker’s decision to stop eating meat severely distances her from her family and from society, and Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which recounts the sudden end of a seemingly stable marriage. The instructors sought to demonstrate how many motifs from antiquity still resonate with contemporary audiences today.

Read more here.