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Leah Hager Cohen 85F: Finding a Story to Tell

Posted: October 06, 2011

By Michael Samuels 09F

Leah Hager Cohen
The front page of the September 18 New York Times Book Review called Leah Hager Cohen 85F "one of our foremost chroniclers of the mundane complexities, nuanced tragedies and unexpected tendernesses of human connection." In a podcast that same week, the editor of the Times Book Review named her "one of America's best novelists." The praise was in response to Cohen's fourth novel, and eighth book, The Grief of Others (Riverhead Books).

This is by no means the first praise Cohen has received. She has written four New York Times Notable Books, and one of the American Library Association Ten Best Books of the Year.

Cohen is Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, teaches in the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Lesley University, and frequently contributes reviews to the New York Times.

Yet, Cohen says what she produced as a creative writing student at Hampshire "remains a rather shameful memory."

"I wanted so badly to write, and yet I had no story to tell," Cohen recalls. "But I was granted a wonderful practice space in which to attempt big leaps, and in which it was safe and even honorable to come crashing down on my bottom.

"It also made me that much more hungry to keep practicing my craft, so that one day, when I did have a story to tell, I would be a good enough writer to do it justice."

Leah Hager Cohen, Grief of Others
Cohen's father was superintendent at Lexington School for the Deaf, and she had learned basic American Sign Language as a child. After graduating from Hampshire (which didn't yet have an ASL program), Cohen interned and reached fluency at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She began working as a freelance sign language interpreter, and completed a one-year master's in journalism at Columbia.

Then it came together. A few months before finishing the master's, Cohen met her professor and mentor's agent, who took her on as his own client. Cohen set to work writing her first nonfiction book, Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World.

Her agent had agreed to represent Cohen's nonfiction, but didn't initially see much in her fiction. Still, he worked with her through three drafts of her first novel, "before it got to a point where he was willing to take it out and shop it around," says Cohen.

Cohen says elements of her Hampshire education soon resurfaced in her writing career. "When I was working on my second book, I kept thinking that maybe it wasn't meant to be a book at all - maybe it was meant to be a song, or a collage, or an interpretive dance," she half-jokes.

She sees a lot of that idea of staying "open to multiple possibilities, a variety of genre-bending perspectives on what would serve the story best," in her most recent novel.

"The Grief of Others ends in a way that felt risky to me," she says. "I'm not a writer of meta-fiction, yet the novel pulled me, at the end, toward a kind of meta-fictional spirit.

"I think coming from a Hampshire background allowed me to trust the impulse and, in a modest way, to break the rules."

Cohen will return to the College on February 28, 2012, to lead a writing workshop and read and discuss her work. The events will be free and open to the public.

Visiting Hampshire Feb. 28 >>

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