Writing faculty Walter Lew and Lester Goran, standing far left; Creative Writing Program director M. Evelina Galang, back row center; and UM alumnus Terence Cheng, far right, are surrounded by UM creative writing students.
Events honor writing professor’s 50-plus years of teaching, guidance, and friendship.
Five decades and more than 20,000 students since arriving at the University of Miami in 1960, Lester Goran, the English professor instrumental in launching the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, has seen his impact travel far beyond the College of Arts and Sciences’ walls.
On Friday, March 25, as part of the Goran Reading Series, inaugurated last year to celebrate Goran’s continuing legacy, novelist Terrence Cheng, M.F.A. ’97, chair of the English department at Lehman College-CUNY, returned to the Coral Gables campus to lead a master class and give a reading attended by his mentor, as well as other Department of English faculty, students, and alumni.
Cheng, who studied with Goran from 1995 to 1997, is the author of the novel Sons of Heaven and other works of fiction, as well as the winner of a 2005 NEA literature fellowship. The Taiwan-born author immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 1 and was among several of Goran’s former students to offer fond anecdotes about their mentor in honor of his 50th year of teaching in 2010.
Kicking off his reading “with a quick Lester story,” Cheng recounted how he’d just turned in his final thesis when his advisor came into class and announced: “I just read Cheng’s thesis.” He then told the audience in the CAS Gallery: “We hadn’t talked about it yet, and he starts talking about it [in front of the class], and I’m sort of going numb. He starts to read portions of it with this very dramatic voice, pointing out how melodramatically and poorly written certain portions of the book are—and then he stops and says, ‘But this is what Cheng did well.’ He was teaching me a lesson in terms of what I did right and what I did wrong—but he was also using the experience for the class. I think that’s the valuable aspect of an M.F.A. program, learning from each other.
“I kind of hated Lester for a day or so,” Cheng concluded, “but in hindsight I really appreciated it.”
Cheng, who’s working on a collection in which all of the stories revolve around Chinatown from the 1980s to present day, read from his iPad a new piece set in the wake of 9-11.
“In Chinatown that community was devastated by 9-11 in a way no other ethnic community was. The cops shut down downtown, then the tourist industry, which drives Chinatown, dropped off,” he explained.
Behind Cheng, submissions to the CAS Gallery’s juried art show—an outstretched, disembodied hand; a prone foot poised on the ball of its toes; a shadowy miniature horse made of sheer gunmetal gray stockings—provided the eerie backdrop to the writer’s post-9-11 world, which appears “as if spit from the core of a nightmare,” Cheng writes.
The story crystallizes this violent sense of vulnerability by referring to “the gathered buckshot of lives.” The surreal aspects of survival are captured by Cheng’s nameless protagonist, an older Chinese man, who reassures himself coldly: “The world is not going to blow up or it would not be on television.”
On the morning of September 11, Cheng was getting ready for his job at a Midtown publishing company when he saw on television one tower, then the other topple. “So what did I do? I got dressed and I went to work,” he said. “I was walking north and everyone was looking south and I didn’t want to look south. I got to the office and it was just chaos.” By the afternoon, his office had closed. “So I took a bunch of people back to my apartment.” He cooked a pot of spaghetti and served drinks. “There was that sense of complete and utter shock,” he continued. “My dad came over; he yelled at me for smoking and drinking in the afternoon. And I said, ‘Dad, I think we have some bigger problems to deal with right now.’”
A decade later, that sense of shock remains with Cheng. “It will never feel real. Even now, even reading this—this is the first time I’ve read this piece in public—it’s disturbing,” he told the audience. “I’m trying to answer questions for myself. I’m never trying to say anything. I feel like if you’re trying to say something in fiction, you shouldn’t be writing fiction. You should be writing an op/ed for the paper, you should be writing essays. Don’t try to say something with fiction. Try to show something and show something in a way that has resonance and sticks.”
From the audience, Goran recounted calling Cheng immediately after the attacks. “I couldn’t reach you for a couple of days,” he told Cheng. “I was glad to hear you weren’t under the rubble.”
Cheng and Goran
That kind of genuine connection to so many of his students, past and present, is part of what has kept Goran an icon at UM for half a century. In addition to Cheng, the inaugural Goran Reading Series has already welcomed back former students Michelle Richmond, M.F.A. ’98, Paul Perry, M.F.A. ’97, and Chantel Acevedo, M.F.A. ’99, with more scheduled.
Another new series, Write Now, presented a full weekend of workshops for writers that raised proceeds for the Goran Scholarship Fund, which was started last fall. Its goal is to raise $100,000 to create the Goran Endowed Scholarship in Creative Writing.
“Lester has really started this,” said M. Evelina Galang, director of the Creative Writing Program, during Cheng’s March 25 reading. “All of this began because Lester saw to it to bring creative writing to the University of Miami, and so for that we thank you, Lester.”
A winner of UM’s Excellence in Teaching Award, Goran, 82, continues to be a vital member of an M.F.A. program The Huffington Post recently praised as one of this nation’s 25 most underrated. In 1960, the year he arrived at UM to teach English, the first of his ten novels so far, The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, was published. In 1965 he helped develop UM’s creative writing curriculum and then the department’s master’s-level Creative Writing Program in 1991.
He attracted luminaries such as James A. Michener, whose endowment helped create the M.F.A. program, and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, with whom Goran taught and worked on translations for a decade.
Goran, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s rough Oakland housing projects, discovered a love of fiction and basketball early on. He went on to earn his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Military Police, and had three sons with wife Edythe McDowell. He is a grandfather of seven.
Goran’s published works also include a memoir about his friendship with Singer and three short story collections. Tales from the Irish Club, set in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood between World War II and the Vietnam War, was a 1996 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
For him, the past 50 years have resulted in plenty of pleasant surprises. “It’s one of the perks of the job you don’t know when you start,” he said of keeping in touch with students like Cheng and following their lives and careers.
And, like a proud grandfather, Goran is quick to point out that this reading series created in his name has brought only a fraction of his thousands of talented former students back to visit. Many have gone on to become professors around the U.S. and in Europe, literary-journal editors, and New York Times bestselling authors. “There are many more,” he said. “And they are all unique.”
The Creative Writing Program will host a USpeak event on Friday, April 15 at the Oasis and an end-of-the-semester reception for Goran, with some of his published undergraduate students reading from their work, starting at 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 21 at the CAS Gallery, Coral Gables campus.
To read more testimonies from Goran’s former students, or for more information about upcoming events or the Goran Scholarship Fund, visit www.as.miami.edu/english/creativewriting/lestergoran.