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Award-winning author Robin Hemley to read from his newly released memoir

BY DAN VERHILLE | MAY 09, 2013 5:00 AM

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This week will be the last chance to hear award-winning author Robin Hemley before he departs Iowa City to assume his position as the director of writing program at the Yale-National University of Singapore College. At 7 p.m. Friday at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., Hemley will read from his newly rereleased family memoir, Nola, A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness.

Hemley received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1982, and he has been a fixture of the community since being appointed as the director of the of the Nonfiction Writing Program in 2004. His laudable works in fiction and nonfiction have earned him a smorgasbord of prestigious awards ranging from a Guggenheim Fellowship to several Pushcart Prizes.  

Nola, A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness was originally published by Graywolf Press in 1998; it is now experiencing a revival in paperback and a new cover through the University of Iowa Press.

Most conspicuously, Nola is a memoir that rebuilds the life of his late sister, who passed away at the age of 25 because of a doctor-prescribed overdose of schizophrenia medication, through an adroitly assembled collection of family documents, journals, and fictions.

It’s true scope, however, is much greater and more intimate; in Hemley’s words, “It’s a biography of a creative family who put their faith in words and in fictions but ultimately is as scared of difficult truths as any family. At the center of the story is my older sister Nola, who was a brilliant young woman who was troubled; it’s my search to try to separate sickness from saintliness.”

Hemley’s intimately forthright memoir showcases his writing and editing skills as he creates a seamless, lively conversation between a litany of documents that include his mother’s journals, his sister’s journals, his own memories and reflections, perjured documents, family photos, and personal phone calls, just to name a few.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the memoir is its investigation of the ambivalent relationship between memory and subjectivity in the memoir form. Hemley examines the interplay of fact vs. fiction in writing a story about a writing family as he closely follows the thin line his sister walked between brilliance and madness in the time before her death.

Although it raises ideas of pilfering its subjects’ stories and the possibility of occasionally “soft pedaling” the facts — a term used by his mother — Hemley appears saliently candid throughout most of the discussion of his family’s affairs. The result is a pensive masterpiece that remembers Nola and the Hemley family not as a polished gem, but for better or for worse, as the entire process of panning the muck and the rubble for such treasures.

Nuggets of humor, inquisition, revelation, frustration, anxiety, and paranoia are all possible topics when Hemley reads from his hauntingly beautiful memoir.


“Live at Prairie Lights”
Robin Hemley reads from his memoir Nola, A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque


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