Professor Boesky reached over to get a basket of Hershey’s. “Want one?” she asked as I walked in. I grabbed one from the stash, and she popped one into her mouth. Her desk was against the wall, not menacingly imposing in the middle of the room. When we arranged the interview the previous week, I decided that we would focus on her more recent work of exploring genetics through narrative, considering a repertoire of her scale.
Amy Boesky is the head of the English Honors department and was voted a campus celebrity by TIME magazine this fall. Her training is in 17th century British Literature with a Master's in Philosophy from Oxford, sandwiched between a Harvard B.A and PhD. In 2010, she published a memoir, What We Have, on her family’s experience with BRCA1 and very recently finished The Story Within, a compilation of personal essays on genetics and identity.
How did an expert in Renaissance Lit end up talking about DNA and genomes? Professor Boesky explained having to go through two layers of decision regarding preventative surgery for BCRA1 when just in her thirties. The first decision was a clinical one; the second had to do with coming out in the open. Both her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister passed away from ovarian cancer in their early forties, and her mother died from breast cancer when her daughter was just over a year old.
“I don’t know why I began to feel a strong need to write about this,” she explained, and after three drafts and several years of writing, she published the memoir. This process not only had “profound effects on her and her family,” but also very organically led to the compilation of The Story Within - an account of her and 16 other writers' exploration of the knowledge, intervention and passing down involved in genetic mutations. “How does awareness of a genetic mutation shape your sense of who you are? Have you done something about it? Has this information affected your feelings about family, children, genetic legacy?” By doing so, the strictly physiological talk about testing is rooted in personal narrative and identity.
Professor Boesky talks about genetics in the context of her own life as well as other people’s. I was curious to learn how she managed to overlook the dichotomies and distinctions we make between science and the so-called “humanities”. She described how in the 17th century,“fields were not demarcated yet, some of the most famous scientists in the 16th and 17th century were also writing experimental prose romances; there was a lot of cross over and interdisciplinary work.” So she was able to take a holistic approach and go at this subject as someone interested in representation, questioning terms and vocabulary. For example, when we talk about a genetic “diagnosis” she considers, ”It’s not a diagnosis… that’s not quite accurate because being told that you are at elevated or very high risk for a condition such as Huntington’s, this is still not a diagnosis. It’s a diagnosis of a pre-condition. By looking at individual lives, we can gain insight into the experiences behind these sometimes reductive terms.”
Her writing process is less structured to a particular time of day than it is adapted to the “push and release of the academic year.” Some projects have come easily while others have been more arduous and difficult, but she loves the alternation between “just gunning in the semester and then taking some time.” She describes what ultimately must inspire writing as “some sort of truth of experience and characters,” even if it is fiction. That curiosity compels a person to learn more and understand. In fact, “staying curious is hugely important.” When I asked her if she had any final advice for writers, she stressed the idea of not being afraid to change course and keep learning.
Professor Boesky is already working on her next project that deals with how people have imagined inherited difference from the early modern period to the present. I left her office with a copy of The Story Within and an unanticipated eagerness. It was exciting to see someone who seems to always be in motion and still genuinely passionate and interested in what she does. She has been able to coherently use her writing and investigative skills to understand an intimate and often uncomfortable reality. As I prodded for more information before she began her meeting with another student, she said, “People who are in college are in an interesting space. But once it stops, it would be a mistake to assume that’s the end of reading and writing”. This final piece of advice was very refreshing. To a certain degree, I think we are trained to think of what lays beyond college as the eerie unknown; it triggers the dry taste of “adult life.” To see someone who is constantly changing paths and learning, as an adult, makes me feel incredibly optimistic.
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