CENTER VALLEY, Pa. – 2021-22 Penn State Laureate and Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English Shara McCallum gave the Penn State Lehigh Valley community a fascinating look into her creative process during a visit to the campus on Monday, Oct. 25.
Currently on a tour of Penn State campuses as part of her duties as laureate, McCallum read from her new book of poetry, “No Ruined Stone.” Prior to the reading, she spent the morning meeting with students, faculty and staff.
Born in Jamaica, McCallum has authored six books and had poems and essays published in journals, anthologies and textbooks throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and Israel.
Released earlier this year, “No Ruined Stone” is a novel-in-verse that offers a speculative account of a segment from the life of well-known Scottish poet Robert Burns. In 1786, Burns arranged to migrate to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation as a “bookkeeper” – a job in which he would have overseen the work of enslaved Africans. However, largely due to the huge success of his book of poems published that same year, Burns decided not to make the move.
Voiced primarily by a fictive Burns in Jamaica and his fictional granddaughter, a 19th-century woman born into slavery in Jamaica who migrates to Scotland and passes for white, “No Ruined Stone” explores the question “What would have happened had Burns gone?” while also examining the historical relationship between Scotland and Jamaica.
Born to a Black Jamaican father and Venezuelan mother, McCallum has found herself navigating the world in ways similar to Burns’ fictional granddaughter. In 2015, she traveled to Scotland to research the book. There, she interacted with people holding an idealized version of Burns, an iconic Scottish figure perhaps best known for his poem, “Auld Lang Syne,” and for serving as an inspiration for liberal democratic ideals. But the fact that Burns nearly moved to slave-holding Jamaica muddies those ideals, much in the same way Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholder status complicated his commitment to American democracy, McCallum noted.
“Literature, poetry, allows us to dwell inside that paradox,” she said.
For McCallum, the book offered her a way to use her talents to “investigate the threads of family and history,” as well as examine the idea of trauma being passed on from one generation to another.
“I couldn’t not write this book. This is the stuff that has played with my consciousness since childhood,” McCallum said. “This is the province of art – to keep trying to answer the unanswerable questions.”
Earlier this year, McCallum received the prestigious silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica. Similar to the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom, the award honors Jamaicans who demonstrate excellence in the fields of literature, arts and science. Established in 1889, it is the oldest award of its kind to be awarded in the Western Hemisphere. According to a release from the Institute of Jamaica announcing this year’s awardees, McCallum was selected for “extensive high-quality work in relation to her numerous collections and accolades, as well as being a nurturer of Jamaican talent.”
In addition to the Musgrave Medal, McCallum has received the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for her book, “Madwoman”; a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress; a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Nonfiction; and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for her first book, “The Water Between Us.”
An annual faculty honor established in 2008, the Penn State Laureate is a full-time faculty member in the arts or humanities who is assigned half time for one academic year to bring greater visibility to the arts, humanities and the University, as well as to their own work.
During her tenure as laureate, McCallum is conducting writing workshops and making numerous speaking engagements throughout Pennsylvania and elsewhere. She is also showcasing the works of other Pennsylvania poets during “Poetry Moment,” a weekly segment airing Mondays on WPSU Radio that is also available for downloading on the station’s website.
For more information, including McCallum’s complete fall schedule, visit the Penn State Laureate webpage at vpfa.psu.edu/penn-state-laureate.