When MA English student Kyla Morris began her work as a teaching assistant for first-year English, in September, 2018, she was struck by an idea, and she ran with it.
One of the required readings for the class stood out to Morris. She’d never met the author but she knew well one of his close friends (her aunt, as it happens). That was her “in,” as she reached out to him, asking if he’d consider speaking to all 192 undergraduate students registered in the course.
The result? An hour-long, “Q&A” teleconference between Yann Martel and students, organized and facilitated by Morris herself, about Life of Pi—the Man Booker-winning novel that has sold 15 million copies worldwide, in at least 40 different languages. Director Ang Lee’s version of it won four Academy Awards in 2012.
Morris jokes, now, about the “absence of any useful tips on the internet for ‘how to write an email to a world-famous author who knows your aunt.’” She refers to the writing of that first email as “one of the most nerve-wracking moments” of her life. But she had one goal in mind, and she stayed focused on it: “to foster our students’ interest in English and the book.”
As she goes on to explain, “I had the ability to give our students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask Yann Martel directly what they wanted to know about the book. My hope was that the ability to ask these questions would foster deeper discussion of the novel’s complexities and themes, and encourage students to move beyond a surface-level interaction with the text.”
The experience, for students, was rewarding and illuminating. While Morris collected questions from students in advance and sparked conversation by asking these, she invited follow-up questions, and the discussion was lively. Martel’s responses were robust, wide-ranging, frank, and eye-opening.
Once-in-a-lifetime aptly describes the class. Congratulations to Kyla Morris for making it happen! A big thanks, too, to Auntie Victoria Morris and, of course, Yann Martel.