Dale Winner Turns Fieldwork into Fiction
Lisa Tom '11 is a former PICS intern with
Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences in 2008 (after her freshman year), who
has just been awarded the Martin A. Dale '53 Fellowship. The Fellowship
enables an outstanding Princeton senior to devote the year following graduation
to an independent project of extraordinary merit that will widen the
recipient’s experience of the world and significantly enhance his or her
personal growth and intellectual development. Here's the story from the
Posted May 3, 2011; 10:02 a.m.
by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Over the next year, senior Lisa Tom will
combine her two academic passions at Princeton -- anthropology and creative
writing -- by transforming fieldwork into fiction.
Tom spent last summer in Guatemala City
interviewing patients at a medical clinic as her fieldwork for her anthropology
major. The experience became the inspiration for her creative thesis, a novel
about an epidemiologist working at a Guatemalan HIV/AIDS clinic. Next year, as
the 2011 winner of Princeton's Martin Dale Fellowship, she will immerse
herself in a community closer to home -- Chinese Americans living in her native
Baltimore -- to write a collection of short stories or a novel about that
The $30,000 Dale fellowship is awarded annually
to a graduating senior to allow him or her "to devote the year following
graduation to an independent project of extraordinary merit that will widen the
recipient's experience of the world and significantly enhance his or her
personal growth and intellectual development."
"I thought, 'What would I do next if I
could really do anything?'" Tom said of devising her Dale project. Her
love of creative writing led her to the stories of her grandparents, who came
to Baltimore from China in the 1930's, 40s and 50s. She realized that when
grandparents and parents tell stories, "We're often half-listening when
really we should be listening carefully."
To that end, Tom will spend several months in
Baltimore, interviewing her grandfather, who is 83, as well as family members
and others in the community. She also will live for part of the year in a
writers' colony and travel to China to visit her grandparents' ancestral
village in Taishan.
The fiction she writes will be about tradition
and ethnicity in the Chinese American community in Baltimore, but also about
"what it means to be a second- or third-generation American, like
me," Tom said.
It was the semester she spent studying at
Capital Normal University in Beijing during her junior year that really made
Tom, who speaks Mandarin as well as Spanish, think about her Chinese roots.
"In China, people were really curious
about my background -- I was talking about it a lot and thinking about it a
lot," Tom said. "It's funny that being abroad was what really got me
thinking about being Chinese American."
Her volunteer work at the University Medical
Center in Princeton, where she has served as project coordinator for volunteer
Spanish interpreters since 2008, also got her thinking about what it means to
come to a new country and start a new life. "I really like helping Spanish
speakers who come to the hospital," Tom said. "And it has provided a
window into the current immigrant experience in the United States."
Tom's Dale research will be, in a sense,
anthropological fieldwork. She will use her exploration of her Chinese American
community as the springboard for her fiction, much as she did for her novel,
which served as her thesis in the anthropology department and in the Program in Creative Writing, in which she is
earning a certificate. In addition to the novel, which was advised by novelists
and creative writing faculty members Joyce Carol Oates and Lorrie Moore, Tom wrote a critical section
analyzing anthropological writing about fiction and ethnography.
"Lisa confronted technical and
intellectual challenges different from those of most seniors majoring in
anthropology and most students in creative writing," said Professor of
Anthropology Rena Lederman, Tom's thesis adviser.
"Most fiction writers do not need to face the ethical and analytical
constraints that ethnographers take for granted. She has faced these challenges
with courage and admirable energy and skill."
Tom has studied writing at Princeton with John
McPhee, the Ferris Professor of Journalism and a well-known writer for The New
Yorker, who noted that Tom wrote a nonfiction piece about organic chemistry
that was "solidly informative" and "entertaining." In
another composition, "she described her mother's bird's nest soup, traced
the history of the dish and used the story as a window into her family's
history," McPhee said.
Tom thrives on research, whether it is about
her family or about patients in the Guatemalan clinic, she said. Asking the
right questions -- a skill she honed in anthropology courses as well as while
working as a freelance writer for The Baltimore Sun -- has led her to promising
material for her fiction.
"I never would have written a novel taking
place in Guatemala if I hadn't done research there," Tom said. "It
started with my real-life experience, but the main character is not me. ... The
beauty of fiction is that you have the freedom to invent."
To further develop her writing life on campus,
Tom founded the Princeton Writers' Workshop in 2008. She has organized seminars
with authors for fellow writers on campus, and held weekly workshops in which
students exchange creative work.
"I wasn't able to take a creative writing
class every semester," said Tom, who also studied at Princeton with
fiction writers Jeffrey Eugenides and Amy Hempel, screenwriter
Christina Lazaridi and poet Brenda Shaughnessy. "I thought that there
must be other students like me who would be more motivated to keep writing if
someone was going to look at their work."
After she completes the Dale Fellowship, Tom hopes
to become a physician, with an eye toward a career combining medicine and
"Medicine is full of amazing
stories," she said.