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The Enchantment of Imagining

/ Published July 18, 2014

“The whole idea of imagination is that you have to speculate. You have to say ‘What if? What if everything I think right now is not the only thing to think?’ That’s the foundation of science and that’s the foundation of art. And that’s the foundation of projecting myself into the future,” says Andrea Hairston ’74, the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and professor of Afro-American studies.

A conversation with Andrea Hairston is never dull. You might expect to talk about science fiction, theater and Afro-American studies, Hairston’s areas of scholarship, only to find that you’ve pleasantly veered off to discuss the virtues of German, animal psychology, West African cosmology, math and physics.

This is the kind of experience Hairston evokes not only in conversation, but also in her writing, her plays and in the classroom (one of her latest classes is called The Magic ‘What If’). She wants you to appreciate both the rational and the mysterious. She’s excited about the adventure of life, and you can’t help but get excited, too.

To Hairston, imagination is our greatest tool, the world an unlimited stage. Our knowledge gives us the ability to understand our reality; our creativity gives us the ability to shape it, and then reshape it.

The common denominator in Hairston’s diverse interests is that they all elevate the art of storytelling. Her new works continue an ongoing exploration of science, art and culture, and how we use them to navigate life and our sense of the world. Part meditation, part contemplation, part invitation, her work is infused with what Hairston has come to see as a few fundamental, interconnected truths: that our stories define us, not everything can be explained and play is critical to our survival.

Imagination fuels art, science and culture, says Andrea Hairston ’74, professor of theatre and incoming chair of the Afro-American studies department. Her new book of essays, a novel and play all capitalize on the idea that our stories give us the power to envision, plan and create how we want to live in the future.

We Are Our Stories

Poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The world is not made up of atoms; it’s made up of stories.” Hairston is like-minded; to her, storytelling is so crucial to life that it’s hardwired in our brains. “We make reality with stories,” she says.

In her new book, Lonely Stardust, from Aqueduct Press, Hairston examines popular works in the science and speculative fiction realm through eight essays, two plays and a speech that all visit themes about the importance of stories.

In her essay “Stories Are More Important Than Facts: Imagination as Resistance in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth,” she writes: “Storytellers occupy a paradoxical position in U.S. society and in many societies throughout history and across the globe. Inhabiting both sacred and profane space, storytellers along with other artists are simultaneously celebrated and censored, revered and reviled, valued enormously while also considered insignificant and dangerous. Yet Story is how we seek to order the universe; how we make chaos beautiful, meaningful; how we define who we are, were and will be.”

Hairston’s own story is one of defying rules and reimagining reality. She went to college at a time when African American women had only just begun to pursue higher education. As for African American women professors—there weren’t many to be found at that time.

“When I look at my great-grandparents and I look at me, I am hopeful. They had a dream, and I am living it.”

Beyond What We Know

As an undergraduate, Hairston majored in physics and math and was “enchanted by the possibility of explaining things from the first-order principles.” She sprinkles her conversation with theories from Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg.

For fun, Hairston reads science journals and popular science books. Her writing is influenced by physics, biology and psychology. These days she’s also interested in cognition, evolution, sustainable development and the environment.

In other words, she loves and understands science. At the same time, Hairston also considers the words of director and playwright Joseph Chaikin—that what we share with all living things is the mystery of the unknown. “Anything can happen,” she explains.

“There’s a line in my new play—you throw a ball, and it will follow the parabola on gravity. You throw a dog, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the dog will do—it might turn around and bite you. So life doesn’t necessarily follow rules.”

The space outside of the rules is what Hairston thinks of as spirit—as that which is sacred. It’s not necessarily from a religious viewpoint, although she doesn’t believe that science, art and religion need to be treated so divisively. Instead, they work together.

She references anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s concept of the “ecology of mind,” a way of defining what is sacred as a liminal state between our rational and metaphorical minds, or our conscious and subconscious. That also describes the world of science fiction and fantasy, says Hairston. “Holding the sacred in my work influences everything that I do.”

This is particularly evident in her forthcoming novel, “Will Do Magic for Small Change.” This story is concerned with Eshu, a West African deity who was also the subject of one of Hairston’s earlier plays, Dispatches. In her office, she pulls out a large model of a two-faced mask.

We have a complex relationship with truth, context, meaning, and experience. We generate the world that generates us.

Eshu deals with uncertainty, Hairston explains. “Eshu is a deity of the think you know what Eshu looks like, and then you turn around and it’s not the same face,” she says. “What Eshu reminds us is that we can’t understand everything,” Hairston says. “We are also part of what we’re searching.”

In “Driving Mr. Lenny,” another essay in Lonely Stardust, Hairston sums up this idea. “We are not in a universe solely created by our (embodied) minds even if our access to the universe is limited by these minds. There is a brute reality co-evolving with our experiences, and there are limits and constraints on what we can experience and how. We have a complex relationship with truth, context, meaning, and experience. We generate the world that generates us. We see/experience the categories that we create, but we can also learn how to see/experience in other ways.”

The Power of Play in Learning

One way we learn to reconsider reality is through play, says Hairston. “Play has elements of danger, surprise, improvisation and communication across barriers.”

She refers to the “playroom of the imagination,” borrowing a phrase from one of her mentors, German playwright and novelist Michael Ende. “In that playroom we can defy all the rules. We can imagine situations and work out all kinds of things,” she says.

Ultimately, Hairston believes, it is play that gives us our sense of awe. It may be what saves us, she says, taking a phrase from her new play Thunderbird at the Next World Theatre. Play makes possible “survival of the friendliest.”

How do we survive, even when we are faced by unimaginable challenges—whether they are those that we are working to understand or that we deny? Hairston contends that this is our greatest work, and our greatest creative promise as humans. It’s also the reason she cares so deeply about teaching.

“I like to turn out students who are going to make the world,” she says. Even after more than three decades of teaching, Hairston is still surprised by her students’ ideas and accomplishments. She tears up talking about former student Monique Robinson ’09, for instance, who returned to honor Hairston when she was awarded Smith’s 2013 Sherrerd Prize for Distinguished Teaching.

“I really want them to be subjects in their lives and co-evolve our world. And I want them to have a good time doing it while they’re gathering all their forces. That will motivate them through all of the difficult things.”

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