Emerson professor receives book-writing fellowship


Beacon Archives

WLP Professor Benoit Denizet-Lewis.

By Vivi Smilgius

A Washington D.C. foundation named Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a professor in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department, as the recipient of an artistic grant intended to support the publication of his latest book next year. 

Denizet-Lewis, also a journalist and author, was selected by New America, a public policy think tank, as one of its fifteen new national fellows on Sept. 21. His new book, tentatively titled “We Don’t Know You Anymore,” will explore the ideas of redemption, reinvention, and identity—and how people project, conceal, or come to terms with their own.

“People are often not very good at explaining the complicated reasons for why they change,” he said in an interview with The Beacon. “A lot of what I’m doing is trying to get people to think about why they may change.”

The book also seeks to understand personal change at its most fundamental level, examining it through perspectives such as culture, spirituality, race, gender, sexuality, and politics. Denizet-Lewis has explored these themes to varying degrees in his other works—three books, including one New York Times bestseller, and several columns in The New York Times Magazine regarding sexual identity and LGBTQ life—but will blend them all together in his new work.

“It’s history, philosophy, psychology, contemporary cultural analysis and layered portraits of people undergoing profound shifts,” he said.

Denizet-Lewis explained that a central element of his storytelling technique centers around “change narratives,” or stories that explain the reasoning behind a change. He uses 18th century Priests, 19th century political radicals and modern-day criminals hoping to get parole as subjects for his narratives, and plans to compile research from books on the topics as well as transcripts of parole hearings from California jails.

“People who are no longer alive had fascinating transformations,” he said. “That’s just research. Just tons of research.”

By virtue of teaching classes largely made up of juniors and seniors, Denizet-Lewis said he does not personally witness the dramatic identity shifts experienced by first-years and sophomore students. Nevertheless, he noted that his classes often foster conversations about the nuances of identity and how students understand themselves.

“I have had the privilege of hearing students talk about their identities and the ways they understand how they change,” he said.

He plans to continue exploring the concept of change narratives and identity in a class he is set to teach at Emerson next school year. Since the class will coincide with his book-writing process, Denizet-Lewis said he will take inspiration from conversations in class and bounce ideas around with students.

CORRECTION 11/8: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Denizet-Lewis’ upcoming work as a “novel,” rather than a nonfiction book. The Beacon regrets this error.