Kirk is a renowned writer and professor in Penn’s creative writing department where he teaches ENGL 135, "Narrative Nonfiction: The Art of Experience," where students have the opportunity to explore long-form nonfiction and publish their work in the experimental nonfiction journal, XFic. Best known for his 2010 book "Kingdom Under Glass," which was named one of the Washington Post’s best nonfiction books, Kirk has taught at Penn since 2005.
Described by Kirk as “new nonfiction,” "Avoid the Day" narrates Kirk's travels as he reconstructs the tale of Penn professor Otto Albrecht, the namesake of Penn's music library, and his recovery of a once-missing signed manuscript of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók's "String Quartet No. 3," performed in Philadelphia in the early 20th century.
Kirk narrates the story from locations like the Van Pelt reading room, Transylvania, and an eco-tourism cruise ship in the Arctic. Through Kirk's unique approach to nonfiction, his own perceptions are featured front and center. Although the story is rooted in his archival research conducted at Penn, Kirk narrates the story through the personal lens of his own humanity, struggle with addiction, and grief for his dying father.
“I don't want to sound like a Wikipedia entry. Who says that the writer should always be right?" Kirk said. "Here I am, I'm having my experience. I'm trying to understand this and I botch it here … So if I were to erase that, that just feels like an omission. You know, I don't need to airbrush myself.”
The second movement of the book centers around an ambitious travel documentary-turned-horror film that Kirk and filmmaker Darren Mann created while on the Arctic cruise ship. The creation of the film, Dissonance, is described in Avoid the Day and is slated to premiere at film festivals this fall.
2018 College graduate Kudakwashe Mawunganidze, despite being pre-med, took two of Kirk’s classes while at Penn and tuned in to Tuesday's event.
“The way that he synthesized these experiences and even plugged them together was mind-blowing," Mawunganidze said. "The book is really, really lovely.”
Moderator and KWH program coordinator Alli Katz and KWH staff prioritized audience engagement despite the online platform.
"They were both able to keep an audience engaged," Mawunganidze said. "I kept looking at the numbers and it seemed like the numbers just mostly went up, you know, so it wasn't like random people just kind of like coming in and being like, ‘This is boring,’ and then leaving. It was like, ‘Okay, I'm here. I'm going to stay because I'm really enjoying this.’”
2020 College graduate Sydney Gelman, former managing editor of XFic, praised the virtual format of the event.
“It's kind of trying to replicate like an intimate setting, but on the internet where everyone's disembodied, but I actually thought that it works pretty well,” Gelman said.
Kirk’s work holds a special meaning for Penn students who have taken his classes.
“I just thought that the talk was a really cool way of seeing the things that he says in class culminate in something very tangible, which is this book,” Gelman said. “I just think that he has a really cool idea of what nonfiction can be, which is so much more creative and personal.”
In his new nonfiction approach, Kirk has developed a close relationship with the Penn Libraries, where he conducted some of his research.
“I could not have written either one of my books, 'Kingdom Under Glass' or 'Avoid the Day,' without Penn Libraries,” he said. “I spent as much time in there writing Kingdom Under Glass as I spent in the archives, at the American Museum of Natural History. I mean, that's how extensive their collection on colonial texts is.”
As Penn has shifted away from a hybrid model of class to conduct course work fully online, Kirk said XFic is on "pandemic hold." But he hopes that in reading "Avoid the Day," students can gain some insight into new nonfiction.
“I would hope that if they can see my process, it might help them find their own voice, which I always think is the most important thing a student can get out of a University education," Kirk said. "It took me a long time to find mine.”
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