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Colleagues honor life of writing professor

Professor Eugene Clasby of the Department of English holds up a copy of the Mangrove Literary Journal’s special tribute issue, Goran’s Gifts, at the memorial celebration held at Books & Books Friday night. Photo courtesy Jenny Abreu Photography.

Known by friends and colleagues as an eccentric instructor and skillful storyteller, the late Lester Goran was remembered last week during Goran’s Gifts, a two-day celebration of his legacy.

Goran, who passed away earlier this year, founded the creative writing department at the University of Miami in 1965 and pushed for the creation of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing in 1991.

Goran’s Gifts consisted of a recent alumni reading, a publishing panel and a memorial celebration sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Creative Writing and Mangrove, UM’s undergraduate literary journal.  Mangrove also launched a special tribute issue including works by Goran’s students, as well as several of Goran’s pieces.

Old friends and acquaintances, traveling from as far as Ireland and Australia, reunited in Coral Gables to honor his legacy.

Books & Books hosted the event Thursday evening, which featured readings by published UM creative writing alumni, among them poet Jason McCall and memoirist Daisy Hernandez.  Also present at the event were members of Goran’s family, including his children and grandchildren.

Friday’s events, held at the Wesley Foundation CAS Gallery, began with a publishing panel in the morning. Goran himself had published over 12 books and short story collections.

His most well-known work, “Tales From the Irish Club,” depicts the working-class Irish-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh in which he spent his childhood. Other works include his memoir, “The Bright Streets of Surfside,” an account of his sometimes tenuous friendship with Nobel laureate and former UM faculty member Isaac Bashevis Singer. Goran scholar Chauncey Mabe, also present at the events, has called Goran “the most underrated novelist of his generation.”

“Lester’s work was set apart from, but still deeply a part of, the essential conversation of mankind,” said Eugene Clasby, a friend who had worked closely with Goran.

The program closed in the evening with a memorial celebration and the launch of the Mangrove’s tribute issue, compiled by editor-in-chief Sara Ryan and managing editor Natasha Mijares.

“Lester had taught [over 20,000]students during his 53 years teaching at University of Miami,” said Ryan, a senior majoring in English on the Creative Writing track. “We sought to give [them]a chance to pay tribute to  their professor.”

Students and colleagues painted a picture of an avid writer and scholar who stuck by his literary guns and was bluntly straightforward.

“Lester had very fixed opinions,” said friend and colleague Patrick McCarthy. Sometimes, students remarked, this made Goran seem gruff.

M. Evelina Galang, who currently directs the Creative Writing Program, recalled her first impression of Goran.

“I knew right off the bat that he was the one that needed to be convinced that I was worth taking a look at,” she said. “I also knew that he would be a tough one to win over.”

After years of work, Galang eventually succeeded and gained Goran’s respect, an honor that a select group of other writers enjoyed. Goran took writing very seriously, which resulted in his tough standards.

“Lester was tough, detail-oriented and honest,” said Terrence Cheng, author of Sons of Heaven. “He would tell you to check your ego inside and focus on the work.”

Goran’s teachings have shaped generations of UM writers, reaching outside his own classroom to students such as novelist Natalia Sylvester, a previous student of Galang’s.

“I never had a chance to study under Goran directly, but the people he touched turned around and influenced me,” Sylvester said. “That’s the sign of a great teacher; you have a legacy that lasts beyond yourself.”

Besides being a great teacher, Goran also proved himself to be a valuable friend. He kept in touch with those who mattered to him, meeting up with colleagues, previous students and scholars over coffee or lunch.

“I would go look for him if I was not having a good day, because I figured that within five minutes he would have me laughing about something,” said McCarthy. “He was a good friend.”

New York Times bestselling author Michelle Richmond, who studied under Goran as an MFA student, performed the last reading on Friday night.

“Lester believed in the power of stories; he always wanted to know what happened next,” she said. “So Lester, here’s what happened next: we kept writing, and we missed you.”

October 25, 2014

Reporters

Jackie Yang

Jackie Yang can be reached via email at jyang@themiamihurricane.com.


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