Associate News Editor
Diane Ackerman, the 2012 Hausman Lecture speaker, spoke about her writing style and read from her nonfiction work, The Zookeeper’s Wife, at The Barshinger Center for Musical Arts Thursday.
The Hausman Lecture is made possible by a donation from Richard and Edna Hausman, through which the English department invites a notable author to speak to the campus and community every Fall. Erik Anderson, a visiting assistant professor of English, introduced Ackerman.
“The Hausman Lecture is a marquee literary event in the academic year,” Anderson said.
The majority of Ackerman’s work focuses on the natural history of her subject, whether it is love, illness, or the senses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, winner of the 2008 Orion Book Award, details the efforts of Antonina and Jan Zabinski to run a zoo and shelter Jewish refugees during World War II. Ackerman used an old journal of Antonina’s to piece together the story of a Warsaw family who saved hundreds of lives during Nazi rule of Poland. The family took in those on the run and housed them in animal cages and their own home. Ackerman read aloud a passage detailing a time when Nazi soldiers threatened the lives of Antonina and her son.
“The most remarkable thing [about] Antonina was her determination to include play, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide glaze of innocence in a household where everyone could hear the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties,” Ackerman said. “That takes a special type of bravery that is very rarely celebrated in wartime.”
She focuses on Antonina’s connection with nature and animals as well. Antonina seemed to have a special bond with animals, which fascinates Ackerman because of her own interest in the natural world as explored in her other works.
Furthermore, Ackerman discussed the Nazi fascination with the natural world. While researching the Warsaw Zoo, she learned Nazis not only wanted to control the genetics of humans, but of all plants and animals, adding a separate dimension to the depth of the Nazi depravity. Their eventual goal was to destroy every foreign species, and fill in the gaps with Aryan plants.
Ackerman also spoke about her focus when writing.
“That sense of trying to shake myself out of habit, you know, that polite blur in which we spend our days and which we need, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to deal with the UPS man or get our work done or anything,” Ackerman said. “You know you form habits for good reasons but the minute you master something you lose some of the wealth of the details that first excited you.”
In addition, she ruminated about the source of her interest in the natural world.
“My muse has always been very miscellaneous,” Ackerman said. “I have always been interested in everything. When I wanted to write about the senses, I wanted to be able to write about the senses as a celebration, as an exploration, in terms of history and art and science and poetry because why would you want to look at life from one perspective. A natural history is what I decided to call it because I could get away with doing that. All of my books are part of that same enterprise, that same nature of trying to decide what life is like on this planet and what the experience of being alive was about.”
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