This past month, a UNCG alumna’s words reached thousands across the globe. In her work, she conveyed the profound joys of life, in the midst of impending death.
Many Spartans knew and admired Nina Riggs, who attended the MFA in Creative Writing Program from 2002 to 2004. She died in February at age 39, only weeks after finishing her book, “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying,” published by Simon and Schuster on June 6.
The book took shape from Riggs’ essay that appeared in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column in September of 2016, “When a Couch is More Than a Couch.” Prior to that she had written about her life with breast cancer in an article that appeared in the Washington Post, and on her blog, Suspicious Country. Within 10 days of its publication, “The Bright Hour” held spot 14 on the New York Times’ best seller list for nonfiction, and was then named an editors’ choice. Riggs’ wise, realistic and uplifting perspective on life – and death – is far reaching. Katie Couric, who made a video segment on “The Bright Hour,” called it “an amazing book,” and it has already been translated into seven languages.
In “The Bright Hour,” Riggs frequently alludes to the 16th-century French philosopher and essayist Montaigne, and to her great-great-great grandfather, American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book’s epitaph is a fitting quotation from Emerson: “I am cheered with the moist, warm, glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.”
Because of her awareness of her time limitations, Riggs wrote about her life as it was happening, submitting pages as she completed them, with the knowledge she would not see her young children grown up, or her book in published form. Many scenes take place within a few short blocks of the UNCG campus, and readers can find Greensboro landmarks, such as St. Mary’s House, in the pages.
At UNCG, Riggs worked with Fred Chappell and Stuart Dischell in poetry workshops and was poetry editor for the Greensboro Review from 2003 to 2004.
Dischell said of her, “Nina was one of our most worldly and elegant poets when she came to us in the MFA Program in 2002, after a year in Paris with her husband, John. She was a brilliant student whose poems had passion, gravity and historical perspective. The prose of her memoir is as beautiful as it gets.”
Her husband John Duberstein observed that at UNCG she not only studied the craft of writing poetry and nonfiction, but created a lasting community among her classmates and professors.
“The program doesn’t just build writing skills – it was very much about relationships,” he said.
Even after Riggs graduated, the UNCG writing community remained a big part of her life; she was a part of small writing groups, finding writing exchange opportunities and close friendships with the people she had gotten to know through the MFA program. She also found a writing position with the Center for Reproductive Rights through a UNCG classmate.
“The Bright Hour” has been reviewed and profiled in The Washington Post, People Magazine, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, O Magazine, The Boston Globe and Publishers Weekly, among others. Author Kelly Corrigan wrote, “How a woman can have this much emotional clarity and narrative power while fighting for her life should astonish every last one of us. Magical. Unforgettable.”
Last Tuesday at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro, UNCG faculty member Holly Goddard-Jones interviewed Duberstein, and two UNCG MFA alumni, Drew Perry and Tita Ramirez, read excerpts from “The Bright Hour.” The crowd packed the back half of the bookstore, a clear testament to Riggs’ connection to the literary community in and around UNCG.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications