Novelist Naima Coster ’04 Presents the 2020 Courtney Steel Lecture

Novelist Naima Coster ’04 returned to Spence as the guest speaker for the Courtney Steel ’87 Lecture, an annual lecture series that brings authors of national stature to speak to Upper School students and faculty. This year’s lecture was a virtual presentation that also included alumnae guests from the classes of 2004 and 1987.

Coster is the author of two novels: her debut Halsey Street, which was a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, and her forthcoming novel, What’s Mine and Yours, which will be published in March of next year. She is also a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree for 2020. 

In introducing Coster, Arielle B. ’21, herself a writer with work published in a literary journal, described Coster’s work and career as “perceptive and inspiring.”

Coster began by recalling her own experience being in the audience for the Courtney Steel Lectures during her Spence years, and noted the importance of getting to know authors including Chang-rae Lee and Isabel Allende. “I remember being awed” by them, she shared. 

With compelling ease and authenticity, Coster invited students into a conversation about being a writer, her creative process and the many ways that her life experiences, including joining the Spence community in Grade 7, inspire her work. “I’d been writing since I was much younger, probably seven years old,” she shared, noting that she still has a box of marble notebooks filled with stories she wrote as a child. Coster said she was drawn to fiction because she wanted to imitate the books she read. She loved how immersive the art form was, and the escape she felt when she was engaged in it. “When I read or wrote, I was elsewhere.” 

Joining Spence halfway through Middle School was a fruitful but complex journey that continues to shape Coster’s life and provides her with rich observational skills and insights. “I was 12 when I started at Spence and the school culture was so different from me - unlike anything that I knew in the world of home.” Her work often focuses on characters that traverse different worlds. 

In Upper School, Coster wrote a short story collection, called Fifteen. The collection focused on feeling misunderstood or stuck, “all things I felt acutely when I was fifteen.” The stories in Fifteen weave through the streets of New York City along with Coster’s characters, exploring Manhattan at night with her friends, experiences true to her real life.

At Spence, Coster found inspiration in working with her English teachers when they recognized in her a strong curiosity for literature and writing. “One of the things that was helpful for me in navigating the big change that was Spence was having people who were interested in my own ideas about my life. What was important to me - my English teachers, who saw my passion for writing, and who affirmed that desire that came from me.”

The act of fiction writing, Coster shared with the audience, is akin to baking in the kitchen. Using a metaphor coined by fellow writer Lorrie Moore, Coster explained that “the facts of life are like ingredients in a kitchen cupboard and the cake you make is the fiction. It’s untrue to say the cake is the same thing as flour, eggs, milk and sugar. It’s also untrue to say the cake is pulled out of thin air. I draw from my experiences and experiences of others.” Writing, for Coster, is the transformative process in which these ingredients become something new—something that could only be made uniquely by her.

Upper Schoolers were curious about the challenges Coster experiences as a writer. Coster shared that her family wanted her to pursue a career less risky than writing, such as becoming a doctor or a lawyer. “Feeling permission to be a writer and live a creative life” has been a struggle, she explained. 

Students in Upper School also wanted to know whether Coster is open to other mediums of writing beyond fiction. “My heart most belongs to fiction, but I love personal essays and memoir,” she emphasized. “I’ve dabbled a little bit in sci-fi and speculative fiction. But one of the things I love about writing is that I don’t know what I’ll do next. I’m open.”

Earlier this week, Coster also spoke to Middle Schoolers at an assembly, where students delved into conversations with the author. Grade 6 student Plum S. was curious about what kind of books Coster enjoys reading. The author explained that the mysteries and complexities of families have always drawn her to the page. “Anything that digs into what makes families beautiful and sometimes challenging, and the ways that families make us who we are.” She emphasized her generous definition of families, and believes that a school community can be a family as well.

Middle Schoolers wanted to know what Coster would tell herself as a young Spence student, if she could go back in time. “I find this is what I’ve always needed - to be gentle with myself and to try to understand myself. When I think of the girl who used to watch her classmates, I wish I could go back in time and tell her she was wonderful. I wish I could tell her that she didn’t have to be perfect and she had nothing to prove, she could just be herself.” 

The Spence School would like to thank Naima Coster ’04 for generously sharing her life as an author with the Spence community and we wish you luck with publishing your next novel.

The Courtney Steel ’87 Visiting Author Program was established to honor and remember Courtney Steel ’87 by her parents, family and friends. Through lectures, which bring a writer of national stature to the school each year, Courtney's passion for literature, gift for writing and respect for the nuances of language continue to inspire Spence students. Past Courtney Steel guest authors have included Jacqueline Woodson, James McBride and Barbara Krauthamer.
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