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About to publish her first book, Emory College graduate creates understanding through stories

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 8, 2019

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An interdisciplinary scholar with a double major in English/creative writing and psychology/linguistics, Namrata Verghese explores the power of narrative through her own writing and the memoirs of others.

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When Emory College of Arts and Sciences senior Namrata Verghese graduates May 13, she leaves a legacy of leadership in the liberal arts that helps other students discover new insights through interdisciplinary study.

As a first year student, Verghese’s laser focus on becoming a writer prompted her to enroll in “The Psychology of Fiction,” a first-year seminar taught by Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology.

The renowned professor and scholar on family narratives connected ideas that Verghese knew  –  about storytelling that centers on what people want and why  –  but had not yet linked. It was the first of many chances to learn and think across disciplines, a new passion she felt compelled to put into action.

In the four years since, she has helped develop and teach courses as an Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship (IDEAS) Fellow, co-created an Asian-American identity magazine and conducted research on autobiographical memory that formed the basis of her honors thesis.

Emory College is honoring Verghese, who graduates with highest honors in English/creative writing and psychology/linguistics, with a Boisfeuillet Jones Medal, putting her among those chosen for the ability to be a “change agent” in the world.

The award comes just months away from publication of her first book, a short-story collection tentatively titled “The Legal Alien,” by Speaking Tiger Books later this summer.

“Most students have to invest in their education, but I feel like Emory invested in me,” says Verghese, a Robert W. Woodruff Scholar. “That gave me the luxury of charting an unconventional path.”

Understanding people through stories

Duke, who recognized Verghese’s interest in understanding people through their stories, recommended her as a research assistant in the Family Narratives Lab directed by Robyn Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology.

As Verghese began working to analyze narratives – research that requires emotional intelligence as well as intellectual ability – she showed a breadth of thinking that set her apart, Fivush says.

When Verghese proposed an honors thesis centered on narratives of sexual violence that would combine the personal stories collected in Fivush’s lab and published memoirs of women of color, Fivush was initially concerned about complexity of the work.

Verghese’s interpretative dive took abstract conceptualizations of trauma – such as the fragmentation of self – and explained them in the human terms used by survivors themselves. She received a Fox Center for the Humanities Honors Fellowship to support the work.

“If a student could do this, only Namrata could,” Fivush says. “Beyond curiosity and intellect, she’s such a caring and empathetic individual. It’s just the fabric of who she is.”

Education and empathy

Concern about social issues is a common thread in Verghese’s work. She helped develop one of the IDEAS Fellowship’s first one-credit “sidecar” courses, examining the overlap between two College courses, “Resisting Racism” and “Black Love.” The final projects in “Power of Black Self-Love” went viral online for showcasing images and videos exploring love as power.

“The pedestalization of Asian Americans as apolitical, passive and highly educated – the ‘model minority’ – has been harnessed as a tool of anti-blackness,” Verghese says. “From that position, I tried to translate my privilege into action for other students’ success.”

That awareness shaped Verghese’s efforts in co-founding Model Minority, a magazine designed to challenge stereotypes that published its first issue this spring.

Verghese also helped launch another sidecar course this year, focused on Bollywood and the new Indian woman, with English professor Deepika Bahri, who directs Emory’s Global and Postcolonial Studies program.

At the same time, her writing was appearing in literary magazines such as Tin House and World Literature Today, as well as online platforms such as The Emory Globe and The Tempest. She also won numerous Emory awards for her nonfiction and fiction portfolio.

“In Namrata I see the combination of a shining intelligence with an extraordinarily mature capacity for empathy, a quality I have come to look for in those students who will predictably make a mark in the future,” Bahri says.

Although she has interned with the likes of Google and with a U.S. Congress member, Verghese’s future likely includes a PhD and definitely involves more writing, including a novel that toys with magical realism to explore the idea of inherited trauma.

Next, as this year’s winner of Emory’s Shepard Scholarship for Graduate Study, Verghese heads to the University of Cambridge in the fall. She will pursue a one-year Master of Philosophy in criticism and culture, with a focus on the literature and culture of postcolonial India and the South Asian diaspora.

The course of study in the famed university’s English department is, of course, interdisciplinary.

“I think what makes Emory unique is you get unparalleled agency over your education,” Verghese says. “I’m so grateful I came here because I think that freedom to explore is what allows students to maximize their potential. Emory empowered me to be brave.”