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Erika Duncan And Herstory: Archived And Accessible

Originally Posted: April 29, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Writers and facilitators from the Herstory Prison and Bridges Workshop. Photos by Douglas Harrington

Stony Brook - On April 20, the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University hosted a reception celebrating the installation into the University Libraries Special Collections of the archives of Sag Harbor's Erika Duncan - specifically the over 2,000 women that she helped inspire to find the words of their lives because of Duncan's "Herstory Writers Workshops."

Erika Duncan addressing the audience at the Charles B. Wang Center, Stony Brook University.

The event was punctuated with the reading of their words by six women touched by the feminist, social, literary activism of Duncan, who first gathered women together in her West Village, NYC apartment in the 1970s for a women's literary salon called the "Woman's Salon." The decade long meeting of women's minds enabled audiences to interact intimately with emerging feminist writers that included Susan Griffin, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Olga Broumas and Blanche Wiesen Cook in a forum where the works of women writers not yet known were ushered in by the likes of Tillie Olsen, Alice Walker, Kate Millett and Adrienne Rich.

After moving to Sag Harbor in the 1990s, Duncan taught fiction workshops and eventually co-sponsored a week-long women's conference at the Southampton Cultural Center. It was the out-pouring of women at that conference interested in finding ways to express themselves that became the genesis of the Herstory Writers Workshops.

Since its inception, as a literary voice for women, Herstory has expanded its reach based on what might best be described as social need. The literary workshop umbrella of Herstory now publishes works of the "silenced or unsung voices" of women incarcerated in correctional facilities, "Voices: Memoirs From Herstory Inside" and Latino women in "Latinas Escriben" ("Latinas Write"). The latter has recently brought out its second, very impressive issue.

Almost two dozen Herstory workshops meet regularly across Long Island at libraries, private residences, cultural centers, senior and assisted living centers, universities and, as noted, correctional facilities.

Adelaide Acevedo, Marsha Benoff, Vivian Viloria-Fisher, Erika Duncan, Lonnie Mathis, Silva Heredia, Sunita Mukhi - Herstory authors surround their mentor.

Beyond her feminist literary outreach, Duncan's individual work as a writer is substantial. Her novels include "A Wreath Of Pale White Roses" and "Those Giants: Let Them Rise" along with a collection of her portraits of writers for Writer's Forum, "Unless Soul Clap Its Hands: Portraits And Passages" representing the works of a writer devoted to the understanding of literary expression. Add to that her monthly front page profiles of writers and artists in the New York Times Long Island Weekly (1993-1997), all of which, along with the Herstory and Woman's Salon works and memorabilia, will be archived and available to students, professors, scholars and the public-at-large as part of the Herstory/Erika Duncan Archives of the Stony Brook University Libraries Special Collections.

At the reception, after opening remarks by Dan Kinny and Kristen Nyitray of the University Libraries Services, Duncan individually introduced each of the readers. Marsha Benoff, Lonnie Mathis, Adelaide Acevedo, Sunita Mukhi, Silva Heredia and Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher not only read from their works, but extolled the impact that Duncan and Herstory had on them and the aid she gave to a community of women in search of their own voices.

At a gathering after the formal reception, the platitudes for Duncan and the impact of her donation of the collection continued. "She has such an eye to history," according to Dr. Sunita Mukhi, a reader and the Director of Asian and Asian-American Programs for the Charles B. Wang Center, "especially the women's movement, giving voice to stories of women that are otherwise silenced or that are not free to express themselves. She has given us a way to express ourselves artfully, not just politically, artfully."

Dan Kinny, Associate Director for Collections and Technical Services stated, "This is a wonderful resource to bring to Stony Brook because it has got a Long Island basis and it is an original resource for our students and faculty to learn about this unique genre of literature."

Erika Duncan receiving congratulations after the ceremony.

Duncan's reaction was expectedly personal, "I think it is wonderful. In terms of Hertory, I think it is so important to document these women's voices, women's voices that have been silenced and unsung. It can make all the difference in the world. We have worked it out that the collection is accessible to all people, not just professors, lawyers, students, but for people without formal education. I think the fact that we are being taken seriously as a literary force is very, very exciting."

The informal gathering that followed the reception may have had even more emotion to it than the ceremony itself, as if acknowledgment of Duncan and Herstory was a justification to further raise their voices in the revelry of their women's art, their women's literature. A song of self-justification, self-illumination, a simple song of unapologetic self-realization. As far as Erika Duncan goes, Legislator Viloria-Fisher said it best, "Erika exemplifies the perfect intersection between art and service."

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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