By Ben Popalardo
The auditorium was packed with students and faculty alike as Roya Hakakian delivered her keynote speech discussing her memoir “Journey From the Land of No” during the Academic Festival held April 3.
Hakakian took to the stage with a sense of serene confidence and charisma. She primarily discussed her life in Iran, specifically growing up during political upheaval. She supported her speech with passages from her memoir delivering it with a calm, steady tone that lulled the audience in. It was clear that she enjoyed being on stage and that what she was saying was what she truly believed.
Instructor of psychology Gary Capobianco was in charge of organizing the majority of the festival and invited Hakakian to discuss her books as her memoirs fit this year’s theme, journeys. Speakers in the past have come from multiple disciplines, but more often than not the speaker is an author of some sort. It’s all about finding the right fit for the festival.
“We read biographies and we see what people have done and we say ‘who would be a good fit for us’. This year, Roya was a very good fit for us,” said Capobianco. “We want someone who has a compelling story, who’s interesting, who’s a good speaker, but also someone where the students can identify with this person and where the students might walk away saying wow.”
Other than the keynote speech, a plethora of other events were available, totaling almost 30 separate activities across the campus. Historical talks, live music, public readings and more activities were all available for students and faculty alike to participate in.
Organizing a festival this large is an impressive feat and not everyone was happy with the way the events were planned out. Student Edward Pena was disappointed by the cancellation of the proper pet ownership panel, which was cancelled due to the lack of a venue. He expressed his disappointment in the cancellation, but showed understanding for the large task of organization.
“It’s a combo of ‘they did what they could’ with a necessity for more preparation to have everything that they wanted to show,” said Pena.
Despite some complications in the organization, the festival had a large turnout according to Capobianco. Running between the events, there were dozens if not hundreds of students and faculty coming together in a way they rarely do. Faces familiar and foreign popped out in the crowds and few seemed disappointed with the day’s events.
Hakakian’s keynote speech came later that afternoon. Student and faculty piled into the auditorium, which filled within minutes. Hakakian spoke of the dangers her and her family faced growing up in the thrall of social unrest that had been (and still is) gripping her country.
“I learned a great many things about the typical life in Iran under a monarchy, which had to do with the fact that if you are a student in college, you don’t really have the freedom of speech to say anything you want to say, no freedom of press,” said Hakakian during her speech. “Therefor if you were on the verge of becoming an intellectual, or if you were associated with students who were against this king, this monarchy, then you could get yourself in a whole lot of trouble.”
When the revolution was beginning Hakakian was only a young girl. With a tinge of humor in her voice she mentioned the most common question she was asked by high school students is whether there was snow in Iran, and consequently, if she ever received snow days.
“If you’re thinking about having time off from school, don’t think about snow days. Think about a revolution. Because when a revolution comes, you get so many days off,” said Hakakian. “And that’s precisely what 1978 was like in Iran: it was one gigantic snow day.”
The remainder of the speech played out in a similar fashion. Hakakian was able to weave bits and pieces of her humor and charisma into the actually distressing stories of her past, which made the entire speech far more enjoyable to listen to than if it had gone to either extreme. Hakakian created a perfect balance of comedy and sad fact.
While the keynote address focused on her memoirs, a smaller scale discussion took place earlier in the day on her more recent book, “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.” I attended both talks and what struck me most by Hakakian’s presentation is how she was able to speak to the 290 individuals in the auditorium as easily as she did to our group of 30 or so for the book discussion. The size of the audience did not matter, regardless of how daunting it may have appeared. She was prepared, articulate, and calm.
Following the keynote address, a book signing was held in the East Atriumduring which roughly 40 individuals came to get books signed according to Capobianco.
At the conclusion of the festival, I was able to talk personally for a few minutes with Hakakian herself. Warm, but intense, she answered my questions in the same calm sophisticated manner she employed on the stage. My first question was one I suspect many had asked her, which was why she wanted to become a writer, which she answered simply.
“Because it was all I ever wanted to do,” said Hakakian.
We discussed her reception as well, and what she thought of the school and its student body. Thankfully, she wasted no time in praising her audience.
“You can usually tell what your audience thinks of you. Everyone that came up to me seemed very enthusiastic and polite. It’s a good community,” said Hakakian.
After our talk and a brief snack at the buffet set up in the East Atrium, the festival came to a close. Hakakian’s speech left an impression on some, (and got the school bookstore a few sales) and the rest of the day’s events gave at least a few students something to talk about. Here’s to next year, and the hope that our next speaker is as entertaining as this year’s was.