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English

Keija Parssinen ’03

Writer

Before I left Texas for Princeton, people bombarded me with questions about my future course of study—specifically, what would I major in? I felt as though a lot depended on my answer, though I wasn’t quite sure what. And I’ll admit, I was mildly frightened of my high school classmates’ parents, who were the ones doing the inquiring. They were doctors and lawyers and engineers. They built houses and shopping malls. They were practical, hard-working people, and they had done well for themselves, living in the kind of large Spanish-style houses with fountains that defined the town where I grew up.

Most of the time, I said political science, and I tried to sound authoritative as I said it, sometimes shortening it to “poli sci.” It seemed legitimate, mostly because it contained the word science. They were usually okay with this one, though there was always a hint of suspicion in their eyes, as if I might grow up to be an elected official. I said it because it was what my dad studied, and because I liked following politics in the paper.

Sometimes, I said history, and this also seemed okay with people, for the most part. History meant I could go on to law school. I was safe. None of the people asking, however, seemed to get over the fact that I was leaving Texas, as if to say, “Now, why ever would you want to do that?”

Once, when I appeared flummoxed, one of the grown-ups asked, in a kindly voice, “What’s your favorite subject? That’s a good place to start when trying to pick a major.”

“English,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “Well.” It was as if I’d suggested spending a lifetime making cat-hair jackets.

An academic home

When I got to Princeton, I was intimidated by the world of up-and-coming politicos populating the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and politics seminars. They were argumentative, self-assured. They ran for student office and looked knowing on their campaign posters. I felt so far from knowing anything about anything, so I shied away from that life. 

My parents never nudged me in any one direction, so at college, I felt a bit lost. I sampled everything, as they say you should, and I was glad of it. I came to see how unfit a philosopher I’d be, and I found history wonderful but the writing a bit dry. Astronomy was a disaster—I preferred to look at the stars from an uneducated point of view. I wanted to be okay with mystery, not try to explain it.

Without fail, though, I chose an English course each semester of my nascent college career. It was my favorite subject, after all, and I came to discover that life’s mysteries resided there, in the books filling the syllabi of the English department: in Paradise Lost and Mrs. Dalloway, The Remains of the Day and Intimations of Immortality. In English class, I felt the whole world, emotional and material, opening out before me. And in this organic way, the English department became my academic home on campus.

Prepared for anything

When I graduated, I went on to a successful grant-writing career, raising money for a Brooklyn arts-in-education nonprofit. There was good money in it, and job security, but it wasn’t my passion. Two years after graduation, I started writing a novel, or rather, putting one sentence after the other, waiting to see what developed. Four years after graduation, I earned a spot at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In January 2012, my novel, Against the Kings of Salt, will be published by Harper Perennial. When the book sold, my reaction was twofold. I experienced utter joy at the realization of a childhood dream—I would be a published author! And I experienced dread—I would be a published author, that vocation belonging to my idols and heroes, those greats I’d studied with such diligent passion while at Princeton. Yikes. 

Thanks to those years in the Princeton English department, though, I feel better equipped to handle the pressures of my new job. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, as a writer, it’s important to understand what has come before—and to respect the mystery.

You may read my story and think that an English-major author is an unsurprising combination that remains the territory of the few. To that, I would tell you that, in addition to my writing, I work as the director of admissions at a private school. Studying English literature—learning how to write well, exploring the landscape of the human heart—really does prepare you to do just about anything you want, surprising or no.

Parssinen-Keija