Associate Professor of English; Poet and Author
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Audrey Petty '90 teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, and she
writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several
publications, including Story Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, African American Review, The Oxford American, and Best Food Writing 2006. A native of Chicago, Illinois, she is editor of High Rise Stories, slated for publication in fall 2013 as part of the McSweeney’s Voice of Witness book series. High Rise Stories is an oral history focusing on people who lived in Chicago public housing communities, such as the Robert Taylor Homes, that have been demolished in recent years.
How did your Knox experience affect the course of your life?
I have enduring friendships that began at Knox, whether with my classmates or teachers who became my colleagues, like Robin [Metz, Philip Sidney Post Professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Knox.
Knox was the place that I began to really take myself seriously as a thinker -- not only as a writer, as a creative person, but as a thinker. I got a lot of confidence, but also I was challenged there, and I know I grew. Where I am now has everything to do with Knox. Certainly, being in a community there with young people who were amazing artists and amazing thinkers and had all kinds of projects that they wanted to pursue, that was infectious. It did light something within me. (Photo at right: Audrey Petty, center, with fellow Knox College alumni Jessie Dixon and Mary Crawford, now members of the Knox faculty.)
Describe a memorable Knox class, experience, or professor, and the impact on you.
Near the top of the list would be my experience in the study abroad program and living in France -- living in Besancon -- for a school year. That was the biggest decision of my life at that point.
It was such a big leap for me. I’m very close with my parents and my sisters, and the thought of being away –- away and unreachable, physically, for that school year -- was a daunting notion. But I really wanted it. I think I knew that it was going to change me, and it did.
It gave me a different sense of who I was as an African-American, as an American. It gave me a different appreciation of language, of literature. It was life-changing. I don’t think I can do it justice in trying to explain it.
What advice would you give to high school students who are undertaking their college search?
I would encourage them to learn about the layers of each place that they’re looking at. What first presents itself in a certain place is important information, but I think there’s often a lot more going on that’s beyond what meets the eye.
What made you want to be part of High Rise Stories and chronicle people’s memories?
My earliest memories of the city, and the city’s skyline, include Robert Taylor Homes because we lived pretty close to them. I had piano lessons in a neighborhood that meant that I was passing by Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Ida B. Wells on a regular basis. I never entered any of these communities, but they were landmarks to me.
I was also aware of headlines, news stories about things that happened in Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens — crime, shootings, drug sales, things that made the 10 o’clock news. That was the only kind of education I had about what those communities were like from the inside. Once the buildings started to come down, it felt like a really big deal to me, and I think I understood, as an adult, that there was a lot more to those communities than what I’d heard on the news. I was curious to somehow get closer to those places, even as they were disappearing. (Photo below: Audrey Petty speaks at a meeting of the Knox College Caxton Club.)