Alumni Spotlight: David Unger '75

September 09, 2014

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Guatemalan-born David Unger '75 has written five novels and translated 14 books from the Spanish. In 2014 he was awarded Guatemala's Miguel Angel Asturias National Literature Prize for lifetime achievement though he writes exclusively in English. His latest novel The Mastermind will be brought out by Akashic Books in the spring of 2016.

Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

Frank MacShane was the director during the 1970s. He was incredibly generous and his only agenda was to encourage and support young writers and translators. Through him I was able to initiate relationships with Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, and Garcia Marquez and to meet writers such as Nelida Pinon, Luisa Valenzuela, and Mario Vargas Llosa.  

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

More than anything, it opened doors. Again, since Frank was a generous sort of person, he encouraged "match-making" and "networking" before those words became marketing terms. Though I studied with renowned poets such as Stanley Kunitz and Maxine Kumin, I don't feel that they were particularly helpful to me. It was more engaging to attend talks and lectures by the likes of Philip Guston, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and Latin American authors like Cortazar and Borges who would touch down in NYC once a year. I enjoyed taking courses in French literature at Barnard with Serge Gavronsky and poetry classes with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at Columbia College who introduced me to many great new poets like Apollinaire, Michaux, and Eluard. It was a wonderful experience to become friends with Richard Price, Darryl Pinckney, and Luc Sante (the latter two were CC undergraduates)

What were the most pressing social/political issues on the minds of the students when you were here?

We were part of the post-Vietnam War generation living in a city that was affordable and a bit anarchic. You could share an apartment and have your own room, as I did, for 56 bucks a month; beers cost 75 cents and well drinks $1.25 at the Marlin Cafe and the Gold Rail. The fact that we could work 15 hours a week and make enough money for the month meant we had lots of free time to read, write, visit museums. There was plenty of time for human discourse and debate. The business of publishing hadn't raised its ugly head, yet.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

The translation course taught by MacShane was fabulous because he brought in guests almost weekly. There was one poetry class taught by William Jay Smith in which he and Frank Lima almost came to blows while arguing over one of my translations: Frank had brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to share with the class and he was a bit pissed at Smith's ungratefulness. We were an immature group, but lots of fun.

Read more from the Alumni Spotlight series