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Wilentz wins lifetime achievement award

(Sept. 20, 2004)   —   For years, praise for Gay Wilentz's contemplations on gender, culture and healing has come from corners as esteemed as the New York Times and MELUS.

This summer, Wilentz's peers at East Carolina University have recognized her 18-year commitment to her work with the university's 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity. Wilentz, who presented her work to the ECU community Sept. 16 as part of a yearlong celebration in her honor, is a professor of English and director of ECU's Ethnic Studies program.

She is the first woman to receive the honor since it was first established in 1996, said Bruce Southard, chair of the English department.

"Through her teaching, through her multicultural literature, and her linking of academic programs at Belize University and ECU, Gay Wilentz is once more leading ECU along a new pathway," Southard said.

Wilentz shares the 2004 lifetime achievement recognition with Communications Sciences and Disorders Professor Michael Rastatter. ECU Exercise and Sport Science Professor Robert Hickner and Art Professor Carl Billingsley both received the five-year achievement award. Each award recipient receives a research stipend and an opportunity to offer a presentation of their work during the year.

Wilentz's research draws primarily from diaspora literature and women's studies, as well as oral tradition, artwork, and medicine. Bringing together these different approaches to understanding and communicating culture, Wilentz explores them as expressions of cultural and psychological healing. In her most recent published book, Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Dis-Ease (Rutgers 2000), Wilentz explores fiction from African, Native American and Jewish traditions and how these narratives acknowledge, express and overcome cultural illness in their respective communities.

"This book aims to add to the general discourse on the cultural basis of illness, the holistic nature of healing, and the writer's role in reviving more inclusive strategies for healing ourselves, our communities, and the planet," Wilentz writes. Wilentz said her desire to better the world drives her research, and it is an effort that includes exploring the constructs of culture and history and how it is passed on from one generation to the next.

"I am very interested in the way in which people pass on their traditions through their own experiences, how they keep alive and pass on their culture," Wilentz said. "The telling of stories, passing them from one to the other, is what we call orature. Instead of literature, it's orature, a way of passing down tradition."

Seodial Deena, an ECU professor of English who nominated Wilentz for the award, believes her ability to have an impact in literary circles and the classroom comes from a deep and personal commitment to making the world a better place. "This award is entirely a research-based award," Deena said. "But when one looks at Gay Wilentz's research, it is very hard to separate the research from the researcher."

Deena cited Wilentz's recent effort to collect stories from Belizean authors and publish the first anthology of this work in English.

"I think her research is pioneering and prophetic. Whether it is in Belize or her research in African-American studies, she has an eye to explore new territories of research," Deena said. "The perspectives Gay brings to her research are unique. She helps, not only our students, but also fellow professors to not be locked away into a narrow-minded focus. She helps us broaden our perspectives and open our minds to the wider world. ECU is very


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