“On Arts”: Public Purpose Program – Miranda July, Sheila Heti and Thao Nguyen In Conversation

Sheila Heti and Miranda July in conversation with Thao Nguyen were the first guest speakers for the “On Arts” series held at the Norse Theater on September 17th, 2015.

  • A recording of this event will be broadcast on KQED on Sunday Oct 4, 2015 at 1:00pm, Tuesday Oct 6, 2015 at 8:00pm and Wednesday Oct 7, 2015 at 2:00am.

The stage was dimly lit with a small red “On Air” sign above the three chairs. The audience ranging from high school and college students to professors to hipsters — writers and lovers of literature and artists of every type — buzzed with expectation.  Then a spotlight focused the audience’s attention on the stage. Nguyen walked out to introduce the series and the speakers. Then Heti, July, and Nguyen took their seats and the evening officially began.

Thao focused a lot of her questions on the friendship between July and Heti as well as their processes of creating. July and Heti’s interactions were frank and open. Describing the origin of their friendship, Heti explained how she got off the phone after interviewing July and immediately sent her an email asking if she could talk with her for one hour every day for the rest of their lives. July took a few days to respond with a yes and so commenced their friendship.

Miranda July. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Miranda July. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Miranda July wrote, directed and acted in two feature length films, Me You and Everyone We Know (2007) and The Future (2011) and recently published her first novel, The First Bad Man. July also founded the app Somebody in collaboration with Miu Miu which describes itself as, “Half-app / half-human. Somebody is a far-reaching public art project that incites performance and twists our love of avatars and outsourcing — every relationship becomes a three-way.”


Q. Amelia Levin-Sheffield: What can students at independent high schools such as Lick-Wilmerding in San Francisco or College Preparatory in Oakland (July’s alma mater) do to better understand the privilege of receiving a quality education and why it is important to extend that same privilege others?

A. Miranda July: There was this This American Life episode a few months back, two episodes about integration and I kinda wished that I had heard something like that when I was in college because I think there’s this sense that a good education is “one thing” and you’re getting it when in fact what you’re getting is a specific education that is good in some ways and is missing other things and you have to kind of make up for it. You have to seek out in your city what’s missing from your education, just as you would if you were at a school that didn’t have as good success stories. Go to ThisAmericanLife.org, it’s a double episode and just listen to the whole thing.

The Problem We All Live With part 1, part 2.

Sheila Heti. Photo by Janet Bailey

Sheila Heti. Photo by Janet Bailey

Shelia Heti has written over ten different books, including short story collections. Heti’s autobiographical novel How Should A Person Be? was named the best book of the year by The New York Times and The New Yorker. Her other novels, Women in Clothes, The Middle Stories, Ticknor, The Chairs Are Where The People Go and We Need a Horse have all received critical acclaim. In 2013 Heti wrote the play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid which was performed by Suburban Beat in Toronto.

Q. Amelia Levin-Sheffield: In addition to the funding, what do you hope the six college-bound students “get” from the City Arts and Lectures/826 Valencia scholarship?

A. Shelia Heti: Probably a feeling that people want them to do well and that there’s people rooting for them not only in university but all the way through their lives. I hope that they feel really supported and encouraged and loved. It’s not just the money, it’s also that people think they’re great.

Thao Nguyen. Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Artist Management

Thao Nguyen. Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Artist Management

Thao Nguyen is a professional musician and is a guitarist and vocalist for the band Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down. Nguyen is currently based out of San Francisco and works with many non-profit groups such as California’s Coalition for Women Prisoners. Nguyen has released six albums and her most recent, We the Common (2013) received positive reviews from sites such as Allmusic, SF Weekly and PopMatters.

Q. Amelia Levin-Sheffield: Although you are a professional musician, you still make time to volunteer with community outreach programs such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Why is public purpose volunteering important to you?

A. Thao Nguyen: It’s very important on a few levels, one personally. I didn’t intend to pursue music professionally, I intended to go into domestic violence prevention and support work, but when I was in college I was interning at a domestic violence shelter and I realized that I couldn’t confront that on a daily basis. I didn’t have the constitution for that, and so I switched gears and decided to pursue music with the promise to myself that I would stay as involved as I could because it’s a very personal matter for me that I stay well aligned and advocate however best I can. The other thing is that it’s really easy when you are in this line of work to lose perspective. You can easily have a different impression of yourself than what’s true — which is that you are just a person — because your job is people paying attention and applauding when you show up, which is really unrealistic. Anyway, it’s easy to become an asshole and so the closer that you can stay to your community and the closer you stay to being a true citizen and a contributing member of your community and of your society the healthier it is for you. If you have the privilege of attaining any kind of platform or any kind of sway it’s just important to use it well and not take it for granted, and it is such a lucky job to have that it’s easy to stay grateful.

Postscript: I am writing this series of articles, “On Arts” for the Lick-Wilmerding Hyphen as my 11th grade Public Purpose Project. In many ways, these articles are a continuation of my 10th grade PPP, which was to volunteer at the non-profit organization 826 Valencia as a creative writing tutor for students in the third, fourth and fifth grades at the Buena Vista Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission District. (See the article about my experience with 826 Valencia here.) My intention is to assist with fundraising for 826 Valencia by writing about the City Arts & Lectures “On Arts” benefit series as well as explore how organizations and individuals in different vocations engage in public purpose work throughout their lives. I think it is important for Lick-Wilmerding students to see how the public purpose work we are doing as part of our educational process can continue, no matter what career and path we choose as adults.

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About Amelia Levin-Sheffield

Amelia is a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and writes for the student newspaper, The Paper Tiger. She also manages the Style section and is one of three co-managing editors of the on-line LWHS community news source, Hyphen. Amelia is a voracious reader and started writing in second grade after getting a flash of inspiration from a gnome sighting in the hollow of a tree in her backyard.

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