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From our obsessions: The story of Melissa Malouf, the diviner on Monmouth Avenue

<p>Melissa Malouf loved this photo "because the student is so engaged despite [her] costume and his mouthful of food."&nbsp;</p>

Melissa Malouf loved this photo "because the student is so engaged despite [her] costume and his mouthful of food." 

This story is dedicated to Denis Donoghue, who passed away on April 6, 2021. He will be remembered as a beloved scholar, husband, father and friend. The following was written prior to his passing. 

A strange music hummed in the belly of Smith Warehouse.

Nuts crunched in mouths, vibrating the frigid air of the conference room. The space was dramatically oversized for the small circle of desks huddled against its far wall. If a circle can have a head, Melissa Malouf, professor of the practice of English, sat at it, her hands held aloft, a conductor waiting for instruments to finish tuning. With a flick, she could whip them into a symphony. 

“We have to address something,” she said. “The fighter in ‘The Toughest Indian in the World’ is not gay.”

The crunching quieted. Then the mouths opened at once and 10 voices sounded in concert. The class was Intermediate Fiction, fall 2019. The snacks were part and parcel of any class (or encounter) with Malouf. The following week she would bake raspberries into gluten-free cupcakes.

There was another silence. Malouf raised her conductor hands again, and I saw that she was wearing three watches. The purple one on her left wrist seemed chosen especially that day to match her coat. The other two flashed gold in the fluorescent light. Then, as if the class had been waiting for the topic to arise:

“All right, is anyone going to the state fair?”

She leaned toward a senior named Kristen. “I think you should go”—a pause, pregnant with something—“you know why.” Kristen nodded. She seemed to know why. 

Malouf was teaching. She was really good at it; she began here as an adjunct in 1986 and won the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1997. One of her perpetual pupils, Will Barriere, Trinity ‘20, described her method like a recipe: one part writing stories, one part reading stories, one part whatever the hell happens. In the latter category, Malouf mastered a particular brand of tangent. This meeting’s tangent took the class from Sherman Alexie’s treatment of sex between men to Toni Morrison to the October 2019 killing of Atatiana Jefferson, then streamed, finally and dependably, into the sweeping bay of her counsel: “You have to look outside the small shell of yourself.”

I met Malouf in my first few days on campus, in the fall of 2017. I took her Intro to the Writing of Fiction class and she introduced me to Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo and several new brands of grocery store cookies. But for me and countless other students, the enduring friendship that solidified Malouf as a beloved mentor and confidant bloomed after final grades were in. Over the past three years, I’ve spent hours perched on Malouf’s kitchen barstool, met members of her family, called on her in emotional crisis and brought my parents over for appetizers. I like to think I’ll be one of the writers, faculty and doctoral candidates who still send over their work for her edits and bring their babies to meet her—decades after their season at Duke.

I sat in on her last class. Malouf retired at the end of summer 2020, graduating from her teaching role to become what she called “a student of her own writing.” This 10-student ensemble was her last act, and she kept them noisy against the air-conditioning in that odd interior cavern.

Thankfully, Malouf can make a classroom out of anywhere. At seven, she pulled kids off the street in sunny Riverside, California and marched them into the miniature log cabin, a Christmas gift from Dad, where she taught after-school school. It was in the tiny cabin that she found her life’s work, later transferring from community college to University of California, Irvine on a loan specifically for those-who-know-they’ll-be-teachers (provided by the Department of Defense, on which Malouf commented: “If we had a smart population, we wouldn’t have Trump for president. That’s national defense.”). And from the moment she had a doctorate in English and American literature, she taught: two years at UCI, a miserably lonely stint at Rice and half a lifetime at Duke.

When Malouf moved Dukeward in the early 80s for her then-husband’s new position in the English department, she made up her mind to never again accept a job won on his coattails, the setup that helped doom her experience at Rice. So she went alone to visit the department chair and argue on behalf of herself.

“I said, if you need anybody to just step in and teach a course, I'm available. And he handed me back my dissertation and resume and said, ‘I think you should join the faculty wives club.’ Oh yeah.

Two years later, a new chairman would wonder why Malouf hadn’t been teaching the whole time. He would appoint her immediately to an adjunct professorship from which other promotions would steadily bloom alongside books, plays and libretties. But in the meantime, Malouf needed a job. Any job. 

One night at a party, she chatted with Ernestine Friedl who happened to be the Dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Days later, Friedl found her the job.

It was to write what no one else would: a report on curriculum changes for a brand new committee headed by a brand new provost. It was admin work; it was a wage. 

But this odd stint on an odd committee—seemingly a purgatory in between classrooms—revealed a hidden talent that would enable Malouf’s (accidental) development into a kind of inaugural sculptor of some of the University’s well-known programs. She discovered that very important people liked her. And more than that, they would do what she said.

Over many sandwiches, Malouf told me how she dreamed up the Office of University Scholars and Fellows alongside longtime Trinity Dean Robert Thompson. She eventually headed up OUSF, suddenly in command of a staff including some of the most notable faculty and administrators the University could boast. The point was to make sure the money served the kids as much as it could.

And when she unwittingly, confoundingly found herself the only non-tenured professor (read: most employment-vulnerable) on Provost Peter Lange’s exclusive inner committee, which he nicknamed the “Den of 10,” she made her unique perspective heard all the same. 

“She was removed from the mundane realities of administrative work,” said one of the 10, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. He was struck by her individuality in offering up ideas because they intrigued her, not because they were the most practical. “The phrase that I remember from Melissa the most was when she said to me, ‘We need more kids with green hair,’” Guttentag said. 

Now as he oversees the creation of Duke’s incoming classes, Guttentag finds that imagination and individuality are ascribed much more value than they were several years ago, a change he attributes in part to the “impulse” Malouf brought to their committee.

“There's no doubt in my mind at all that Melissa was influential in having us think about these kinds of students who brought something a little different to the table and more importantly, a little different to the community,” he said. 

One day, Lange discovered that the committee had extra funding and asked for the den’s advice. Malouf wanted grants for summer service work. Per their request, that money helped sponsor the pilot of DukeEngage, with Malouf’s choice in faculty, Eric Mlyn, assistant vice provost for civic engagement, at its helm. 

Alex Rosenberg, R. Taylor Cole distinguished professor of philosophy, who got to know Malouf when he directed the Angier B. Duke Scholarship, recalled that it was not simple likeability that won her esteem among the campus’ giants. It was her rhetorical power, making her a giant in her own right through the persuasive resonance of her words. He dubbed her an “agent of charisma,” speaking the phrase with the kind of reverie evocative of heroes. 

Malouf tapped her finger against the frosted glass. We’d been running errands all afternoon and had finally gotten warm inside Whole Foods. She was checking out the swordfish, which the fish guy told her she should grill, but no, it was too cold for that, she thought. She was curious about the barramundi and its shimmery skin. We learned that the fish guy’s wife is from Australia.

Malouf inhabits Whole Foods like it’s the neighborly symposium of a provincial open-air market. She goes almost daily. She asks questions. Can you tell us what makes it a St. Germain baguette? She gets several recommendations—much to learn about British farmers’ cheese. She elicits stories without ever seeming to solicit them. 

As we reached the front of the checkout line, her earnest eyes rose to meet the cashier’s.

“Sometimes the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze,” he sighed, shaking his head at her. “Just let go, just let it go.”

She stared. When she spoke, she stuck the consonants low in her register. “So, you got something you need to let go of?”

“Oh yeah, I already let go of it.” He smirked. “I moved on to grape juice.”

She smiled gratefully as if this were an invaluable lesson. 

In Malouf’s estimation, everyone has some worthwhile wisdom to teach. Sometimes she has to excavate it. She studies detail in people with the wonder and delicateness of a collector in a curio shop. I’ve heard her quote that stories come from our obsessions, inspired by DeLillo. But she edited that as we drove home.

“I would just say, for me, I think we're talking about curiosity.”

Malouf has often told me to stay curious. As if to encourage the quality in her guests, she outfits her home in things worth asking about. There is a 2000-year-old piece of petrified Irish peat on a windowsill, topped by a bird sculpture. A coil of twinkle lights glitters behind the fire grate. In the kitchen, the colors in the greenish-rainbow linoleum floor are echoed by a kaleidoscope of glass shards embedded in the countertop (once, her own glass cups). The front door is hot pink. And something is always cooking.

The House on Monmouth Avenue—a consistent and widely-used epithet—was the first place Malouf lived alone when she moved there in September of 1992. It fit the task; it was small, in the right neighborhood and with the right vibe. She knew at first sight that it was “the good place.” 


The house on Monmouth Avenue. Courtesy of Taylor Plett.

I was draining root beer out of an iridescent cup when Denis Donoghue wandered into the kitchen. This is Malouf’s husband, or “the One” as she refers to him in a nod to a George Saunders story. Before their marriage in 2018, he was for over 25 years called her “novio.” He came in to ask for a copy of Henry James’ The American Scene.

Donoghue is perhaps the most curiosity-worthy inhabitant at the house on Monmouth Ave. He is, as Rosenberg put it, “one of the most famous and important literary scholars in the English speaking world.” He’s also the father of famous children—among them Emma Donoghue, author of “Room,” and David Donoghue, Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations until 2017. On that particular day, Denis Donoghue was working on book number something-over-35. 

The pair met at the National Humanities Center when Donoghue was installed there as a fellow in the early 90s. Since his destitute childhood in Northern Ireland, the scholar has never applied for a job—moving via invitation from University College Dublin to Cambridge to New York University. They dated long-distance until Donoghue moved to Monmouth Ave., along with his books. Malouf likes Donoghue’s distinguished bearing; he’s six-foot-six-inches of self-composure. And at 91, he had the mystically weathered voice of a fairy tale narrator. It rose and fell gracefully as he told me what he likes about Malouf: “she starts with the assumption that there are human values and that they are to be met in the people she meets.”

Malouf put down her sandwich and directed him to the Henry James section. It’s near the front door—the only bookcase dedicated entirely to one author. 

Besides acting as resident librarian, Malouf is the consummate hostess. The pink door is always open, the rainbow kitchen often laced with the savory scent of mushroom croustades, her signature, turning gold in the oven. 

“Melissa and Denis for a long time have sort of been a magnet for really smart, really creative, really accomplished people in the university who gather around them at their home,” Rosenberg said. “If you're getting an invitation to come for a party or drinks or dinner, you're going to have one of the most intellectually rewarding and fun evenings imaginable.” 

Based on the pictures she showed me, that was the scene at their December wedding reception. Everyone was there: academics, neighbors, critics, students, Malouf’s siblings, Donoghue’s several children and their children, one of the checkers from Whole Foods. Malouf wore an orange dress and dramatic brown boots. She pointed them out to be sure I noticed. The house was filled with flowers and smiling people. Donoghue recalled with tender fondness that “the day was very straightforward.”


Denis Donoghue and Melissa Malouf at their wedding with six of Denis' children. Courtesy of Melissa Malouf.

Malouf described it differently. Packed into the living room, surrounded by handfuls of happy Donoghues, the wedding meant becoming part of a family.

“Melissa gives stepmothers a good name,” Emma Donoghue said. She recalled how with “immense tact” Malouf slowly befriended her and each of her seven siblings who span the geographical gamut from California to France. Emma first met Malouf on Monmouth Ave. in the mid-90s and associates her stepmother with “fresh flowers, sudden insights into character, unfailingly progressive politics and constant impulses of generosity.” When it came time for Emma to return to the airport after the visit, she said that “Melissa gave me a brown-bag lunch to take with me, and I felt so nourished.”

“To have irony, you need to have incongruity,” Malouf advised her last class as they discussed a story about pediatric oncology, about the relief of leaving the hospital even when your child is not fully healed. Malouf often articulates irony in describing her own life. She’s the ever-maternal childless wife, the accidental changemaker, the director of hundreds of thousands of university dollars who couldn’t afford four years of her own in-state tuition. 

After we finished our tuna sandwiches, she told me that on a solo trip to California in the late 80s, in a restaurant once owned by Clint Eastwood, she asked her father what he thought of her taking the last name “Malouf.” She was born Christensen, a name from the Danish half of her Danish-Lebanese father. But she was about to leave her husband and wanted instead to take the name of her grandmother: her only grandparent, the cheerless Lebanese matriarch who taught her to make tabbouleh. 

He said it made sense. “You are the bedouin of my kids.”

That bothered her. Bedouins are nomads, not belonging to any particular place. Unlike her siblings, she had wandered far from home, hadn’t earned much money, toyed with a divorce for years. Her life was messy, she was unhappy, and he knew that. 

But then he added: “You know how to find the water.”

“That rocked me. That's still, that's like, wow, Dad, you just gave me something big. And it was a challenge in a way, when he said that. It wasn't just a description. It was like a challenge, you know, how to find the water.”

She cried. I cried. As she spoke, she began to rock slowly, back and forth, as if the words had to be shaken and loosed from deep within herself.

“And it gives me goosebumps because I found that guy, I found this house, I found you all.” She directed the last one at me and I imagined the final class seated beside me in her mind’s eye.

“I didn't need a lot of stuff. I didn't need a lot of money. Just enough. So he gave me that. I just feel he gave me that. He was really a good dad.”

When I finally got up to leave, she sent me home with two chocolate bars, a chunk of British farmers’ cheese, lentil stew and a bottle of vinegar. 

Malouf’s famous dinner parties are on pause, pending an end to a pandemic, but she still finds ways to feed people. We talk on the phone as she prepares chicken liver pâté and her grandmother’s tabbouleh for dispatch. She’ll leave some at neighbors’ doorsteps, ring the bell, say hello perhaps and come back home. She knows they’ll like the chicken liver pâté “because it doesn’t taste like chicken liver pâté.”

Malouf is a people person. She would take her students on field trips into town with directives like: watch people, talk to people, wonder about people. But her retirement after more than 30 years at Duke fell in a season of global return-homes—a mass retirement of sorts—into isolation. How to stay curious now? Malouf is borrowing intrigue from a past chapter of her own life. It’s a curio shop self-contained in memory and introspection, which seem to be the static modes of the day.

She’s writing a book about her cancer treatment. (“Emphasis on the word treatment. I don’t want to write about cancer. There’s a lot to read about cancer.”) which began in September 2015 and stretched dreamlike and feverish through fall 2017, when she returned to campus and I met her. I remember hearing details about it in class, but now the stories roll out in full, vivid and plentiful and thick. I can’t share them here, but I can tell you that the book will head off with: The following is intended for mature audiences. Reader discretion is advised. 

On the other side of the line, I go quiet and let the rush of them catch me up and carry me elsewhere. I come to understand the warning. Eventually the memories peter out and we’re left in the present. 

Her last book, “More Than You Know,” came out of an obsession. It’s an almost-memoir in which she “tried to figure out why that boy killed himself” and let her protagonist, Alice, confront what she couldn’t yet talk about herself. She tells me she could say that about some of her other pieces, like “Red Horse Running Through Water,” in which a story gets caught in the protagonist’s throat and he eventually has to cough it up.

“What I learned from ‘Red Horse’ is that the thing he coughs out is a seed, and once it’s planted, it grows all kinds of fruit,” she says. I ask her what all of her previous writing has been edging her toward. What does she need to do now? She says, “throw up.”

Some of us might need that, too. Now might be a good time to get things out of our system, or maybe just digest them. Others of us might be too young and green to have chapters compelling enough to revisit. Or maybe introspection in these times tends too easily toward the bleak. What do we do now, when there are so few memories to make? How do we critically stay curious?

Malouf suggests we spend time in the stories others have invented or remembered for us. “Reading takes us to places we can’t go now. We get to meet people.” For me, she recommended “Arctic Dreams” by Barry Lopez, the late nature writer.

“I just so appreciate his capacity for awe,” she tells me. “That capacity for awe, of course, has to do with letting your imagination empathize with what you’re seeing in the world. I like bewildered as a way to approach things.”

Perhaps you’ll join me in reading Lopez—we’ll see how bewildered we can get in the arctic. If not, Malouf says you must, at the least, go outside and keep well fed. Let’s manage that for now and hope for the day the pink door opens again at the House on Monmouth Avenue. I have a feeling there will be snacks.

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