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September 21, 2012

USC professor and author shedding skin, winning more awards

Julia Elliott, who teaches English and women’s and gender studies at USC, wins $30,000 writer’s award

REGENERATING BEAUTY: The skin crawls with medical-book infections like dermatophytosis (ringworm), type one herpes simplex (cold sores) and cercarial dermatitis (swimmer’s itch). They are the reward, we learn in Julia Elliott’s detail rich “Regeneration at Mukti,” for cleansing the body and soul.

The short story about a spa treatment designed “to revitalize the clock that directs the life span of dividing cells” that, among other things, makes those so inclined to such torture in the name of vanity to literally shed their skin, is so embellished that it’s not certain if the writer herself endured the regimen.

“Oh yeah, I did,” Elliott deadpanned.

I believed her before she added, “just kidding.”

“Regeneration at Mukti” was awarded a Pushcart Prize and will appear in the 2013 anthology. On Thursday in New York, Elliott was among six women who received the 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. The award includes $30,000 for each writer.

Elliott, who teaches English and women’s and gender studies at USC, said summers are usually spent teaching fellowships or developing courses. She will use the money to take two summers off so she can work on two novels. She’s already written the first, “The New and Improved Romie Futch,” a book about a South Carolina taxidermist’s life.

“There’s still considerable revisionary work to be done,” Elliott said.

She’s completed a lot of research for her second novel, which will be based on her studies of Hamadryas baboons, but she’s early in the compositional stage.

“I’m getting some distance before (going) back to it,” she said.

Let’s get back to “Regeneration at Mukti,” an engrossing story that – while at times extremely gross, it can make the reader’s skin crawl – is a metaphor for the world’s obsession with youth, beauty and virility.

“She had crow’s feet, marionette lines around her mouth, a porn star’s enhanced lips,” Elliott writes in the second paragraph, a nod to the descriptive phrases to come. Only the phrases get progressively uglier, like the characters chasing the physical rejuvenation she writes eloquently about.

Two delectable examples:

“I see them now: a spattering of hard, red zits. Soon they’ll grow fat with juice. They’ll burst and scab over, ushering in the miracle of subcutaneous regeneration.”

“Yes, I’ve been monitoring his Incrustation. But I wasn’t prepared for the new purple swelling around his eyes or the dribbling boils on his chin. Ditto the lip cankers and blepharitis. Of course I’m aware of my own hideousness. Of course I recoil each time I see my face in the mirror (think rotted plums and Spam.)”

The road to regeneration as Elliott describes it isn’t one many of us are willing to travel – until we realize that we’re getting old.

“It was kind of a grotesque, exaggerated rendition of the really ridiculous and absurd things people will do to remain ideally attractive in American society,” Elliott said. (Not to suggest she’s fighting aging, but Elliott was evasive about her own age. She acknowledged, “especially given the aging fixations in the story.”

Having Guru Gobind Singh, the levitating monk-like proprietor of the Samsara Complex who believes the suffering and skin shedding is essential to achieving an ultimate cleanse, serve as the archetype of blending religion and spiritualism with homeopathic and holistic healing. He uses shopping mall rhetoric, which glides one toward assuming his technique has more to do with lining his weightless pockets than restoring youthful beauty.

Elliott’s language is challenging, as is understanding stem cells and whatever else looms in the realm of cutting edge juvenescent technology.

“Some of the stuff is based on realistic things people are working on,” she said.

And what of her detail, especially of the ugliness?

“It’s probably like a literary form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Because I like to zoom in on things,” she said. “The microscope gets brought out. I never know if it’s too weird, or accessible enough.”

Elliott performs in Grey Egg, the experimental pop band that includes her husband, Steve. The band has been dormant, but Elliott said Grey Egg still records music. The couple had a daughter, Eva, in January. The ceremony in New York was the first time Elliott would be away from her, causing some nervousness, Elliott admitted in an interview last week.

The Jaffe award was named after novelist Rona Jaffe, who wrote “Mazes and Monsters,” a book that was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks. The award is dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively. Elif Batuman, Judy Budnitz, Lan Samantha Chang and Kathleen Graber are previous winners. “Regeneration at Mukti” was originally published in 2011 in Conjunctions, a journal published by Bard College.

I wondered what happened to “Regeneration’s” heroine. Did she emerge from the shedding unscarred, physically and emotionally? Neither in the story – nor in an interview – does Elliott reveal the answer.

“Stories have limitations,” she said. “I think if they end on an ambiguous notes, often the writer doesn’t know.”

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