Scripps’ Literary Atmosphere Inspires Alum Authors

By Rachael Warecki ’08

From browsing rooms bedecked with bookshelves to a library lined with rare collections, Scripps has a long and robust literary tradition. In the College’s early years, poet T.S. Eliot paid a visit to faculty member Emily Hale, and, in the decades since, programs such as the Humanities Institute and Scripps Presents have brought award-winning authors including Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, and Maggie Nelson to campus. Each spring, Denison Library displays the collections of Slocum Award finalists, seniors honored for assembling the best personal libraries during their four years at Scripps.

After years surrounded by such a wealth of literary influences, it’s no surprise that many Scripps alums have become authors in their own right—one look at the College’s ManuScripps list highlights the publishing power of the Scripps community. Lynne Thompson ’72, chair of the Board of Trustees, was recently named the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Maggie Tokuda-Hall ’07’s graphic novel, Squad, landed on the Indiebound bestseller list as well as the November/December 2021 Kids Indie Next List, and has been optioned for television by Lionsgate TV. Current students and young alums are also joining the College’s ranks of writers: Rena Patel ’19, Nikita Chinamanthur ’22, and Abigail Tulenko ’22 have all published—or are working to publish—novels written during their time at Scripps.

But the bookish atmosphere hasn’t been the only source of inspiration for the College’s aspiring authors. Faculty members such as Kim Drake, director of the Writing Program and associate professor of writing, have encouraged interested students to pursue creative opportunities beyond their majors.

Maggie Tokuda-Hall ’07 (L) and Fatima Elkabti ’09 (R) have embarked on writing careers since graduating from Scripps. (Photos: Red Scott and Erin Lewis)

“I credit my writing career to Professor Drake,” says Tokuda-Hall, who majored in studio art. She was one of Drake’s first creative writing students and took all her classes; one day, Drake told her that she should apply to a summer writing program and handed her an application with her name already filled in. Tokuda-Hall applied, got in, and fell in love with writing that summer. “I knew for certain that was what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. And she has: In addition to Squad, Tokuda-Hall is the author of children’s book Also an Octopus (2016), winner of the Parent’s Choice Gold Award, and young adult novel The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (2020), which earned a starred review from Kirkus.

“I think about that moment a lot,” Tokuda-Hall says of the day Drake handed her the application. “I don’t know whether there has been a single moment with more impact on my life than that one.”

Fatima Elkabti ’09, who earned her doctorate in optometry at University of California, Berkeley, and worked as an optometrist for several years before embarking on a graduate degree program in writing, has a similar influential story about a professor, a program, and an application that almost wasn’t submitted.

Elkabti had always wanted to be a writer, but concerns about financial insecurity led her to major in English and biology, with the goal of pursuing an interdisciplinary career that would allow her to balance writing with a day job. During her senior year, she assembled her application for the Fulbright Fellowship, but almost didn’t apply—until Thierry Boucquey, professor emeritus of French, reached out to her personally and insisted.

“That he noticed the absence of my application, that he believed in me, that he troubled himself to reach out—it captured the Scripps ethos of no woman left behind,” Elkabti says. She was accepted to the Fulbright program, began that interdisciplinary career, and is now working toward an MFA in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I don’t know whether there has been a single moment with more impact on my life than that one.” —Maggie Tokuda-Hall ’07

While faculty provided vital support to Tokuda-Hall and Elkabti as emerging writers, both alums also have fond memories of the campus’s effect on their literary lives at Scripps.

Denison Library was Elkabti’s favorite reading spot—“with its stained-glass windows, wall-to-wall books, and furtive corners, it’s a great place to hide with a book,” she explains—while, for Tokuda-Hall, the Motley Coffeehouse and the College’s residence halls provided the best locations for reading and writing. “What I really miss is those desks with those chairs with the slight rock to them, which all the dorms had,” she says. “I have never found a writing desk as conducive to productivity as those in all my years, and I doubt I ever will.”

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