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Museum Plays Pivotal Role In New Novel From Nelson-Atkins Docent

Courtesy: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
Guanyin of the Southern Sea, Liao (907-1125) or Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) Chinese. In the novel, the protaganist, Lily Firestone, attends an event at the musuem. "I reach up and touch fingertips with the bodhisattva," she says.

Barbara Stuber has shown generations of schoolchildren and adults through the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She’s worked as a docent there for 25 years. Stuber’s new novel, Girl In Reverse, highlights the museum’s collection - including its Asian art.

The book’s set in the early 1950s, the Korean War is underway, and teenager, Lily Firestone, who’s adopted and Chinese, faces discrimination. But, at the museum, she finds a link to her culture and her past.

"A museum holds the universe under one roof," says Stuber. "So if you're looking for an opportunity to experience diversity, which is exactly what this story at the heart is about, why not come in here?"

Interview Highlights

On writing novels as an extension of being a docent

"I didn't anticipate that that was going to be the case, but it is absolutely the case. Even down to the structure of a tour where you have a beginning, a middle and an end. Each stop on the tour, each artwork, can almost be construed as a chapter..."

On personal, historical, and artistic inspirations

Credit Courtesy: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
Auguste Rodin, French, 1840-1917. The Thinker, 1880; probably cast ca. 1949. In the novel, Lily walks to the museum after a tough day at school. "I guess The Thinker is like me today - lots of problems and no answers," she says.

"My first gut sense of it was talking to my own daughter-in-law, who's from the Philippines...and her own struggles ... struggles in high school and beyond — fitting in, feeling like she knew who she was ... that really hooked my heart.

"And then I picked a time period with this happening right at the height of the Korean War where the U.S. has been instructed to hate China. They're our mortal enemy, they are out to end the free world ... Then, here comes the Nelson and this sublime, gorgeous offering, this legendary offering of a whole different side of China. The compassion, the calm, the beauty, the genius of it all.

"So I wanted my character to interface with that, and do the magic that a museum can do, when you walk in, which is transport you through time and through culture."

On the process of self-discovery

"It's a combination of the art itself, the way she eventually grows to appreciate the art. And then, people who influence her and literally, almost help her create her backbone, her strength.

Barbara Stuber reads and signs copies of 'Girl in Reverse,' Friday, May 23, 6 pm - 7:30 pm. at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo., 816-751-1278. Docents will also be on hand to lead patrons on an art tour of the museum's collection highlighted in the novel.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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