Author Finds Life in Death Class

Assistant Professor of Literary Journalism Erika Hayasaki discussed and read from her new book, “The Death Class: A True Story About Life,” during last Tuesday’s Humanities Author Series in Humanities Gateway 1030.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

The event opened up with an introduction from Literary Journalism Department Director Barry Siegel, who described how he first found out about Hayasaki and persuaded her to teach at UCI in 2009 after reading her work in the Los Angeles Times.

“Her articles were singularly lyrical, evocative; her prose and reporting were equally distinctive,” Siegel said.

“So I started calling up my buddies at the Times asking who this new writer was, and soon enough, we began to learn all about Erika Hayasaki.”

Since arriving at UCI in 2009, Hayasaki has taught numerous narrative non-fiction workshops with titles such as “Writing off the News” and classes that teach students how to digitally enhance and market their long-form stories on the web. Also during this time, Hayasaki managed to write and publish her very first book, which she enthusiastically discussed and read from during the event.

“The Death Class,” follows the story of Norma Bowe, a nurse who teaches an insanely popular class about death at a college in New Jersey. Hayasaki stumbled across this unique story idea while working as a national correspondent writer for the LA Times in New York. “I was searching around for story ideas — being in New York, I was responsible for nine different states, so it was not the easiest thing to do, trying to figure out what you should write about in each state,” Hayasaki said.

“I had news feeds coming in all the time from all different kinds of sources because I like to find story ideas in odd and unexpected places. A news feed came in from a student article about a teacher in New Jersey, and this student had written a little piece about this class on death and thought it was an amazing class. I thought that was odd — that was enough to raise my interests and make me want to learn a little bit more. I reached out to the teacher … and eventually ended up going to the class.”

Hayasaki visited and observed a few of these out of the ordinary classes. Norma Bowe was not a typical professor who taught in lecture halls and administered exams. She instead taught her classes in cemeteries, where the day’s lecture would be about the biology of dying, or what happens to a person’s body when it shuts down. Hayasaki participated in these classes and wrote a feature length article about the professor and the course. But after she published this story, something kept pulling her back to the subject.
“It was great material for a story,” Hayasaki said.

After realizing that she wanted to expand on this story, Hayasaki approached Bowe again, who told her that she should fully enroll in the course. For two years, Hayasaki followed the professor and classmates, recording and capturing every moment and conversation for her project. She had no idea what material she was going to use, but wanted to make sure she had everything she could possibly need.

Once Hayasaki gathered so much material, she set out to turn her experience into a book. After making many tough decisions about what to include, a few years passed by, Hayasaki’s book was finally published and released in January 2014.

Toward the end of the event, Hayasaki reflected on what the experience taught her and how she has changed as a person through this project.

“I do think that being in a setting where I could study death, talk about it, read about it on different levels — whether it was the psychology of dying or philosophies — and then going to these places and having open discussions about them, I came out of this feeling … and I don’t want to die, I just had a baby and life is really good right now … but I have experienced several deaths and I feel like I have just come to a place where I really learned that [death] is part of this whole process and I am much more comfortable.”