Emory Report
February 21, 2005
Volume 57, Number 20


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February 21, 2005
Past to present

BY eric rangus

Elizabeth Gallu graduated cum laude from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She earned a Master’s of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School. She won a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in Romania and ended up staying there for three years. She studied under a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and has published fiction and nonfiction pieces of her own. She accomplished all of this after her 30th birthday.

“I haven’t had a traditional past,” said Gallu, who works in the Office of the Provost and throughout conversation tends to understate that very compelling history. “I’ve lived in a lot of places and I’ve had many different experiences, so I’m able to draw on a lot of the things I have encountered.”

Gallu’s last comment refers to her fiction writing, which contains just the right element of autobiography mixed with creativity. Her most recent piece, published in the journal Glimmer Train, is a short fiction story called “At the Garden,” and was inspired by a trip she and her husband took to the botanical garden in Munich, Germany, in September 2001.

They were in that city when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. “We wanted to enjoy ourselves,” she said. “And the story is about, among other things, the difficulty in giving oneself permission to do so when it seems like the world is spinning out of control.”

Gallu’s trip to Munich, which was a sliver of a two-month working vacation in Europe, is just one experience in a life that has seen a great many. Born in New York, Gallu grew up in Los Angeles—specifically, Hollywood. Her father, Sam, worked in the television and film industry and had a good bit of success. He started as a writer on Howdy Doody, and produced a handful of television series in the 1950s and 1960s, but is perhaps best remembered as the writer/producer of the play Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, a one-man show based on the life of Harry Truman. The filmed version of the play earned James Whitmore an Academy Award nomination for best actor in 1975.

Gallu saw her father’s struggles and triumphs (and even some triumphs inside struggles; a questionable 1966 low-budget horror flick he directed, Theatre of Death, is now a cult classic) and that understandably instilled her with mixed emotions about the business.

“It made me very cynical, and I am unimpressed by the flashiness,” she said. “But on the flipside, there is an intoxicating element to it because you see people strike it rich. I’d see my dad hang up the phone and say, ‘They just offered me a million dollars!’ Things like that happened all around me. There was a certain adrenaline rush attached to it. But all in all, I found it very disenchanting. It was very hard on the spirit.”

Still, those emotions, as well as the cyclical, inevitable hard times that went along with the job, didn’t prevent Gallu from pursuing a career in entertainment. As a youngster, she was trained as a jazz vocalist. Her vocal coach and early mentor was Chan Parker, the widow of jazz great Charlie Parker. Gallu struck out on her own while still a teenager. She lived all over: Santa Fe, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, even London. For 13 years she worked as a professional singer. The pay was pretty good even though the assignments weren’t always so (Gallu sang commercial jingles for blue jeans, salami and a bank, among others).

Despite a serious case of stage fright, she frequently performed live as well. She eventually made her way to Pennsylvania, where she regularly got gigs not only in that state but also New York and New Jersey. Something was missing, though.

“It wasn’t going in the direction I wanted it to,” Gallu said. “I started to get bored, quite frankly, and I really wanted to go get an education.”

Gallu was in her late 20s and had never been to college, so she had to start from scratch. First she took classes in the Penn State system. Then for a year she went to the University of Pennsylvania. Gallu did so well that she eventually earned a scholarship to Smith College, the elite women’s school in Massachusetts.

But she didn’t leave Pennsylvania. For several years, Gallu commuted weekly between western Massachusetts and eastern Pennsylvania, which she still used as a home base for her music gigs.

But all that travel didn’t adversely affect her studies. While Gallu majored in comparative religion, it was at Smith where her artistic interests began to shift from music to writing. One of her mentors was Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder. Taitetsu Unno, a professor of Buddhism at Smith, ignited her interest in religious philosophies and even added an article Gallu wrote on Buddhist ethics to an anthology he edited.

Gallu’s academic successes at Smith earned her acceptance to Harvard, where she got her master’s. After graduating from Harvard, she did what many post-graduates do—she went home. But not to California. Instead, she traveled to Romania, where in 1995 she visited the village where her grandparents were born.

Igris is a hamlet located in Romania’s Banat region in the western part of the country. In front of the village’s Eastern Orthodox church is a large cross. On top of that cross is the name Simeon Gallu: Elizabeth’s grandfather. After he emigrated to the United States, he continued to send money home to the church. That patronage was remembered.

“That lit the fire for me to go back,” Gallu said. “It opened up a huge door.”

The following year Gallu earned a Fulbright Fellowship and used it to return to Romania. With Oradea, a city of 230,000 on the Hungarian border, as her base, Gallu dove into her project—recording interviews with “bunicas” (elderly women whose culture and history were disappearing as their generation passed away).
Gallu talked with women both in the city and villages. She also lived for a time in the village of Suncis de Beius. Gallu did a good bit of traveling around the region to conduct her research, which gave her the opportunity to pursue side projects. For instance, Gallu developed a warm relationship with a Roma (Gypsy) family. She also met her eventual husband, Emil, an electrical engineer. After her Fulbright money ran out, Gallu stayed in Romania working, teaching English and writing for a couple years. She secured another grant—the Vermont Council on Literary Arts Fellowship—and living there wasn’t that expensive anyway.

In 2000, Gallu returned to the United States and settled in Atlanta. She and Emil were married. As she looked for a job, Emory seemed a perfect fit. Based in the Office of the Provost, Gallu has a couple of duties. She coordinates the Emory Conference Center Subvention Fund, which is money available through an application process to faculty who want to take advantage of the conference center’s meeting facilities. The fund is jointly administered by the provost’s office and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

The job, which also includes consulting assistance to the faculty who acquire funds, was a natural progression for Gallu. She had directed a similar program at Harvard’s Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute.

Gallu also works with the provost office’s Manuscript Development Program, which helps faculty with various aspects of academic publishing—turning dissertations into books, for example. The program, which has been up and running for a couple years, is currently being retooled.

Previously Gallu and the program’s director, Amy Benson Brown, worked directly with individual writers who applied for assistance. If the proposed changes to the program are accepted, manuscript development will no longer be based on a formal application. Instead, the program will adopt more of a consulting model; Emory faculty could simply call for an appointment and meet with an editor for one-on-one assistance.

“We felt the old format was a bit limited, and we had something to offer more people,” Gallu said. “It’s always great to have somebody to bounce ideas off of.” Gallu added that the program will target shorter pieces like book chapters or proposals. A website is in the works as well, and she and Brown will continue to sponsor
workshops for faculty.

In addition to her work at Emory, Gallu continues her own writing. She wants to revisit a project she started that is based on her interaction with the Gypsy family in Romania. Currently she is revising a piece tentatively titled “Ghost Voices,” told in five different post-mortem voices from a quintet of characters.

It’s a theme Gallu has explored previously. One of her first published short stories, “Best Intentions,” is a first-person narrative from a female character speaking from beyond the grave. It was published in The North American Review in 1996.

“I was supposed to be five foot six, and speak French fluently,” says the narrator. The author is a bit shorter than that and had once been able to speak French but has since lost it. She remains relatively skilled in Romanian.

“I was supposed to laugh like Lauren Bacall, husky and deep-chested, and kiss people on both cheeks. I was supposed to wear topaz. I was supposed to live before
I died.”

It’s just the right element of autobiography mixed with creativity.