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Centennial Speaker Series Launches with a Literary Flourish

On Tuesday, April 28, author Julia Flynn Siler ‘78 sat down for a (virtual) conversation with Branson Director of Teaching & Learning (and 29-year Branson teacher) Jeff Symonds to discuss her latest work, The White Devil's Daughters: The Women Who Fought Against Slavery in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The conversation was the first in our Centennial Speaker Series, a year-long program featuring many of our incredible Branson alumni and community members coming together to celebrate one another and our connection to Branson. While the series was originally intended to take place on campus, we have pivoted to an online version – Julia joined us from in front of the Branson library fireplace while Jeff tuned in from a corner of his sunny home in Berkeley. 

If you’ve ever dreamed of returning to Branson classes, you’ll understand the joy that was felt by attendees listening to Jeff and Julia discuss writing, research, process, and the ins and outs of Julia’s latest book.

In The White Devil’s Daughters, Julia uncovers the story of the Occidental Mission Home – a home in San Francisco that provided a way out for thousands of enslaved and vulnerable young Chinese women and girls beginning at the end of the 19th century. What was the spark that drew her to this story? Julia shared a firsthand account of the home’s director, Dolly Cameron, leading a group of 60 women and girls through a burning San Francisco in 1906 and spoke of the many archives she weeded through. Her research took her all the way from a locked closet on the 5th floor of the still-standing house in San Francisco’s Chinatown to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to the Highland Archives Center in Scotland.

While much of the book covers difficult and heartbreaking realities, Julia and Jeff also discussed the inspiring moments – how individuals without much power or social capital were able to make meaningful change in people’s lives through sheer will, individual actions, and persistence.

Julia paused to give a shout out to Branson for its influence on her writing career. Recalling a narrative history she read her freshman year, Julia said “seeing history told through stories and characters absolutely changed my life, I’m very grateful to Branson for that.” Other Branson memories and memorabilia have stayed with her as well – she took a moment to hold up her blue gingham dress that all female Branson students wore as a uniform through the 1970s. 

So what is Julia’s advice to aspiring young writers? She smiled. “Number one, you have to be an avid reader. You have to read as if you were devouring the texts. You have to reverse engineer them and try to understand what makes something powerful – why is something moving, why is it touching you?” Particularly for young writers, she suggested “seek out good teachers.”

After diving into some of the amazing photographs from the archives, Jeff and Julia closed out the conversation with some reflections on Dolly Cameron, who stands at the center of much of the tale. As the story is unveiled, Cameron remained fearless through fires, earthquakes, plagues, threats, and institutional challenges. “She had the resilience to keep going,” Julia said, “I found her story very inspiring.”

A huge thank you to Julia, Jeff, and Alumni Director Rebecca Hutchinson Houser ‘92 for putting together an amazing Centennial Speaker Series Kickoff and gifting us with such an enriching conversation!

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Did you miss the presentation? Watch the video here.

Branson's Centennial Speaker Series welcomes distinguished alumni to share their craft and demonstrate the ways in which their work reflects Branson's core values of Kindness, Courage, Honor, and Purpose. We invite the entire Branson community to join us for these presentations, free of charge. Learn more about our Centennial Events.