Linguistics Meets Love


Novelist Jennifer duBois ’02 on her fourth novel, “The Last Language”

After graduating with a degree in political science and philosophy from Tufts University, Jennifer duBois ’02 found herself at a crossroads. She had always loved writing, so she applied to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and at the same time, she applied to the Central Intelligence Agency. (“I was throwing things at the wall to see what would stick.”) Accepted into both programs, she faced a massive choice, but ultimately writing beckoned. “I figured that writing could be something I could put at the center of my life, or at least try to,” she says.

That path has proved very successful. After Iowa, she received a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, and she has since written four novels, including The Last Language, published in October 2023 from Milkweed Editions. Her other novels have earned her numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, the Housatonic Book Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship—among many others. Justin Torres, winner of the 2023 National Book Award, calls duBois “a writer of thrilling psychological precision.”

Indeed, her latest novel mines complex, ethical questions, as it follows Angela, a linguist hired to help a nonspeaking, motor-impaired patient named Sam communicate via an experimental therapy that resembles an Ouija-board-esque typewriter. Angela becomes infatuated with Sam, and the reader is left to wonder whether she’s moving his hand, creating the person she wants him to be, or if she’s helping him extract long-buried words. “And, depending on how you read what’s happening, they’re either really tragic lovers or this man’s been terribly exploited,” duBois says.

Told in a first-person, linear narration, The Last Language was inspired, in part, by a controversial 1990s-era technology that has been widely debunked. “There were questions about whether the practitioner could unconsciously guide the patient’s hands,” she says. “In most cases, it was pretty well established that that’s what was happening.”

Underneath the love story between Angela and Sam is a question about language itself. “I’ve been interested in the linguistics debate that my character has about whether language predates thought or thought predates language,” duBois says. “I was also interested in writing a book like Lily King’s Euphoria, which is this beautiful love story that’s atop a robust intellectual plot.”

And while duBois’s novel is certainly intellectual, it’s also humorous. “I’m not really interested in writing characters that aren’t funny,” she says. This humor—shining through as dramatic irony or the main character’s “strangely anthropological approach to life” and self-deprecation—“leaves the reader a little wrong-footed about exactly who this person is and to what degree you should trust her.”

Along with writing novels, duBois teaches in the MFA creative writing program at Texas State University. Working with graduate students keeps her energized. “It’s not as much that I think teaching creative writing sharpens my acuity as a creative writer,” she says. “It’s more that being in proximity to that energy re-excites me about writing.”

It was a Writers’ Workshop class at Williston, led by Lisa Levchuk, that helped to stir duBois’ own early excitement about writing. “We were inventive and had so much fun,” she says. “Lisa Levchuk was particularly encouraging to me as a creative writer, and she brought in local writers or writers who were passing through. And then later I got to participate in it as an author myself. It was probably one of my very favorite experiences at Williston.”

As for advice to aspiring writers, duBois says, “Writing, like any art, is this beautiful, intrinsically meaningful activity, and if that’s how you feel about writing, then you should write. The more you read and experience the world, the more you’ll have to say when you try to become a professional writer.”

These days, duBois is working on her fifth novel in the midst of the chaos and persistent colds that can accompany the raising of two small children. She says she’s often “writing on our terrible couch in our tiny house” in Austin. How does she know this novel has legs? “Usually when I find myself obsessing over a question that I can’t get to the bottom of, that’s usually when I know I have a novel,” she says.

Recommended Reads

“Read widely,” Jennifer duBois ’02 tells her MFA students. She takes her own advice, reading across genres, always with a towering pile of books on her nightstand. Here are five books that grabbed her attention.

Luster, Raven Leilani

A devastating and devastatingly funny coming-of-age story following a young, broke, Black New Yorker and her relationship with an older, married white man. None of it goes where you think it will, and the sentences are as surprising as the story.

Vladimir, Julia May Jonas

One of the slyest and smartest books I’ve ever read, exploring ambition, desire, obsession, and lunacy-—both sexual and academic–from the point of view of a narrator who is perhaps most frightening when she sounds the most reasonable.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins

This posthumous story collection is written by the filmmaker and playwright Kathleen Collins, who died in 1988. These stories are so clear-eyed, funny, and formally inventive you won’t believe you haven’t read them already.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

A hilarious, heartbreaking polyphonic novel imagining the ambiguous afterlives of the ghosts of the Georgetown cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie has recently been buried and where his soul still lingers. This is one of the weirdest and truest books I have ever encountered: a searching, joyful, yet fundamentally un-reassuring meditation on the transience of mortals and our meanings.

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead

A globe-spanning modern masterpiece, Great Circle includes stops in wartime London, modern Hollywood, and prehistoric Montana, and features appearances by corrupt shipping merchants, jealous bootleggers, a set of shipwrecked twins, and the first female aviator to circumnavigate the globe north to south. Shipstead as a writer is dauntless, imaginative, and a great deal of fun: the perfect guide for an unforgettable adventure.