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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Who Are You? What Are You Here For?

Courtesy Jeanne Hess

People may know Jeanne Hess as the winning volleyball coach at Kalamazoo College. Or as a new Kalamazoo City commissioner. But Hess is also an author. Her newest book is MaxAbility: Who Are You? What Are You Here For? (2019) It’s the story of a 13-year-old boy adopted from Russia who is on the Autism spectrum.

“I’ve lived in Kalamazoo since 1982,” Hess says. “My husband and I moved here so that he could become the basketball coach at Western Michigan University. I found work at Kalamazoo College in 1984 as a coach and proceeded to have a 35-year career of coaching, teaching, and being a professor and chair of the physical education department until my retirement last August. I’m an athlete, an advocate, and an author who just seem to stop writing books even though I don’t enjoy the writing process.”

A conversation with Jeanne Hess

But Max's story has haunted Hess’s mind for many years until she finally put it on paper. She met Max, then 13 but now 26, while recruiting a girl for her college volleyball team. That girl was Max’s sister, Courtney Nartker. As the two sat near each other in the bleachers, Max turned to Hess and demands: “Who are you? What are you here for?”

The book becomes the answer to these questions for Hess as well as Max. The story intertwines with the sometimes-complicated process of adoption from a foreign country, explores the differences in cultures and people that sometimes matter but mostly don’t, and the gradual bonding of Max with Hess and his sister’s sports team at Kalamazoo College.

“Max told me that he wanted to be the next Ernie Harwell,” Hess says. “For those of you who may not know, Ernie Harwell was the iconic, 50-year announcer for the Detroit Tigers.”

Hess says that she used to fall asleep at night as a girl with a transistor radio with Harwell's voice resonating in her ear. She was pleased to help Max’s dream come true, and he soon began to announce his sister’s game at K College.

Throughout Max’s story, Hess poses questions for the reader to explore and answer themselves: Who are you? What are you here for?

Jeanne Hess’s previous book is Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games (2012). It's an examination of sports at all levels from a Western perspective, focusing on how it reflects our cultural belief in separation and dualistic thinking, as well as how sports can foster peace, understanding, and joy.

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Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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