Gabriella Burnham ’09 is a novelist living in New York City. Her first novel, "It Is Wood, It Is Stone" was released this year.
After a ten-year career working in immigration law, Gabriella Burnham decided earlier this year to leave her job at an international law firm to pursue a career as a novelist. She did not know, however, that New York City would go into a COVID-19 lockdown a few weeks later. And yet, she felt prepared for this moment. Burnham graduated from Trinity College with an English Literature degree in 2009, at the height of the economic recession. Her first job out of college was as a hostess at a now-defunct seafood restaurant on the Berlin Turnpike. She had navigated big career changes during times of economic and social turmoil before.
Though her career path has taken her from reporting to teaching, the service industry to the legal world, Burnham has always kept her love for literature close. While working as the Education Lead for an immigration law practice, Burnham earned her MFA on the side, and took her mornings, nights, and weekends to work on a novel she never imagined she would publish.
“Writing was a way to remind myself of my true passion. To keep my interests alive outside of the corporate world. I never wrote thinking I needed to get published and have it be my big break,” she said.
That changed in the summer of 2018, when she finished the book, and embarked on a long road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. It was only when she returned that she decided to try to find a literary agent. Although she began the process with no expectations, her manuscript was bought by One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and was published this summer.
The novel, set in Brazil, is about a woman named Linda who moves to São Paulo because her husband is offered a prestigious teaching residency. Linda is dealing with a feeling that her own life has been consumed by her husband’s ambitions—and although she is considering separating from him, she decides to accompany him to Brazil. The ensuing story is of Linda’s journey as she deals with opposing class and race dynamics in São Paulo, particularly through relationships with her maid, Marta, and an artist named Celia with whom she forms a romantic connection.
“Brazil has been part of me for such a long time,” said Burnham, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Brazil. “Because I grew up in the United States, and my sister and I are first generation, the book was about reconnecting with my Brazilian heritage.”
The book is in part Burnham’s exploration of a fracture in her identity between her life in the United States, and her heritage in another country. “My family does not have a history in the U.S., but my lived experience is here,” she explained. The story also connects to Hartford—it is where the main couple lives before they move to São Paulo. “It’s important to choose settings in your writing that you have an affinity for… Hartford is a city I feel connected to.”
Her writing and time in isolation has helped her navigate a dizzying confluence of social justice issues, COVID-19, and the economic crisis. “In some ways, being a writer, there’s a part of you where you burrow into your imagination and that’s where you retreat to make sense of the outside world,” Burnham said. At the same time, she recognizes the shared experience that the past several months have offered. “The pandemic has a push and pull of needing to isolate from people, and wanting to be in collective space to fight for racial justice. That’s where I found solidarity—going on the streets and protesting for a better life for all people.”
She has also been pleased to see how books have provided a means of solace for people during these uncertain times. “People are reading now as a way to learn about anti–racism, to find ways to enrichen their time, or maybe even because they ran out of things to watch on Netflix,” she said. Books endure as comfort through periods of change and growth.
Books are also a tool of connection for Burnham. Reading had allowed her to reconnect with some of her Trinity friends. When she did a Zoom launch event for her book, she saw Trinity names popping up in attendees. Not long after, she received an email from some friends looking to restart a feminist book club from their time at Trinity. Burnham and the club have now reconnected, and have relabeled their group an intersectional reading group. They’re starting with an essay by Audre Lorde, and have come together with a renewed enthusiasm after more than a decade.
The power of literature has had an indelible effect on Burnham’s life. For students and recent alumni who have just entered the workforce, Burnham urges them to take pride in the liberal arts. “If you think back to 2009 when I graduated from Trinity, we were in the peak of the recession,” she said. Although there is a push to emphasize career-oriented studies, she wants students and new graduates to remember the value of the liberal arts. “When I worked as a hostess I was still writing, when I worked at the mall, I was still writing. It’s something you can take with you no matter what job you have. Work comes and it goes. College isn’t just about career growth—it’s about discovering your passions and desires and learnedness about something that you actually care about,” she said. “If you keep that in your life, not only will you be a happier person, but it will take you to a place in life that is absolutely unexpected.”
Click here for more on Burnham’s novel, It Is Wood, It Is Stone.
Gabriella Burnham '09
"College isn’t just about career growth—it’s about discovering your passions and desires and learnedness about something that you actually care about,” she said. “If you keep that in your life, not only will you be a happier person, but it will take you to a place in life that is absolutely unexpected.”