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In Memory of Lesley SternPhoto of Lesley Stern with dyed red hair, looking over her glasses

Professor Emerita


Farewell to our beloved colleague, mentor and friend, Lesley Stern, who passed away on January 29, 2021, after living for many years with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, an experience chronicled in "Diary of a Detour" (Duke 2020). We join her partner, the political theorist Jeffrey Minson (San Diego), her brother Duncan Addison (England), and a host of friends and readers around the world in love and appreciation.

A writer celebrated most recently for bridging non-fiction and cultural analysis and making prose come alive with visual and sensory detail, Lesley Stern’s reputation was first established through her foundational contributions to film theory and history over more than four decades, during which she forged a distinctively experimental approach to writing in its relationship to film criticism and theory, performance, and a range of cultural practices. Stern was a pivotal figure in the establishment of cinema studies as an academic discipline in the Australian academy before shifting the base of her career, at the turn of the century, to Southern California, where she came to hold a unique place in ficto-criticism, a form of writing to which she brought a uniquely vibrant aesthetic sensibility and wry wit. 

Stern was born and raised on a farm in British colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the 1950s. She was awarded an Honours degree in English language and literature from the University of Rhodesia in Salisbury (now Harare). She left Rhodesia to pursue a Ph.D. in theater at the University of Glasgow, but was drawn to film culture, around which there was not yet a fully established academic discipline. This interest in film drew her to London, where she worked as a researcher at the British Film Institute, for which she was briefly a manager of regional film theaters. During this time she became enmeshed in the influential film theory then converging around Screen magazine while writing for the legendary feminist journal m/f and attending seminars at the University of Stirling in Scotland, where a nascent program emphasized film theory’s connection to practice. This would have an enduring impact on Stern’s approach to writing as a creative practice. In 1976, before completion of her Ph.D., she was recruited to La Trobe University in Australia to help launch an academic program in the new field of cinema studies.  

Stern’s agility as a writer is reflected in her border-crossing between independent and mainstream cinema. "The Scorsese Connection," her book on the director described by one reviewer as “probably the best, most imaginative, and bravest book written on Scorsese,” was written during her time in Sydney, based on the dissertation she wrote for the Ph.D. degree in film studies that she ultimately received from the University of Sydney. After a period of involvement in Australia's independent film scene and the left journal Intervention, Stern left the academy for two years to work in Japan, where she wrote scripts and worked in film and video production. A position at Murdoch University drew her back to Australia, where Stern’s writing took a turn away from the more programmatic style then in favor in film studies scholarship and criticism. She began to look for inspiration to the novel and ethnographic and literary nonfiction, prose forms that had been part of her earliest formation as a writer. Questions of subjectivity and readership became a focus of Stern’s craft as she moved from Perth to Sydney and the University of New South Wales, where she taught courses in performance that spanned theater and film, and where her writing moved across cultural studies, photography, and independent film. During this period, she helped to set up the Independent Filmmakers Association, participated in a feminist writing group, and served on the board of the Australian Journal of Cultural Studies

Stern left Australia for Southern California just before the century’s turn, spending a year as a fellow at the Getty Research Institute before joining the University of California, teaching briefly at Irvine before joining the San Diego campus, where she was on the Visual Arts faculty from 2000 until 2013. At UC San Diego, she contributed to the experimental ethos of the Department of Visual Arts, contributing to the founding of the Art Practice Ph.D. concentration and serving as Department Chair. During her California period, Stern continued to write about film in distinctive prose form while increasingly extending her attention to other topics and projects. With UC San Diego Alumna Doris Bittar, Lesley and her husband, Jeffrey Minson helped to found an ESL program called Teach and Learn Literacy. TaLL mentored newly arrived Syrian refugees. Lesley expanded the program to include classes in Syrian cooking. With artist Ruth Wallen she became active in the San Diego Shambhala Center, where she practiced meditation and studied ikebana. In essays and books about smoking, gardens, backyard chickens, and the science and art of living with chronic illness, Stern honed a ficto-critical style in dialog with a circle of renowned authors including the film, art and fiction writer Leslie Dick, the sensory ethnographer Kathleen Stewart, the poet, novelist, and journalist Eileen Myles, the technoscience studies writer Donna Haraway, and the critical theorist Lauren Berlant. The North Park home that Stern shared with her husband Jeffrey Minson, a cat named Elvis, and some chickens became a beacon for an expanding global network of artists and writers drawn to Stern’s eloquent voice, which was as compelling in person as it was on the page. To write "Diary of a Detour," she put aside work on "Gardening in a Strange Land," a book project for which plans are underway for posthumous publication. A taste of this project may be found in Stern's blog of creative non-fiction on gardening and everyday life, a body of writing which spans the pre-pandemic and pandemic periods, and which has accrued a devoted global community of readers. 

In Fall 2020, the Department of Visual Arts was deeply pleased to be able to host Lesley Stern for a public launch of "Diary of a Detour." The memoir is rich in description of the engagement of the senses in living—not only with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, but also with the everyday pleasures of chickens and eggs, gardening and cooking, the colors of paintings and fabric, and the glimmer of medical science experienced from the inside out, with and through a community of care. At the time of this book launch, Lesley’s much-loved voice was beginning to fade due to her cancer. Her colleagues read aloud, with her and for her. Donna Haraway writes, "'Diary of a Detour' is wonderful on so many levels. Besides being an extraordinary writer, Lesley Stern is emotionally and intellectually sophisticated in such subtle and deep ways." Eileen Myles, another reader, writes, "It's the most pleasurable cancer book imaginable. I was riveted."  We welcome you to watch the video of this book launch and reading on the event webpage. For a description of the book and to read the introduction:

Lesley Stern was loved by us all and we will miss her very much. We invite you to peruse her books and enjoy her writing.

Selected books by Lesley Stern: 

  • "Diary of A Detour" (Duke University Press 2020)
  • "Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing"  (caboose books, 2012) 
  • "The Smoking Book" (University of Chicago Press, 1999) 
  • "Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance" (co-edited with George Kouvaros for University of Washington Press, 2011) 
  • "The Scorsese Connection" (Indiana University Press, 1996)