Alumni who studied Modern and Medieval Languages remember Dr Erica Segre 1963-2021.
A supervision with Erica was a journey into a world of exciting ideas. She had great generosity and energy in sharing her knowledge, passion, and creativity with her students. I will always remember her warmth and brilliance and think of her as I re-read the books and look at the art that she inspired us with.
My overriding memories of Erica as a Director of Studies are of her being incredibly nurturing in a way that, looking back on it, seems above and beyond the scope of her role. I remember when, during a particularly difficult time, she delivered to each of us a small piece of work – a short story, a poem, or in my case a small book of lino prints – with a message of encouragement. Unconventional, perhaps, but absolutely the support infused with creativity that in my mind are so representative of her.
When I first met Erica, I was immediately taken by her whimsical energy and vast knowledge. She was a kind soul who was always willing to help and support those around her, constantly striving to make everyone feel included. I still think about our meetings in her study and how she would purposefully leave out books, postcards, and other items that were directly related to my interests. I wish I could have told her how much that meant to me.
In our weekly supervisions in her study overlooking Nevile’s Court, Erica shared her deep knowledge of and passion for Latin American – particularly Mexican – literature, film and visual culture with me. She not only taught me how to be more astute and eloquent in my academic work but also inspired me through the many cultural activities she organised to enhance our learning experience, including one memorable evening when she invited flamenco dancers to perform in her study. Erica continued to foster my professional and personal development, even when I was no longer one of her students, and I was honoured to have the opportunity to work with her in a professional capacity on a project close to my personal interests, which she had helped to cultivate many years beforehand. I will be forever grateful for her intellectual guidance, moral support and longstanding commitment to nurturing her students and their passions.
At the start of second year I was having a hard time mentally and going off the rails. I thought (and hoped) this was going under the radar. To my surprise I found a note from Erica in my pigeonhole one day asking if I was OK and whether I would like to chat. I was amazed that not only was Erica aware that something was wrong, but also that she had taken the time to see what she could do to help. That was a turning point, and from then on things started to get better.
Erica was a wonderful person with a big heart and a great sense of humor. She was brilliant and always supportive.
I so vividly remember my first meeting with Erica, and the first assignment I worked on with her. It was my first term at Cambridge, Erica had set me my first essay, and I was horribly daunted by the task ahead of me. I remember reaching out to her after hours of struggling and not knowing where to start, and her advice was so simple – just begin. Let your ideas flow, and see where they take you. There’s no set approach, no right or wrong, just share your thoughts. It’s amazing how such simple words of encouragement can stick with you for such a long time.
I recently moved house, and in doing so came across numerous notes I had kept that were sent to me from Erica – thoughtful touches she had put in my pigeon hole at the end of term to celebrate a hard term’s work; thought-provoking postcards with images or poems, sent with no agenda beyond inspiring thought. Erica was incredibly kind, so very wise, an inspiring leader, and with a wicked sense of humour to go with it. I am truly saddened to hear of her passing – she is a figure that had such a lasting impact on my life, and she will be greatly missed.
I often rifle back through my Trinity memories and Erica is among the first of the people I revisit in my mind. Her office was a burst of colour and kindness in what often felt like a slightly strict and sterile environment for a clueless kid from a rural corner of Wales.
When I think of Erica, I think of how she met my emotions with unrestricted openness and sincerity. I had some tough weeks during my degree both with personal illness, multiple hospital admissions and bereavements, but Erica never let me slip under the radar. She cried with me on more than one occasion and wasn’t above showing her emotions and ‘calling a spade a spade’ (she’d actually call it something much worse but I daren’t put it here). She gave me a fair few b*ll*ckings too – but always delivered with perfect measures of care and caution.
Erica once told me why she placed the seating in her office so that the student always had their back to the door: it’s much harder to escape that way. In all honesty, I can’t say I ever wanted to try. She was so colourful, so refreshing and so generous of heart. She will be missed so greatly.
Erica was my first academic experience of Trinity, the day I came for interview. She was that inspiring combination of challenging and encouraging, which helped calm my interview-day nerves as we discussed the complexities of translation.
I think some of her students found her a little scary, but most of our Trinity cohort, who saw her outside the classroom as well as in, knew that while she was certainly exacting (and you definitely didn’t want to disappoint her), she was also kind, considerate, and funny.
Her stories were as colourful as her room, in which every wall was a different clashing yet complementary shade, with skulls and other paraphernalia decorating the bookshelves. One story which sticks in the memory was of a narrowly avoided abduction in the back of a Mexican taxi, related almost as an afterthought to another tale she had been recounting.
But particularly I remember one act of generosity and kindness. Towards the end of our final year, each of us who had Erica as Director of Studies found in our pigeon hole a book, a gift from Erica, from her own collection, with a note as to why she thought we would enjoy it and an encouragement to take some time away from studying and read for pleasure. It was touchingly personal, and a timely reminder of the world beyond finals. Thank you, Erica, for academic inspiration and guidance, for sparking lifelong interests, and for all your kindnesses.
My time with Erica was brief but life-changing. Her unparalleled intelligence and warmth have left an indelible mark on my research and my life. I will always be grateful for her mind, but mainly for her kindness.
Erica was ever a warm and supportive Director of Studies and a supremely sharp thinker who was a true role model during my studies and beyond. She insisted I was always welcome to turn up unannounced at her office door for years after graduating. I was always warmly welcomed in and would invariably leave with a gifted book or two, and some words of wisdom to ponder for days and weeks.
Erica saw a certain magic in the written word on (ideally hand-pressed) paper. A piece of Erica’s wisdom I hold dear is ‘it doesn’t have to be anything. It can just be two words.’ That really struck a chord. I can’t say enough how much this piece of advice has helped me over the years. Erica offered her students generosity of spirit and clarity of thought throughout their studies and long after. It was an honour to have learned from her. She will be very missed.
I remember a note from Erica to temper an overly forthright undergraduate essay on Borges: ‘Be careful, there are no ‘answers’; only questions and, perhaps, responses’. It was an archetypal Erica essay comment – delphic (at least to an undergraduate) and seemingly hinting at a greater truth you were sure was there but couldn’t quite grasp (at least until you’d given it the reflection it was due)! Thank you Erica for entertaining my questions, providing responses, and patiently leading me away from a search for ‘answers’.
Erica taught me in one capacity or another for all four years of my degree. For the first two years, I was distracted by creative pursuits and she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting more out of my studies. Encouraged by her (or perhaps to impress her) I planned the most adventurous year abroad I could dream up, working for a magazine in Guatemala and studying in Cuba. That year, everything fell into place. From afar, Erica proposed and supervised my translation project of an obscure rhyming play. When I came back, she championed a dissertation on Latin American film music that barely fit the department rubric. By the time I graduated, I had understood that for her there was no boundary between the creative and the academic.
Rather than lose touch after graduating, we became friends. One summer she invited me to stay with her and her family in Italy with my then-boyfriend. It was the first time I had been around young children who knew I was gay, and I have never felt more welcome. In subsequent years, we kept in touch via return visits to her magical study and regular emails. Anyone who has ever received an email from Erica knows that her prose style is beguiling and instantly recognisable. Re-reading them now brings her back in an instant. One time she apologised after a meeting for not being able to pursue our conversation threads more fully, “although fragments can be more pleasurable than any more ample discursive plenitude”. She would celebrate the slightest bit of good news, telling me “I shall run out into the garden and tell the children”. Even when my career was going badly, she would say things like “your mazy nomadism really appeals”. She was delighted when I made a film with a producer I had met and built a relationship with ten years earlier in Erica’s study as supervision partners, and immediately arranged a screening at Trinity.
A few years ago, I ended up writing a verse in Spanish on a single for a Puerto Rican pop star. Erica found this extremely funny, since she had always thought my Spanish prose appalling. I hadn’t been in touch with her for a year when I heard the news. I regret not having the chance to say goodbye and thank her properly for the gift of her endless generosity, but I suspect she knew the spell she cast and the legacy she inspired. Besides, Erica was phlegmatic about such missed opportunities. I once said sorry after leaving it too long before getting in touch, and she said there was no need to apologise, as “life is full of slippages and new turnings”.
For want of the appropriate vocabulary, I will think of Erica as una antorcha, a light. Some other words also spring to mind, co-conspirator, ally, playmate, fairy godmother; more than a teacher and more than a friend. All the time that I have known her (even in our very first exchange of emails, when I had written her a fan letter after reading some of her work, before coming to Cambridge) she has been a luminous presence guiding the way, or pointing out where the way might be – suggestive, wry, modest, inquisitive, at times confusing, so erudite, playful, astonishingly tender.
Erica taught me things I don’t yet know how to articulate about art, its urgency, its realness, and lately about love as well. For now I will keep gathering pebbles and shells and paying close attention to waves, in the hope eventually of living up to the incomparable example that she has set.