Third-year student goes ‘Beyond the Surface’ to publish her first novel

Junior Teresa Xu explores self-expression and personal narrative through her first book, “Beyond the Surface: Empathy, Identity, and Storytelling.”


Alexa White

Xu calls on personal experience to explore empathy, identity and storytelling. (Hustler Multimedia/ Alexa White)

Aashi Gurijala, Staff Writer

Junior Teresa Xu can proudly call herself a successful, published author before her time at Vanderbilt is even complete. Writing a novel at any age is no mere feat. Xu poured over her novel in many more ways than one: she spent hours writing, editing and polishing her work. Xu is from Vancouver, Canada, and is studying Sociology, English and Medicine, Health and Society. She provided a summary of her book for further insight:

Beyond the Surface: Empathy, Identity, and Storytellingexplores the complex influences that make up who we are and how we can understand and express ourselves through different types of storytelling. Through various personal anecdotes and mixed media that the author has encountered, the book reflects on how social and personal identity intertwine,” Xu said. “Some dimensions of identity highlighted in the anecdotes include cultural heritage and the impact of language on identity.”

The onset of COVID-19 allowed many students to sit back and reflect on their experiences, and Xu was no exception. During the pandemic, she allowed herself the time to not only work on her writing but to think about meaningful ways to communicate the valuable lessons that she had learned and come to appreciate. 

“I guess I always kind of wanted to write just because I’ve read a lot of books in my childhood so I kind of always thought it would be cool if I could write one as well,” Xu said. “I guess it was partly because I was remote during COVID and there was still a lot going on in the world. I was kind of thinking about a lot of issues and wanted to get some thoughts out.”

For Xu, coming to Vanderbilt meant encountering individuals from all backgrounds and ways of life, prompting her to confront her own identity and experiences. Her exposure to individuals that differed greatly from her encouraged her to reflect on the need for empathy and understanding that she expresses in her novel.

“I learned and thought a lot more about my social identity in general just because I feel like I had not thought about that a ton growing up because a lot of like my classmates were like from a similar kind of ethnic and cultural background as me,” Xu said. “Coming to Vanderbilt and meeting people from everywhere broadened my mind.”

Vanderbilt’s coursework also facilitates Xu’s ability to engage with diverse perspectives. Specifically, her experiences in literature classes expanded her knowledge of different genres and showed her how storytelling could be used to express one’s social identity. 

“[The] ENGL 1240 Nonfiction writing workshop was really helpful at showing me that genre and my first attempt at trying that kind of writing,” Xu said. “I think it actually helped me reflect a lot more on aspects of my identity and things I hadn’t really considered prior to Vandy, especially related to my cultural heritage and language at home vs school. Even the Visions program helped me think about ideas of social identity as well.”  

Additionally, student organizations such as Narrative 4, which helps facilitate the exchange of stories between individuals in order to promote empathy, also inspired her to address themes related to empathy and understanding in her novel. 

Xu took advantage of Vanderbilt’s resources to hone her writing skills including the writing studio. She described the process as arduous, as she was challenged to turn her vague ideas into concrete literature. With the help of a structured writing program, she not only fleshed out her writing, but was held accountable with a series of editors and deadlines. The Creator’s Institute, with its associated publishing house “New Degree Press,” were her bread-and-butter during the publishing process and provided all the necessary tools to succeed while minimizing procrastination. 

Xu encourages all young writers to take the plunge despite any self-doubt. 

“Part of it is just being more comfortable or confident in your own voice and realizing that you have your own story or stories to share, because I also thought no way could I ever do something like that,” Xu said.

She emphasizes the importance of writing for the sake of writing and not to fit into any stereotypical or self-imposed boxes on what writing should be. Xu realizes that there are many different genres of writing that operate independently and vary greatly depending on writing style. 

“I always thought that books had to be fiction but I realized that there are different types of books out there as well. What I wrote is more of a memoir,” Xu said. “You don’t have to limit yourself to anything.”

Xu’s book can be found for purchase on Amazon