41st-annual Writers Week brings literary luminaries to UCR

The 41st-annual Writers Week was carried out from Feb. 12 to Feb. 17, bringing a total of 20 writers to the UCR campus to read from their selected works and address questions. From UCR faculty, alumni and internationally recognized artists spanning several generations, the voices heard throughout the event resonated with audiences young and old.

Tess Taylor

The first of Writers Week’s 20 literaries to present throughout the week was poet Tess Taylor. Taylor is the author of the New York Times’ “Best Poetry of 2016” book “Work & Days,” as well as the 2003 chapbook “The Misremembered World” and the 2013 poetry book “The Forage House.” She is also the on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s “All Things Considered” radio program and the chair of the National Book Critics Circle’s poetry committee.

Taylor began her hour-long time slot with readings from “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and a few from her upcoming book,“The Rift Zone,” the first of which centered around her hometown of El Cerrito. “It’s fun to write about the place you are,” she said. In between poems which she gracefully skirted around anecdotes equal parts droll and poignant. “Writing ‘Work & Days,’” she said during her Q&A, “I began thinking about farm poetry,” which is reflected in her poems, which act as dialogues of sorts between agrarians of the past and herself during her time spent farming at Farm Girl Farm in Sheffield, MA in 2010. “What is poetry if not artisanal?” she says.

– Julian Medranda

Krys Lee

Krys Lee is the award-winning author of “How I Became a North Korean,” a book that follows the lives of three North Koreans trying to survive in the China-North Korea border region and escape to South Korea. Lee’s first book, “Drifting House” is a short story collection that has won the Story Prize Spotlight award and has received honors from the BBC International Story Prize and the Asian-Pacific American Libraries Association.

When Lee was 24 years old, she met North Korean activists and refugees while working at the South Korean border setting safe houses. Then, she became an activist after listening to the refugees experiences. “I’ve never seen that kind of fear in my life,” she says.

For her reading, Lee read a passage from Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox,” and proceeded to read from “How I Became a North Korean.” “North Korea is real and always imagined,” she begins, as she connects it to the way one of her characters views reality through living in North Korea. In the Q&A session, Lee explained the responsibility of writing about North Koreans and the emotional difficulty in writing about the subject. Around the time the book came out, South Korean writing painted North Koreans as subhuman. Lee recounted an experience in which one of the earliest readers of her book was a North Korean activist who told her, “This is the book that needed to be written.”

– Martha Delgado

Gina Nahai

Gina Nahai is an award-winning author of the novels “Cry of the Peacock” — which won the Los Angeles Arts Council Award for fiction — and LA Times number-one bestseller “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith.” She is also a retired professor of creative writing from the University of Southern California.

Nahai began her reading with passages from her latest book, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” It’s a story about an Iranian Jewish family which is under the grips of Raphael’s son, a man who claims to be an heir to the family fortune. Being an Iranian Jew herself, Nahai’s mission is to give a voice to other Iranian Jews. She is also an immigrant currently living in Los Angeles, and tells the stories of the Iranian Jewish community living in LA. “Let me tell you something, Los Angeles was boring before the foreigners came,” Nahai spoke, causing a laugh from those in attendance.

During the Q&A portion, someone commented on Nahai’s work, saying that even though her focus is on the Iranian Jewish community, her writing transcends that, making it universal and enjoyable for everyone to read. She smiled, as if to acknowledge that she has accomplished her goal as a writer.  

– Janine Lano

Charmaine Craig

Charmaine Craig is the award-winning author of the 2017 novel “Miss Burma” — which received numerous awards such as “longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction,” “a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice,” and many more. Other than being an accomplished author, Craig also has a background in acting, both in film and television. She is currently a faculty member in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

“Miss Burma” is a non-fiction novel based on the lives of the author’s late mother and grandparents, who immigrated from Burma (present-day Myanmar). Craig’s first novel, “The Good Men,” which was published in 2002, is a different, and more historical, version of Miss Burma. During the reading, she revealed her sense of duty in writing “Miss Burma.” Her book exposes the country’s history of dictatorship and the and the horrific terrorist attacks that affected the country.

“I wanted to get the history and politics as accurate as possible, and stay true to the events that occurred,” the novelist says.

– Patricia Gasaiwai

Myriam Gurba

Myriam Gurba is the award-winning author of “Mean,” a true crime, ghost story, memoir hybrid that explores her experiences as a queer, mixed-race Chicana and survivor of sexual assault. Gurba is also the author of five chapbooks and two short story collections, “Painting their Portraits in Winter” and “Dahlia Season.” “Dahlia Season” won the Edmund White Award in 2007 and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She was a member of Sister Spit, a lesbian-feminist performance art and spoken word group.

Gurba read three chapters from her recent book, “Mean.” While the book is a mix of genres, Gurba focused more on the memoir elements for the reading. During her Q&A session, Gurba covers the humor and structure within the book. She discusses the idea of humor as self-preservation for marginalized communities, specifically for the queer communities. “I think that marginalized communities tend to develop these sorts of gifts that they give to the larger world, but they exist for the sake of self preservation,” she explains. When asked about the book’s format, Gurba brought up the motif of violence against women. “I wanted to create a structure that mimics violence, and I wanted to create a structure that mimics PTSD, especially the intrusive elements of it,“ she says.

– Martha Delgado

John Jennings

John Jennings’ reading could not have landed at a better time of the week. The work of the UCR professor of Media and Cultural Studies and author of “The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art” centers around comic books and blackness as they relate to one another, using the lens of black speculative fiction to “unpack problems we have as a people, as a country.” As it so happens, the release of the blockbuster Marvel film “Black Panther” — already breaking records, stirring discussions surrounding its layered depictions of black identity and pushing afrofuturism to a global platform — coincided with his reading, a topic he would discuss during his Q&A.

Beginning with an excerpt comprised of 2 chapters from his 2016 graphic novel, “Blue Hand Mojo: Hard Times Road,” Jennings discussed what he would refer to as the ethno-gothic, a branch of speculative fiction concerned with the supernatural and trauma. The protagonist of the comic, he says, is modeled after his father — language and all. Writing, he says, is less of a creative output for him than it is a way of problem-solving; like a knock on the door that won’t let up, he describes his creative endeavors as means of resolving (or, at least, unpacking) internal thought processes.

– Julian Medranda

Roxane Gay

Martin Lopez/HIGHLANDER

A considerate group of people spent their Saturday evening at the University Village Regency Theatre to see Roxane Gay. It was opening weekend of “Black Panther,” yet the auditorium halted their trip to Wakanda for a detour with Gay, who, along with poet Yona Harvey, authored the Marvel comic book series “World of Wakanda.” The writer emerged with a copy of her most recent book, “Hunger,” a memoir on unruly bodies. She read excerpts from the book, going through the choreography of the winks and jokes that accompany the passages that she must of have done a million of times on her book tour.

One of her readings was a pitying vignette about her personal trainers diet of chicken breast and mustard. Its absence of spices was baffling to her. From there, she steadily progressed to the core of “Hunger,” which is the rape that caused Gay to gain weight, weight gained to be worn as men repellent, she says. Much of the reading felt like a prerequisite for the night’s main dish — the Q&A. Gay, like the audience, was eager to cut to the conversation. “It is a Saturday,” she affirmed “nobody needs to be lectured to today.”  

The writer then turned into an oracle. She answered questions about “Hunger’”s impact on her family, the process of writing through difficult subjects and the urgency of doing so, “Black Panther,” her favorite authors, Trump and the potency of bravery. Gay listed the ingredients of this potion of bravery to be a mix of wild insecurity and wild confidence, a potion she prescribed to be regularly consumed by black girls and women of color alike. The work of writers like Zadie Smith and academics like Tressie McMillan Cottom is where Gay says she finds those pursuits of bravery and boldness: A style of thinking that refutes the comfort of a prescribed collective opinion in exchange for something more audacious. With the audience hopeful for an elixir to success, Gay denied, rather offering a formula of commitment and rigor to the craft. Gay reshaped the questions and requests and sharpened them into writing guidelines: “Why should people care? It must be compelling. It must be good.”

– Hugo Cervantes

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