Unchained voices

UND Writers Conference shares diverse stories of finding community and identity in America

Paul Sum, Mai Der Vang and Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen (right) answers a question at a panel discussion Wednesday, March 22, at the 2017 Writers Conference. The event was held in the Memorial Union Ballroom. Also participating in the panel were poet Mai Der Vang (center) and moderator Paul Sum (left). Sum is a UND professor of political science and public administration. Photo by Richard Larson.

I was one of the last in a line of dozens of people snaking its way across the third floor of the Memorial Union Wednesday night, other fans clutching red and yellow paperbacks, bright blue hardcovers or both.

Seated at the head of that line was the man responsible for the copies in hand—Vietnamese American author and cultural critic Viet Thanh Nguyen, the heavyweight of the 48th annual UND Writers Conference.

“Are you a student here?” he asked a young woman warmly, scrawling a note inside her book.

Just minutes earlier, Nguyen stood before a couple hundred faces in the ballroom, reading excerpts from his newest collection of short stories, “The Refugees”, as well as from older favorites like “The Sympathizer”, which won him the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

“I was really excited for this,” UND English and Economics major Mary Overby giggled. “It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author! And, oh my gosh, he’s in North Dakota!”

Nguyen’s reading was just one of many events of the three-day conference of art and literature, pulled together by the central theme of “Citizen” and opening up challenging conversations of race, community and borders.

“What we do in literature is try to imagine a world without borders, because we want to be able to empathize with people who are very, very far away from us,” Nguyen told the crowd at a panel event earlier in the day. “That’s the job of writers.”

Hmong American poet Mai Der Vang, next to Nguyen on the panel, explained that as she started writing professionally, she had to consider who her audience was. She determined that in sharing the truest stories of her culture, the person she had to write for was herself—with the hope readers would be encouraged to dig in and learn more.

“I was thinking about the poems that were missing in this world and the poems and the voices that weren’t being heard,” she said. “If you know anything about Hmong people, or Hmong Americans, we really don’t exist on the literary map in this country.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a 2016 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, autographs a book following a Writers Conference panel session Wednesday, March 22, 2017, in the Memorial Union Ballroom. The panel session, which led off the 2017 conference, also included poet Mai Der Vang and moderator Paul Sum (UND Political Science and Public Administration). Photo by Richard Larson.

Citizenship in America

I found myself chatting with Alejandro Nodarse in a post-panel swarm of attendees. He waved his arm across the Memorial Union ballroom. “Look at this turnout! It’s fantastic—are you kidding me?”

Nodarse accompanied his partner, Cuban American author and conference speaker Jennine Capó Crucet, on the trip from Lincoln, Neb., where they both teach. He said he was overwhelmed by the caliber of the discussion taking place.

“These are the questions we should be asking not only in these panels, but also as a nation,” Nodarse said. “The idea of what are boundaries, what are Americans, where do these ideas come from, why do we still hold on to these ideas…”

Crucet joined in, saying the concept of citizenship is something that has been on her mind for years, ever since eighth grade when she helped her Cuban refugee parents study for their American citizenship test.

“They got really into NASCAR and bought a bunch of Garth Brooks albums, because they thought that was America. They wanted to learn, ‘I’m a citizen now, what does that mean?’” Crucet remembered. “They felt, for many years, that they were citizens of nowhere. So, I’ve always thought that ‘citizen’ is something you choose, and that you then pursue.”

“It’s just one version of what it means to be a citizen. I think that’s part of the beauty of the concept it—that it can have different meanings for different people,” she added.

Layli Long Soldier

Poet Layli Long Solider reads from her book “Whereas” during a reading, March 23, 2017 in the Memorial Union Ballroom. (Long Solider likes to write about grasses and says some poems had taken her two years to write and rewrite.) Photo by Jackie Lorentz.


“Here, the sentence will be respected.”

I sat in the second row as Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier gently and methodically delivered the first line of her piece, “38”.

Although the line refers to the poem’s structure, there was an evident connection to the conference themes of mutual communication and understanding, of using one’s own voice to tell an underrepresented story.

Panelist and Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel “We Need New Names” was chosen this year as the Greater Grand Forks Reads “common read”, a book meant to bring the community together with literature. The story of a young girl’s flight from the politically ravaged Zimbabwe to America is not an autobiography, but pulls from Bulawayo’s experiences.

“You don’t necessarily have to complain. I think the single act of telling your story can be political,” she said. “Telling your story is humanizing, not just for yourself, but for other people.”

Fellow panelist and Graywolf Press Executive Editor Jeff Shotts expressed that the media, including the publishing world, is doing a poor job of making sure diverse voices are heard—a reason why the country needs to continue to support the National Endowment for the Arts (a partial sponsor of the Writers Conference), currently in limbo in President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget.

“I’m here to tell you that I hope we all take from this panel and this conference a tangible sense of community that is being built here—at the University, in Grand Forks and elsewhere—and go back into your community, whether that’s here or elsewhere, and fight for it,” Shotts said.

The audience around me erupted in applause—a sign that the fight was on.