Finding truth between the lines

History, journalism, politics and more entwine for this week’s 49th annual UND Writers Conference

Writers Conference 2018

The 49th annual UND Writers Conference kicks off tomorrow at UND’s Memorial Union, featuring an 8 p.m. reading from David Grann (right), author of 2017’s critically acclaimed “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Marlon James (center), author of the 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” will present on Thursday evening, and “The Far Away Brothers” author Lauren Markham (left) will hold a Friday night reading.

Crystal Alberts – once again – wants folks to know that she can’t see into the future.

Her UND Writers Conference director brain chose the 2018 conference theme “Truth and Lies” long before inauguration numbers, fake news and alternative facts were catchphrases in the national dialogue.

“I want to make it clear that I selected this topic in June 2016,” she asserted. “People keep giving me the side-eye because they think I came up with it after the election. Or they ask if I have a crystal ball somewhere to help me predict things.” Alberts paused with a sly smile. “No.”

Coincidence or not, the discussion of the relationship between truth and lies seems even more relevant now than two years ago. And, to mark the 49th year of the three-day (March 21-23) cornerstone UND event, Alberts has pulled together a roster of writers and artists whose diverse backgrounds offer multiple channels for the conversation.

“I wanted to investigate not truth or lies, but truth and lies, especially in authors who incorporate historical research, who are writing creative non-fiction, who are doing investigative reporting and so on,” she said.

Heavy hitters

Ocean Vuong

Whiting Award-winning poet and essayist Ocean Vuong will deliver the Jackie McElroy-Edwards and Tom Edwards Writers Conference Endowment reading on March 23 (4 p.m., Memorial Union Ballroom).

One of the headliners of the Writers Conference will be David Grann, author of this year’s Greater Grand Forks Read, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The book has garnered numerous nominations and awards and is now being turned into a Martin Scorsese-directed film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This isn’t the first Grann story to leap from page to screen. In fact, some are calling the New Yorker writer “the man Hollywood can’t stop reading.”

For “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Grann leveraged his journalism background to dig into the 1920s oil money-based murders of several members of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma, attempting to bring clarity to a longstanding mystery in which the line between truth and lies was often blurred.

Another big name this year is Marlon James, Man Booker Prize-winning author of “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” The novel uses several voices over many decades to examine the Jamaican politics that led up to and followed the real-life attempted assassination of singer Bob Marley in 1976.

Other novelists, poets and artists presenting at the conference will offer insights into moments in history spanning the Supreme Court ruling of Buck v. Bell (surrounding the sterilization of those deemed “genetically unfit”) to this decade’s Central American child exodus to the U.S.

Molly McCully-Brown

Poet Molly McCully Brown will give the Kemen/Randall Family Writers Conference Endowment reading on March 21 (4 p.m., Memorial Union Ballroom).

Alberts says the panels and readings will follow a chronological arc from the beginning of the week to the end, from works exploring events of the 1920s up to the present day.

“I did that on purpose to help people think about how things change, or don’t change, over time,” she explained. “Thinking about history might make it easier to reflect and ask ourselves the question of whether art has any impact on contemporary literature telling the truth about our culture – or telling lies about our culture.”

Cross-college connections

This year’s “Truth and Lies” theme has also opened up more possibilities for collaborations across campus.

The focus on journalism and historical events created natural links to School of Communication and the Department of History (whose faculty, along with an associate professor from the School of Law, will serve as panel moderators), but the ties will stretch even further.

“We’ve always tried to involve all of campus and have something for everyone. But this one probably has more of those connections than most years I’ve been involved,” Alberts said. “Every area – from aerospace to education to medicine – is pulled in.”

Nicholas Galanin

March 22’s Myers Foundation presentation (4 p.m., Memorial Union Ballroom) will feature internationally known multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Galanin.

One of the ways the conference will nurture those connections is with a Memorial Union co-located Grand Challenges “Information” Symposium on March 21. Hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development (VPRED) – which also partially sponsored David Grann’s visit – the symposium will highlight multidisciplinary faculty research related to information gathering and dissemination.

Five panel discussions will span drones, social media, climate change, journalism, big data and more – artfully bridging the humanities of the Writers Conference with the societal issues addressed by the UND Strategic Plan’s Grand Challenges.

“The symposium is, on one hand, demonstrating to the community that we’re doing this kind of research, scholarship and creative activity at UND,” said VPRED Grant McGimpsey. “On the other hand, it’s demonstrating the need for this kind of participation across the University. These Grand Challenges must include different academic perspectives involved in each particular problem in order to solve them.”

What future holds

Crystal Alberts may not have a crystal ball, but she’s running with that idea for the theme of 2019’s golden anniversary Writers Conference. To celebrate 50 years, the topic will be “What the Future Holds.”

No writers or artists have yet been confirmed, but Alberts already has some ideas of how she can weave together fresh, innovative ideas while maintaining the event’s tradition.

For now, the emphasis is creating a literary environment in which all voices and beliefs are represented.

“I think the topic itself might seem to be really challenging in terms of what’s going on in the world. I’m just hoping that people can come, leave those things at the door and listen,” Alberts said. “If we can listen, and then have a conversation and even sometimes a debate – rather than an echo chamber – then maybe ‘what the future holds’ won’t be as bleak as some predict.”

The conference is free and open to the public. For the full schedule of readings, panels, films and workshops, visit the UND Writers Conference website.