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Varied voices, common ground

UND Writers Conference to use art and literature to discuss what it means to be a citizen

Capó Crucet, Viet Thanh Nguyen and NoViolet Bulawayo
Authors (left to right) Jennine Capó Crucet, Viet Thanh Nguyen and NoViolet Bulawayo will headline this year’s UND Writers Conference, which aims to delve into topics of diversity, inclusion and what it means to be a “citizen.” The conference is set for March 22-24. Photos courtesy of Crystal Alberts.

It was fitting that I had the opportunity to sit down with UND Writers Conference Director Crystal Alberts on Jan. 20.

While we chatted in her Merrifield Hall office, the country’s capital was filled with people who had just witnessed Donald J. Trump take on the American presidency.

“I knew that the Writers Conference would happen after the inauguration of the 45th president,” Alberts said. “I had no idea who it would be, obviously, but, no matter what, it was going to be different. That’s where the idea came from.”

Alberts came up with the 2017 Writers Conference theme of “Citizen” back in July of 2015, when presidential candidates had begun throwing their hats in the ring. She anticipated that certain topics were going to be discussed as campaigns bloomed, such as prison reform, immigration, women’s rights and environmentalism.

“What I wanted to ask was, what role, if any, do the arts and the humanities play in this idea of what it means to be a citizen—whether that’s a citizen of Grand Forks, North Dakota, the United States or the world,” Alberts said.

This year’s March 22-24 conference will be well-poised to start that community conversation. Alberts will bring in an array of authors and artists with diverse backgrounds and stories of identity. Most notable is Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose bestselling novel The Sympathizer follows a communist double-agent’s experiences in the aftershock of the Vietnam War, from the Fall of Saigon to refugee life in America.

Nguyen will be joined by names like NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names, and Jennine Capó Crucet, author of Make Your Home Among Strangers. Both Bulawayo’s and Crucet’s novels are born from characters feeling out of place in a new world—the first as a young girl from Zimbabwe living in suburban America, the latter as a first-generation college student from a family of Cuban immigrants.

“I think inherently there will be discussion of difference and citizenship and politics will come in,” Alberts said. “The makeup of the group that I have is very active. In addition to their own work focusing frequently on identity—racial identity, historical events like the Vietnam War—they’re also very active in community engagement with art.”

A common read

This year the UND Writers Conference will converge with another celebration of literature and culture—Greater Grand Forks Reads. The planners behind the program choose a “common read” for the year and have used that book as a thematic launching pad for community discussions and events like movie screenings and public picnics.

This year’s “common read” is Bulawayo’s We Need New Names—a story UND Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Sandra Mitchell believes was a perfect choice.

“It’s a wonderful story of a young woman coming of age as a New American. In Grand Forks, and in North Dakota in general, we are now seeing an influx of refugees, mostly from African countries. This young woman’s experiences as a New American are some of the experiences of many of our New Americans,” Mitchell said.

Greater Grand Forks Reads will culminate with a public reading by Bulawayo on March 23 at the Writers Conference, and then program organizers will chose a new book for the coming year.

“I think literature and art in particular are powerful because they are forms of expression,” Mitchell said. “It gives people an opportunity to talk about how they see something.”

Public preparation

Alberts has been working in collaboration with colleagues across campus to prepare for the Writers Conference, and that means helping the public prepare as well. She, along with other faculty volunteers from English and Art and Design, will lead a series of Writers Conference 101 sessions beginning on February 5. The free one-hour discussions will be held at the Grand Forks Public Library on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. leading up to the conference, and will offer previews of the event’s authors and artists.

“The idea is that sometimes people weren’t coming to the conference because they didn’t know anything about the people,” Alberts said. “It is a chance to get out into the community, and you might find that you really want to read and experience these things.”

The devotion Alberts carries for the conference is tangible—one can see it in the event posters, organizational Post-its and extra book copies in her office. She says that passion comes from combining her research and teaching for a chance to give back.

“I’m hoping that by bringing together a group of people that might not ordinarily interact, we can find some common ground and realize that even though we might have differences in belief or appearance or whatever, in some ways we’re not really all that different.”

The UND Writers Conference is supported in large part by The Estate of Alice Lillian Carlson.