UND Today

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Truly literary – no lie

UND Writers Conference blends art, history and politics to inspire new generation of creators

Writers Conference 2018
Cari Campbell , UND associate professor of history (left), moderates a panel on “Art and Politics” during the 49th Annual UND Writers Conference. Campbell was joined by conference featured artists Marlon James, Lauren Markham and Nicholas Galanin. Photo by Paul Wesp/UND Today.

Laura Slaathaug and Keegan Hawley found seats smack dab in the middle of roughly 200 UND Writers Conference fans filling the UND Memorial Union ballroom Wednesday night.

The firsthand experience of the storytelling of “Killers of the Flower Moon” author David Grann proved to be a flawless conclusion to a shared journey for the lovebirds – on the page and on the road.

“Four months ago I heard David on NPR, and then ordered the book, and Laura did the same,” said Hawley, who is currently stationed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“Keegan’s from Oklahoma, so that’s a part of his interest in the book,” added Slaathaug, a UND dietetics alum. “I recently went on a trip with him down to Oklahoma, so we traveled through some of the area and saw the Plains.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is Grann’s critically-acclaimed historical account of the 1920s murders of several members of Oklahoma’s Osage Nation. His research uncovered truths underlying a dynamic and chilling plot to strip the tribe of wealth gained from the discovery of oil beneath their feet.

“It’s a great book. It’s so detailed and brutal – it’s like Louis L’Amour meets George R.R. Martin,” Slaathaug said, to which Hawley chuckled, “Except, non-fiction.”

David Grann
David Grann explains the writing process behind his critically-acclaimed book, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” His historical research uncovered truths underlying a dynamic and chilling plot to strip Oklahoma’s Osage Nation of wealth gained from the discovery of oil. Grann’s presentation was one of the 49th Annual Conference’s highlight events. Photo by Paul Wesp/UND Today.

Comfort in the uncomfortable

Grann’s evening presentation was one of the 49th Annual UND Writers Conference’s highlight events. The campus community welcomed visitors from around the region for three days (March 21-23) of panels, readings, writing workshops and films – all collected under the common theme, “Truth and Lies.”

The gathering wasn’t seeking answers to what is truth and what is not by today’s definition. It was seeking a discussion of the ideas, using literature and art as the platform.

Daily lunch-hour guest panels cracked open the rhetoric.

“Art enacts the process of discovery, the old process of understanding, of coming to see something differently,” poet Molly McCully Brown said before the audience, sharing the stage with Grann and indigenous artist Nicholas Galanin.

The three piloted the conversation, fielding questions on how their respective works uncovered and exposed historical truths (of the Osage murders, American eugenics and indigenous rights and culture), using a mixture of research, narrative and empathy.

“In a sense it’s listening often, and letting this work or media channel through you,” Galanin said. “That’s where a lot of truths, I believe, come out in the process of projects.”

Subsequent panels wove new faces into the conversations, peeling back sometimes uncomfortable realities about political responsibility – both for the artist and those experiencing the art.

“Growth comes from discomfort,” explained Lauren Markham, educator and author of “The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.” “I think there’s a difference between uncomfortable conversations and hateful conversations. There can be a really respectful, honest attempt to grapple and understand that can be uncomfortable … it doesn’t have to be hateful. Sometimes we confuse those two.

“At this moment in time,” she continued, “it’s really hard to have any conversation that isn’t in some way political.”

“People don’t realize that ‘I don’t want to get political’ is a political statement,” added fellow panelist and Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James.

Writers Conference 2018
The campus community welcomed visitors from around the region for the UND Writers Conference (March 21-23), three days of panels, readings, writing workshops and films – all collected under the common theme, “Truth and Lies.” Photo by Paul Wesp/UND Today.

Fake news, real journalism

Similar Writers Conference themes spilled into a co-located set of Grand Challenges “Information” Symposium panels hosted by the UND Office of Research and Economic Development. The line for a public chat about the ever-changing state of “real” and “fake” news stretched far beyond the lecture bowl doors.

“What’s most troubling to me is that the term ‘fake news’ is increasingly being used to discredit criticism – honest criticism, honest questioning and honest reporting,” posed panel moderator, former journalist and current UND Communication instructor Chuck Haga. “It’s being used to vilify the press and make it easy for people to dismiss anything that they may see or hear that doesn’t fit into their notion of reality.”

Lorenzo Serna, a UND English alum and co-creator of the nonprofit media organization Unicorn Riot, said his alternative journalism experience has shown him that some institutions try to construct a false narrative – some for reputation, some for money.

“Trying to figure out how to go through that information and understand what’s real and what’s not is what I think the humanities departments and our communications department help us deal with – like how to source information,” he said.

Even with all of the challenges of the media landscape, Mark Trahant – an independent journalist and UND Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism – had a message for the students in the room.

“This is the best time to think about journalism as a career,” he said. “The opportunity to invent something that has never been done before is real.”

Next generation

That principle continued, breathing inspiration into the conference’s aspiring writers.

The final day’s noon panel offered advice to those scribbling notes in the crowd – be an ardent reader, remember that writing is a joyful experience, and set some habits.

“If you develop a routine, the muses will show up,” Marlon James said to conclude the session. “The muse is waiting to see if you’re serious.”

As a recent UND graduate, Slaathaug realizes that the Writers Conference is a spark for her generation, a call to become leaders in literature.

“The whole point of having these events is to facilitate more writing, more art and more culture from North Dakota,” she said. “We have a lot to offer from this University – I know a lot of very talented writers and artists who live right here.”

The Writers Conference is supported every year by dozens of student and staff volunteers and a long list of generous sponsors and donors. If you would like to donate to the future of the conference, you can do so here.