Personal becomes political at Creative Nonfiction Week

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

Columbia’s annual Creative Nonfiction Week, which had a political theme inspired by the Nov. 6 presidential election, took place Nov. 5–8 in the 33 E. Congress Parkway Building.

According to Garnett Kilberg-Cohen, a professor in the English Department and director of the Creative Nonfiction program, the week of events began in 2001 as a way to draw interest to the concentration and encourage collaboration between the English, Journalism and Fiction Departments.

The Student/Faculty Reading kicked off the week Nov. 5 with readings ranging from reflective and lyrical to humorous and absurd.

“As writers and readers of nonfiction, literary or otherwise, I feel that we are often interested in the how and the why, in the facts, the forms or lack thereof,” said Colleen O’Connor, a graduate student in the Creative Writing–Nonfiction program. “We’re interested in the accuracy and the methods [used in creative nonfiction].”

Gary Johnson, associate chair of the Fiction Writing Department, read his account of a protest at George W. Bush’s first inauguration. He used vivid descriptions of the tension between protesters and security forces to draw in the audience.

Kilberg-Cohen shared a vignette at the reading titled “Brown Beer Bottle on the Bathtub Brim,” which described her close relationship with her mother.

At a Q-and-A session following the readings Kilberg-Cohen spoke about the creative license the concentration offers students.

“I think if you stay sort of close to the margins of reality and speculation, then it’s not fiction,” Kilberg-Cohen said.

Later that evening, author, blogger and former Columbia professor Kate Zambreno and author Colette Brooks performed a joint reading at Hokin Hall in the 623 S. Wabash Ave. Building.

O’Connor, Zambreno’s former student, introduced Zambreno at the reading and said what she learned in class connected them as creative nonfiction storytellers.

“What a lucky thing for a student of writing to get a glimmer of what it truly is to live with one’s literary ancestors,” O’Connor said. “To communicate with them and live through them with that [bond].”

Zambreno read from “Heroines,” her book examining the lives of modernist wives, including Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot, who married novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and poet T.S. Eliot, respectively.

Before Zambreno read excerpts from “Heroines,” she described the work as a critical memoir, experimental biography and a séance.

“When I began teaching [at Columbia], I didn’t know what creative nonfiction was,” Zambreno said. “All I knew was that the writers I was fascinated by were transgressing some sort of boundary, writing on their lives in sometimes excessive, emotional ways.”

This emotional resonance continued at the Nov. 6 event called “Writing Down the Bones,” where students hand-crafted clay bones that will become part of the One Million Bones project, a traveling art installation raising awareness about genocide, according to Ames Hawkins, an associate professor in the English Department who led the event and is involved with the project.

Hawkins said she has been reading and thinking about bones as objects and symbols since she began working on the One Million Bones project in 1999. She said she believes there is a relationship between writing and movement.

“We all talk about the power of writing to push us to move something or change something,” Hawkins said. “I also believe that it works the other way around—that when you’re doing something with your body, that opens up spaces for writing as well.”

The students’ hand-crafted bones will be added to the other 35,000 bones Hawkins has already accumulated for the project. She said she plans to contribute 50,000 bones to the exhibit that will eventually be at the National Mall in Washington D.C. in June 2013.

The political theme re-emerged Nov. 7 at the Covering Politics panel discussion. The event was hosted by Yolanda Joe, associate professor in the Journalism Department, and featured speakers Achy Obejas, a blogger for Chicago Public Media; David Bernstein, journalism instructor and features editor at Chicago Magazine; Stephen Franklin, coordinator of Columbia’s Community Media Workshop and former foreign correspondent at the Chicago Tribune; and Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM.

The panel discussed TV versus print journalism and how political campaign coverage could improve. The session concluded with a Q-and-A.

The week continued with a Nov. 8 reading of pieces published in the “South Loop Review,” the college’s literary magazine for nonfiction work, now in its14th volume.

Rose Blouin, an associate professor in the English Department and host of the event,  said the magazine received approximately 200 submissions for its national nonfiction writing contest featured in this year’s issue.

Laura Story Johnson, a lawyer working in human rights research and advocacy and a contributing writer to the magazine, read from her piece “Surgery of Place,” a series of vignettes about her travels to Beijing, her hometown of Riverside, Iowa, and Native American reservation.

Other events included a reading by Rachel DeWoskin, the recipient of the 2012 American Library Association’s Alex Award; election night coverage with Jim DeRogatis, co-host of “Sound Opinions” and lecturer in the English Department; and a presentation by Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist, who talked about the correlation between race and politics in the media.