From Feb. 11-15, UCR’s Department of Creative Writing and the LA Review of Books welcomed award-winning writers from a variety of genres to read their latest work in INTS 1128. Among the writers featured are UCR faculty members and alum who recently debuted their work.
Trisha Thomas is the award-winning author of “Nappily Ever After,” a book that follows the life of an African-American woman named Venus Johnson who strives for the perfect life, which includes weekly visits to the salon to keep her hair long and straight. When faced with a crisis that forces her to reexamine her life, Venus’ decision to embrace her natural hair leads her on a liberating journey. “Nappily Ever After,” was a finalist for the 32nd National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction. Her work has been awarded Best New Fiction by the Black Writer’s Alliance and the Literary Lion award.
Since her debut novel in 2000, Thomas has written nine more novels in the Venus Johnson series. “Nappily Ever After” was optioned by Universal Pictures and eventually adapted into a Netflix Original film that was released Sept. 21, 2018.
Thomas decided to read from her most recent novel in the Nappily series, “Postcards from Venus.” “I want my readers to start from the first book, but also I have grown so much as a writer and Venus as a character,” said Thomas. She explained that her characters’ growth mirrors her own as a writer.
During the Q&A session, a student asked how Thomas chose what to write about and how to stay interested in a story. Thomas explained how important it is to believe in one’s writing and to find the genre that fits the best.
“I went to a writer’s conference where the speaker said ‘it’s not complicated, just write what you know.’ I thought, I know my hair, it’s the thing in my life. So I went home that day and created Venus Johnson, who was fighting with her hair because it dictated her life,” said Thomas.
Thomas lives and writes in Riverside.
—Christine Tran, CW
Anthonia Kalu is a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages at UCR, with a focus on African literature. As a fiction writer she has co-edited “Reflections: An Anthology of New Works by African Women Poets” and “Chinua Achebe: A Tribute.”
Kalu read from her debut novel, “Broken Lives and Other Stories,” a collection that examines the lives of women and children during the Nigeria-Biafra war. The stories in her novel are based on Kalu’s childhood in Nigeria, drawing on her own experiences to provide a personal, intimate perspective of the war.
A student asked in the Q&A section how Kalu makes the transition between fiction and the autobiographical aspects of her writing. Kalu explained that drawing on her experiences influenced her writing, including the stories she was told growing up. By synthesizing this storytelling tradition with personal anecdotes, Kalu has shaped her own perspective and style.
“I find myself constantly learning more history as well, especially when I write about things I think I know, I reach the middle and I have to do a dialogue, but what do the people say? The way fiction works is that it has to be fictional but it shouldn’t be untrue. So I have to go look for the information and whatever it is I am writing has to wait,” said Kalu.
—Christine Tran, CW
Katie Ford, award-winning author of “Deposition,” “Colosseum” and “Blood Lyric,” is a creative writing professor at UCR. Her recent poetry collection “If You Have to Go” was published by Graywolf Press. Her collection “Blood Lyric” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Rilke Prize. Her collection “Colosseum” was listed in Publisher’s Weekly “Best Books of 2008,” received a 2009 Larry Levis Prize and 2018 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry.
Ford’s recent poetry collection is led by a sequence of sonnets. For her reading, she read a couple of the sonnets with no interruption between the pieces. Ford’s poems in the collection also incorporate a crown of sonnets, in which the last line of a sonnet forms the beginning of the next.
In the subsequent Q&A, Ford described “If You Have to Go” as an exploration of loneliness, especially after the end of a marriage. Ford explained that her writing process involves not writing for periods of time to prepare for the next poems. “I know poets who say when they’re walking around they’re writing poems,” began Ford, “but they don’t mean (they’re) thinking of lines. They just mean the whole act of living is towards the next poem, whether you know it or not.”
In accordance with her practice, Ford is not writing in preparation for her next poetry project.
—Martha Delgado, SSW
On Wednesday, Writers Week featured acclaimed Mexican-American novelist and six-time Lambda Award winner, Michael Nava on campus for Writers Week. Nava is best known for his series of noir mystery novels focusing on the openly gay criminal defense attorney, Henry Rios. His work on the Henry Rios series has gained significant praise from the Latino and LGBT communities. After an introduction on Nava’s legal background in the judicial system and his literary work, Nava read a passage from his reimagined first novel, “Lay Your Sleeping Head,” which follows Rios as he investigates and searches for his lover’s killer. Following the reading, Nava took questions from the audience. After answering questions on his literary experience, Nava asked whether anyone was a writer. With more than half of the audience’s hands going up Nava began a discussion and offered advice to aspiring authors.
Nava offered his insights on writing interesting characters, researching, the writing process and other aspects of creating an engaging story. He also spoke about his protagonist’s identity as an openly gay outsider, which embodies the trope of noir protagonists as complex figures on the fringes of society. Nava pointed to authors Walter Mosley and Sara Paretsky, who used the genre to represent outsiders of society in their novels. Following the event, audience members lined up to buy Nava’s book, “Lay Your Sleeping Head,” and came up to Nava for questions.
Recently, Nava is working on a 17-episode podcast adapted from his first Henry Rios novel, “Lay Your Sleeping Head.” The fifth episode is currently available on his website michaelnavawriter.com.
—Antonio Velaochaga, CW
Sara Borjas is a lecturer at UCR in the Department of Creative Writing. She received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Fresno State and her master of fine arts from UCR. Borjas is a 2017 CantoMundo Fellow, a 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference Fellow at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a recipient of 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize, a 2013 Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley Fellow and a runner-up for the 2010 Larry Levis Undergraduate Memorial Prize. Borjas has also been a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.
Borjas read some poems from her collection and discussed their background as well as her background as a fourth-generation Chicana poet. One of the poems she read, “Mexican Bingo” talked about being shamed for not speaking Spanish, especially when her family would play Loteria. During her childhood, Borjas and her young relatives would not be allowed to play Loteria with the adults unless they spoke Spanish or called the Loteria cards aloud. Borjas’ exploration of themes of immigrant identity are prevalent in her works.
In another poem that Borjas read, “Pocha Cafe,” she detailed a fake cafe for pochas, a term that Borjas described as being used by Mexicans to refer to Mexican-Americans who lost or forgot their heritage. Borjas was first called a pocha during her first job waitressing at a Denny’s, where a friend of hers would use the term to deride Borjas’ separation from her family’s culture. Borjas did not find out about the term’s meaning until years later. “I never felt bad before to be called a pocha because I didn’t know what it meant,” she explained. “I don’t feel bad now. I’m just going to reclaim that.”
Borjas’s debut poetry collection “Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff” published by Noemi Press, will be released in March 2019.
—Martha Delgado, SSW
Angel Garcia is the award-winning author of the poetry collection “Teeth Never Sleep” published by the University of Arkansas Press and winner of the 2018 CantoMundo Poetry Prize. In addition, Garcia has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the Community of Writers-Squaw Valley and Vermont Studio Center. He co-founded the nonprofit organization, Gente Organizada, which aims “to educate, empower, and engage communities through grassroots organizing.” Garcia received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Redlands, a master of fine arts from UCR and is currently working on his dissertation as an English doctoral student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Garcia read some poems from his collection to the audience that filled up the room. During the reading, Garcia joked that he did not have any poems in the collection that were not sad.
Garcia also shared how his mother taught him how to be independent so as to never depend on a woman. In his poem, “Ablutions,” he explores this lesson through the experience of learning from his parents how to clean the house.
In his work, Garcia addressed the issue of toxic masculinity and his intention to make social change through small gestures that would impact the lives of the men around him. “It’s very easy to say I’m not that person, and you might not be, but other men are,” Garcia explained. “How do we hold them accountable? For me, being a good person is a lifetime (of) work, and I’m trying to put in overtime.”
—Martha Delgado, SSW