The 44th annual writers’ week festival celebrates achievements in literature

Courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr

The Writers Week Festival event is an annual literary event that features readings from many different published authors. Entering its 44th year, the festival is the longest-running free literary event in California, and every event is open to the public. This year, the event was held via Crowdcast from Feb. 16 to 19.

Using an online platform resulted in the event being a little different from usual. Through most of the sessions, writers submitted prerecorded readings of excerpts from their novels or a few original poems. For example, during the 1 p.m. session on Feb. 17, Shin Yu Pi read from her latest poetry book, “Enso.” Furthermore, during the 6:30 p.m. session on Feb. 18, John Jennings shared his screen and showed a brief preview of his graphic novel, “After the Rain.” The recorded excerpts differed in content just as did they in execution; for example, although Session 2, which took place on Tuesday, Feb. 16, was focused on immigration and feelings of nonbelonging, the presentations had distinct tones. Author Reyna Grande’s excerpt on her memoir, “A Dream Called Home,” was comforting and relatable; Stephanie Elizondo Griest, on the other hand, spoke emphatically about what she had witnessed at the U.S.-Texas border. 

The prerecorded readings were then followed by live Q&A sessions, where audience members could submit their questions through the “Ask a Question” feature at the bottom of their screens. While the prerecorded readings included closed captioning, the live sessions had American Sign Language interpreters on the side of the screen. 

The Q&As gave the writers an opportunity to share their advice to aspiring writers in the audience. During the 6:30 p.m. session on Thursday, Joseph Cassara encouraged others to learn what time of day they work best and to learn to distinguish between the three parts of the brain which he defined as the critic, the editor and the writer. Cassara wanted aspiring authors to know that they must allow the writer to work before they welcome in the editor and critic.

Other Q&As focused on what inspired the writers and what encouraged them to continue writing despite the ongoing pandemic. On the first question, Elizondo Griest said that issues of social justice were her own personal motivator while Grande said that the reason why she began to write was because she was unable to find stories that spoke to her situation. “Usually the stories I have to tell are the stories that, as a reader, I cannot find … For example, writing about my own experiences as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. — that came from that need I had as a young reader.” 

Courtesy of South Carolina State Library via Flickr

Both writers said that their writing changed because of the pandemic. Grande stated that she wrote with a “sense of urgency,” because she feared she would not be able to finish her upcoming novel if she were to get sick. Elizondo Griest explained that this was the third time all of her events had been cancelled, the first because of the 2008 recession and the second because she was terminally sick. She stated, “This time has been deeply reflective for me. I’ll look back at this time with love and tenderness and gratitude.”

The Writers Week Festival aimed to be an inclusive space, inviting writers from many different backgrounds. During the Writers Resist Reading on Feb. 19, UCR undergraduates, graduate students, faculty writers, alumni and community members were given the opportunity to read works of resistance. The poems that were presented covered a variety of topics such as white supremacy, toxic patriarchy, domestic abuse and the commodification of self-love. Similar to the other writing sessions, part of the event was prerecorded while other poets chose to present their writing live. People in the chat were actively quoting their favorite parts of specific poems and complimenting the writers on their work.

The event ended with the Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony on Feb. 19. The first recipient was Rita Dove, an American poet who received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton and the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. The second recipient was Joy Harjo, a writer who was inducted into the Oklahoma’s Writers’ Hall of Fame. Finally, the third recipient was Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st Poet Laureate of the United States. 

The ceremony began with videos of different people paying tribute to the three writers’ accomplishments. David St. John, a published poet, stated, “You three have reminded us what it means to believe in language.” After the awards, the recipients were given time to share their work with the viewers. Dove read some of her poems and explained how her writing was shaped by her experiences. One poem titled “Demeter’s Poem to Hades” was inspired by her own relationship with her daughter. Following Dove’s reading, Harjo read some of her work aloud and played a recording of a song she wrote. Lastly, Herrera shared some poems that he wrote in a mandala, a geometric configuration of symbols with spiritual connections.

Although the awards could not be handed out in person, they were delivered to the recipients’ homes prior to the event. As they held them up to the camera, the chat showered them with virtual applause. The award presentation was quickly followed by a brief Q&A session with the recipients.

Every book that the authors read during their sessions are available for purchase at Cellar Door Books and the campus bookstore. All of the Writers Week sessions were recorded and can be viewed on the Writers Week website.

Courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr
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