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Festival to celebrate writers

Becky Hogan | Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The University’s first women writers’ conference, “A Festival of Our Own,” begins today and will continue to celebrate the accomplishments of female authors Wednesday and Thursday.

The conference, sponsored by the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program, will feature three female writers – Alice McDermott, Katherine Vaz and Lily Hoang.

Tonight features a public reception and with excerpts from McDermott, followed by a question and answer session. Wednesday night’s highlight is a panel discussion, including all three writers and moderated by Sayers and senior Meghan O’Donoghue. The conference will finish with readings on Thursday night from Vaz and Hoang.

“We thought it was a natural for Notre Dame. So many students are of Catholic background and are practicing Catholics,” English professor Valerie Sayers said. “We thought it would be really interesting to look at how women depict Catholicism [in their writing].”

McDermott, who will open tonight’s events, is the winner of the National Book Award and the American Book Award for her novel “Charming Billy.” She is a Whiting Writers Award winner and author of six novels and the Richard A. Macksey Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. She has also been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award.

McDermott’s Irish Catholic heritage influences her writing, as much of her works focus on Catholics in a changing world, Sayers said.

“Her last novel really explored what it’s like to be part of a devout Catholic family from end of World War II up to the Vietnam War,” Sayers said. “It is about how faith changes through earth shattering events.”

Vaz is a Briggs-Copeland lecturer in fiction at Harvard University and a former fellow of the Radcliffe Institute. She is the author of two novels, “Saudade” and “Mariana.”

Sayers said Vaz’s writing is “lush and poetic,” and is largely influenced by her Portuguese roots.

Hoang received her Masters of Fine Arts from the University and has taught at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Indiana University-South Bend. She is the author of “Parabola,” which won the Chiasmus Press First Book Contest, and “Changing,” which will be out this fall from Fairy Tale Review Press.

Much of Huang’s work focuses on how martyrdom is important to her background, Sayers said. Huang “is a wildly experimental writer,” Sayers said.

“[Vaz and Hoang] are so different in their approach and style. It will be fun to hear them back-to-back, each for half an hour,” Sayers said. “We’re hoping to make a big splash and keep [the conference] going for many years to come.”

Sayers said the challenges that female writers continue to face today sparked the idea for the conference.

“Men are still taken more seriously as literary figures than women are,” she said. “There still is much more of an emphasis on male writers in classroom. We hope to counter balance this.

“You’d think we’d be past that point by now. One thing we’ve noticed over the years is that [the University] has invited a lot more male writers than women.”

Sayers said it is natural that more male writers have been invited to the University throughout its history, considering that it only started accepting women in the early 1970s. She said, however, that there seems to continue to be a general trend in hosting since there have been approximately three times as many male writers invited on campus.

Sayers said she knew of a number of classes as well as book groups on and off campus who are planning to attend Tuesday night.

“We really think of the festival as directed towards undergraduate writers,” she said. “The idea was that we would get three writers who would approach the theme from different places.”