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Third annual festival recognizes, celebrates female authors

Katlyn Smith | Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The third annual Women Writers Festival will help counter the trend of celebrating male authors and give recognition to their female counterparts, Valerie Sayers, a professor of English, said.

“Even anthologies up until just a few years ago and still, anthologies of contemporary writers, will focus on male writers to the expense of female writers,” she said. “We really want to say that women writers are around and that they have something to say to all readers.”

The Festival will feature three prize-winning female authors on Tuesday and Wednesday in McKenna Hall. It will include readings and a panel discussion by writers Lorrie Moore, Lolita Hernandez and Frances Hwang, a creative writing professor at Saint Mary’s.

Sayers said this year’s theme resonates with students.

“This year we focused on writers who do short stories because that’s where so many undergraduate writers start,” Sayers said.

Sayers also said she hopes the festival will be a “visual presence” on campus and raise awareness among the student body.

“The more undergraduates that know about us, the better, and that means males and females,” she said.

Sayers said female writers of literary fiction often struggle to gain attention.   

“Women who write genre fiction, dating novels or any of the chick literature genres really have no problem getting published or getting recognition,” Sayers said. “For women who write literary fiction, I think the challenge is still finding a publisher who will take a woman writer as seriously as a man and finding an audience because it’s still kind of the common wisdom in New York publishing houses that if a women writes about a women’s life, only women are going to read about it.”

Sayers said the online environment is one way to counter this challenge.

“The publishing scene is changing so rapidly with everything that’s going online,” Sayers said.  “There’s really going to be a lot generated by writers themselves and that’s great for women. I think it really allows them to get out there in a way that can leapfrog over any publishers’ preconceived notions of who they are.”

Hwang also addressed perceptions involving female writers.

“I think there is also an assumption that women should be more selfless than men, that they should sacrifice their work and their careers for the sake of their families,” Hwang said. “I think that women writers should just be vigilant and conscientious about valuing their writing and what they do so even when they have other roles to fill.

“They should set aside time in their busy lives to write, and women should regard that time as sacred and meaningful so they don’t feel like they are losing their identity as writers,” she said.   

Hwang encouraged women writers to pursue topics in a new way, even if they are writing about domestic issues, an area perceived to be the crux of female authors’ writing. 

“There can be plenty of innovation and ambition and artistry in a work that focuses on domestic themes,” Hwang said. “My advice to women writers is that they should write about whatever compels their interest, whatever subject most delights them or demands to be explored.

“Whatever it is that you choose to write about, you have to find a way to write about your subject in a way that’s unfamiliar and new and that’s where the ambition of your work lies, in trying to express in a way that surprises your readers.”

Moore will open the festival today with a reading after a public reception. Moore’s honors for the short story include the O. Henry Award and the Rea Award for the Short Story.

Along with Moore and Hwang, Hernandez, another PEN/Beyond Margins award recipient, will discuss the short story in a panel tomorrow followed by a reading by the author.

Hwang will read a story tomorrow from a second collection of stories she is developing. She said the story and the collection, both entitled “Children of Spleen,” will focus on conflict between parents and children.

Hwang’s first collection of stories, “Transparency,” won the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.