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Festival focuses on nonfiction

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The fourth annual Notre Dame Women Writers Festival shifted focus Monday and will continue to explore the realm of nonfiction through the work of four prominent female authors today.

“Nonfiction in All Its Guises,” sponsored by the Creative Writing Program and the College of Arts and Letters, features four scribes with unique approaches to writing, Valerie Sayers, coordinator of the festival, said.

“We thought it would be interesting to get four writers with completely different approaches to nonfiction,” she said. “These writers all work in multiple genres, but we want to focus on their nonfiction work.”

Two of these writers read excerpts from their work in McKenna Hall Monday. Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer who immigrated to the United States at age 10, read from her memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying.”

The piece illustrated her relationship with the uncle who raised her in Haiti and her experience as an immigrant in the United States.

Jenny Boully, an experimental nonfiction writer who earned her Master of Fine Arts at Notre Dame, also read Monday, discussing ways to play with nonfiction.

“One of her [Boully’s] books is made up of footnotes to a nonexistent text,” Sayers said. “She is a very droll writer.”

Today, the festival will showcase the work of Sonja Livingston and Susan Orlean. A panel will also provide Notre Dame undergraduates the opportunity to interact directly with the featured writers as they answer questions about their approaches to nonfiction, Sayers said.

“We want to give writers at Notre Dame, especially women, a chance to speak directly to the writers and ask them questions,” Sayers said. “The numbers are still daunting in the literary world for women writers because a disproportionate number of male writers are published by large and small presses, so we want to show that it’s possible for women to get into the business as well.”

Livingston will read from her memoir, “Ghostbread,” which reflects on her experience of life in a large, poverty-stricken family through short, intense chapters. Orlean, a staff writer for “The New Yorker,” will also read from her offbeat body of nonfiction work Tuesday night.

Sayers said one primary goal of the festival is to address the gender imbalance of visiting authors to Notre Dame.

“We’ve had predominantly male writers over the years,” she said. “The situation is getting better, but we’re still in the unfortunate position of having to point out that there are less visiting female writers.”

Sayers said the festival’s focus on nonfiction written by women also appeals to students interested in journalism, American studies, gender studies and poverty studies. The respective departments of these disciplines were instrumental in sponsoring the festival, she said.

Festivals like this one highlight the oral element of literature and help readers think about how they read literature, Sayers said.

“It’s especially interesting in this digital age to think about how the human voice compares to the multimedia possibilities we have access to through our computers,” Sayers said. “In all festivals and programs, live readers are mesmerizing and provide a different kind of experience from both the solitary and multimedia reading experiences.”

The relative balance of men and women in the audience at past Women Writers Festivals shows promise for the future of women in publishing, Sayers said.

“It’s one of the most gratifying aspects of the festival to see that balance of male and female attendees,” she said. “All four of these writers have a broad nonfiction audience that appeals to both men and women, so this festival’s audience should be balanced as well.”

The writers’ panel will take place today at 2 p.m. in 100-104 McKenna Hall. Livingston and Orlean will begin reading at 7:30 p.m. in the McKenna Auditorium. All readings are free and open to the public.