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National Book Award winner, ND alum Tess Gunty discusses ‘The Rabbit Hutch’

Wednesday night in a crowded Eck Visitors Center auditorium, author and South Bend native Tess Gunty discussed her debut novel, “The Rabbit Hutch,” which recently won the National Book Award for Fiction.

The novel has also won the Waterstones debut fiction prize and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize.

Published on July 21, “The Rabbit Hutch” follows three summer days in the lives of the residents of the La Lapinière apartments, an affordable housing complex in fictional Vacca Vale, Indiana.

Throughout the early and mid-20th century, Vacca Vale was home to the thriving Zorn Automobiles company. However, in the decades since Zorn’s collapse, Vacca Vale has become another dying Rust Belt city.

Gunty, a 2015 graduate of Notre Dame and graduate of Mishawaka’s Marian High School, said South Bend greatly inspired Vacca Vale. Everything from Vacca Vale’s physical map to the fact that its economy was once dominated by a now-defunct car company — a reference to South Bend’s Studebaker history — reflects Gunty’s hometown.

“When I was younger, I never had read anything that was set in a place like my town, and I think when you never see your home reflected back to you, you assume that stories just don’t happen in the post-industrial Midwest, or there’s no market for that,” Gunty said.

She said when she was in college, she realized “these lives, these kinds of more-neglected places in America are worthy of attention” despite their lack of representation in literature.

Gunty added she chose to set “The Rabbit Hutch” in a fictional city so she could incorporate elements of other Rust Belt cities such as Gary, Indiana, Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio, into the story.

Unlike South Bend, “there’s no university in this book, so part of Vacca Vale is a thought experiment to imagine if South Bend had not had another source of identity, employment and economic energy to fall back on when Studebaker closed, what would have happened,” Gunty said.

The road to getting published

Wednesday night, director of Notre Dame’s creative writing program Roy Scranton and dean of the College of Arts and Letters Sarah Mustillo introduced Gunty, who was an English major with a concentration in creative writing while at Notre Dame.

Mustillo described Gunty’s return to Notre Dame as a “celebration” and a testament to the strength of the creative writing program.

“Over the past few decades, the program has become one that we are all very proud of, a program that encourages and develops writing about a variety of themes, among them social justice, spirituality, violence, art, suffering, psychology, philosophy and the environment,” Mustillo said.

Scranton explained that, while a student at Notre Dame, Gunty tutored in the Writing Center, wrote for Notre Dame Magazine, documented the history of the Center for Social Concerns and won a poetry award through the English Department.

Gunty said getting to speak at Notre Dame was the “most meaningful event” she has participated in related to “The Rabbit Hutch.” Notre Dame was where she most developed as a writer, she said.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Gunty earned a master’s degree in creative writing from New York University. It was while at NYU that she began developing and writing “The Rabbit Hutch,” a process, she said, that took over five years.

While working on the novel, Gunty worked as a research assistant and a nanny and didn’t always have a lot of time to write. She said she also started writing many novels and stories that she never finished or published.

She said these unfinished works represented an important step in the creation of “The Rabbit Hutch” and formed the “subterranean dirt” upon which the novel was built.

“I really credit my experiences at Notre Dame with really emphasizing process over anything else and emphasizing the importance of writing as an end in and of itself,” Gunty said. “I never assumed that I would be published.”

‘Entrapment and freedom’

The main character of “The Rabbit Hutch,” is 18-year-old Blandine Watkins, a recently aged-out former foster kid and a voracious reader with a special interest in the works of medieval Catholic mystics. Blandine lives in La Lapinière apartment C4 with three other former foster kids, Malik, Jack and Todd.

In addition to Blandine and her roommates, other La Lapinière residents, who the novel also follows, include Joan, the middle-aged editor of an obituary website; Hope, a young mother struggling to adjust to life with a newborn; and an older couple, former Zorn engineer Reggie and his wife Ida.

“I think that these characters are allowed to explore lots of different forms of entrapment and freedom,” Gunty said.

She said Blandine is most aware of her entrapment and most trying to free herself from it.

“Various systems … have been harmful to her, capitalism and the fossil fuel industry — which is kind of degrading her town, and also the patriarchy, which has made having a female body extremely dangerous for her,” Gunty said.

Because of this, Blandine has a “kind of visceral, animal” reaction to being “trapped in a cage,” Gunty continued.

“For every character, that’s playing out in one way or another,” she said.

Contact Claire Reid at creid6@nd.edu.

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Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey delivers poetry reading on background, identity

Natasha Trethewey, two-term 19th U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, gave a poetry reading focused on her identity and inspiration as a poet Wednesday night for the Notre Dame community.

“I think of myself as an elegiac poet as well as a poet concerned with remembrance and memorialization with the intersections between and often the contentions between public history and our personal history,” she said during the reading. 

The event, sponsored by the departments of Africana Studies, English, gender studies, American Studies, highlighted Trethewey’s main messages across her many literary works, with poetry serving as the central medium. 

She started the night by thanking the Notre Dame community and noting the shared intellectual curiosity. 

“It’s just so exciting how many things are going on, [on] campus and you’re still willing to come and spend a little bit of time with me,” she said. “In the short time that I’ve been on campus, I’ve witnessed the commitment to intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge. It’s palpable here.” 

She shared some of her most famous poems, “Mississippi” and “the pursuit of knowledge,” both of which focus on her complex upbringing, “Here, a passage underlined there / a single star on the page / as in a night sky, cloud-swept and hazy / where only the brightest appears / a tiny spark…,” she read. 

Trethewey went on to eplain how many interpretations of history are projected, and how poetry has the power to unveil the stories that have seemingly vanished. 

“For me, writing is also about recovering those lost, buried, forgotten [and] erased histories,” she said. 

When asked about her intricacies in researching for her intersectional works, Trethewey explained that, “we want to imagine that the muse will visit us. And part of that preparation has everything to do with research… I often have very specific historical things that I am researching. But research even extends to the way I use the OED [Oxford English Dictionary].” 

When the conversation shifted to an open Q&A for the audience, the topic of Trethewey’s poetry desensitizing violence arose. She explained that poetry can send an overlooked message in a distinct voice.

“I think it [poetry] can evoke in us a kind of empathy, that we may not get to each other in ordinary conversation,” Trethewey said. 

Additionally, a question arose about how to convey knowledge and combat false knowledge. Trethewey said that poetry can open the reader to a larger perspective, often a missing one. She then noted her parents’ — at the time illegal — miscegenation in Mississippi and its legal implications and how “facts can just roll over us.” 

Throughout the whole night, Trethewey repeatedly mentioned her formative childhood and it being a central muse in some of her most famous works. Particularly, her mother’s death and her father’s background had significant impacts on her.

With such complications in her life, poetry expresses not only Trethewey’s background but also her view on the world, she says. To Trethewey, poetry has a way of, “touching not only the intellect but also the heart.” 

Contact Redmond at rbernho2@nd.edu.

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Author Ashley C. Ford speaks at Saint Mary’s College

New York Times best-selling author Ashley Ford visited Saint Mary’s Thursday night for a reading of her memoir “Somebody’s Daughter,” followed by a Q&A session. In 2021, Ford published a full-length memoir about her childhood and the struggles she faced due to poverty, racism and assault. 

Ford’s visit was the first of this year’s Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the English Department to bring in published authors for students to interact with and ask questions.

Program Director Rebecca Lehmann said they chose Ashley Ford because “she is a great model of how to write a full-length memoir, how to go from writing individual essays to writing a much longer piece.”

Ford was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “She is a nice model of somebody from a local area that’s gone on to make a bigger splash,” Lehmann said.

The Visiting Writers Series partnered with other departments on this presentation, as Ford deals with topics that span many disciplines. Lehmann led the efforts to bring Ford to Saint Mary’s with Dr. Jamie Wagman, chair of gender and women’s studies, as Ford’s work, especially “Somebody’s Daughter,” deals with her struggles with womanhood and puberty. 

Ford also writes about incarceration, as her father was in prison most of her life. Because of this, Lehmann and Wagman asked the department of justice studies to co-sponsor.

Ford started off the night by reading the second chapter of her memoir. She explained that she picked this part to read because she felt that “it gives the best idea of how the book is going to go.”

The chapter dealt with her early childhood, immediately introducing themes of neglect and abuse. Ford told readers, “If you get through here, you’ll like the rest!” 

After the reading, Ford fielded questions from the audience. Ranging from the experiences that led to her writing to her writing process itself, Ford answered all questions with a smile, not shying away from inquiries about her traumatic childhood. She talked largely about her family, as her memoir relives her neglectful and abusive childhood. 

“I love my mom, but it is complicated,” Ford said, discussing how an integral part of her writing process was realizing she wasn’t a bad person. Ford admitted that there was never a “real risk of losing anything” with her mom because they were never close. 

Ford also said that she had a family reunion a month after “Somebody’s Daughter” was published and her family was accepting of her memoir. In fact, they were more concerned with whether she was friends with Oprah.

Because of her openness about her past and willingness to answer all questions, her presentation was warmly received.

“I loved it,” said senior Lexi Kilcoin. “I love how she talked through her trauma with us. She brought the room to a state of reflection.” 

Editor’s note: Lexi Kilcoin is former Scene writer for The Observer.

The Visiting Writers Series continues in the spring with presentations from poet Sandra Simonds and poet and fiction writer Melissa Ginsburg. 

Contact Katelyn Waldschmidt at kwaldschmidt01@saintmarys.edu

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Saint Mary’s students revive, rebrand College English club

The Saint Mary’s English club has been dormant for the past couple of years. This semester, it has revived by several Saint Mary’s seniors. 

The seniors behind the club’s reestablishment started with conversations in English classes by president Madeline Law, vice president Gracie Conlon, secretary Shannon Haverty and treasurer Genevieve Coleman.

Editor’s note: Law is currently a Viewpoint copyeditor and Coleman is an assistant managing editor at The Observer, respectively.

Haverty discussed the goals the club wants to achieve within the Saint Mary’s community. 

“[The co-chairs] all had found ourselves discussing books outside of class that we really wanted to continue talking about in class,” Haverty said. “We wanted to rekindle this love for reading and writing that we think all majors have. The co-chairs found that in our classes, but wanted to share it with the rest of our community.” 

Belles’ Booknook can be considered a place to wind down and destress from all the academic and social overload that can occur in one’s college experience, according to Haverty.

Haverty discussed how academic stressors and personal commitments can make one forget the love and passion they have for recreational reading.

“A lot of students and other majors had a love for reading or writing at one point in their lives, but the academic stressors had put a lot of weight on them, that they forget about reading and just skim read or not find that love for it,” she said.  

Furthering the discussion on Belles’ Booknook’s mission for the community, Haverty stated that she hoped the club has an impact that not only reaches the Saint Mary’s community but also the South Bend community as well. 

“I would say the thing that makes us very different is that we want to work with our fellow clubs in our community …We’ve talked about a few ideas we want to lay out and one of those is what if we did some workshops in the South Bend Community’s school systems and brought reading and literature and made it more accessible to our schools because a few of us are education majors as well.” 

Belles’ Booknook is not going to always be solely focused on sit down discussions over books. There will be events hosted by the club. Haverty discusses the possibility of hosting guest speakers who are authors as well as having creative themed parties. 

“We discussed having a dress-like-a literary-character day and or event,” Haverty stated. “We also talked about having a guest speaker who is an author and maybe the author could be a previous Belle.” 

This although will not be the sole purpose of the club since its main focus will be on their “book talks” group meetings which are bi-weekly. These meetings will take place in Belles Backyard and will either highlight any national holidays or it can be a tool to connect with fellow Saint Mary’s students.

“Book talk is going to be a place where we can highlight any national holidays that correspond with reading and writing like Banned Book Week or National Write a Letter to your Teacher day or something like that … but book talk will be a place more so where we can all come together,” Haverty said.

The Belles’ Booknook’s first book talk will be on Sept. 8, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Belles’ Backyard.

If students are interested in joining the club, they can email bellesbooknooksmc@gmail.com or sign up through Belle Tower.