AWP20: Pushing Past 70: Reaching Creative Nonfiction Readers

Panel Participants: Anjoli Ray, Michelle Chikaounda, Athena Dixon, Jen Soong

AWP20 ThumbnailDescription: With the advent of e-readers, we now know that many readers stop engaging with books at page 70. Five emerging and established creative nonfiction writers who write from African American, sub-Saharan African, Chinese American, Boricua, & mixed-race Indian American ethnic and cultural backgrounds share insights about challenging racism, colorism, and class marginalization through publishing in the US. This reading addresses head on the challenge of getting readers to push past page 70.

On a warm San Antonio Friday an intimate group gathered to hear creative nonfiction designed to keep an audience enthralled.  With e-books, it’s hard to keep readers engaged past p. 70. The panelists, alumni of the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation workshop for writers of color, read from work seeking to break that barrier. One advantage, noted host Anjoli Ray, is you can write virtually anything after p.70, free of self-imposed limits.

Beginning the session, Michelle Chikaonda, a Globe & MailKalahari ReviewHobart, and Feminessay contributor, joined by conference call. A winner of a nonfiction award from the Tucson Festival of Books and a Walker Scholarship for Writers of Color, Chikaonda read from “Song For My Father,” a captivating memoir of religion, music and her relationship with her father published in Pennsylvania Gazette.

Jen Soong, a New Jersey-raised writer and editor whose essays have appeared in the Washington PostEntropy, and Manifest Station, read from a memoir-in-progress about Chinese-American family ties. The compelling passage described a conversation with her mom, as her mother described a regretted moment of pre-marital sex.

Athena Dixon, northeast Ohio native, founder of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, author of the poetry chapbook No God in This Room and co-host of the New Books in Poetry podcast, read a haunting memoir on an intimate friend’s death, titled “Liturgy,” from her forthcoming book of 19 essays called The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

Anjoli Roy, cohost of a literature and music podcast called It’s Lit, PhD in English from University of Hawai‘i, and winner of a StoryQuarterly prize in nonfiction, read a lyric abecedarian essay (sections in alphabetical order) rejecting the label of creative nonfiction as navel-gazing.  The audience of 20 called our letters to Roy, who obliged by reading relevant sections riffing on qualities of the belly button.

The discussion focused on specific techniques for breaking the page-70 barrier. Chikaounda suggested making work in which readers can see themselves, on topics like grief. Soong admitted to discomfort with revelation and trying to get people to read her work, preferably not her family. Dixon argued for truth, admitting that one family member is now not talking to her. Roy described involving her relatives so closely in her dissertation of family stories that her professors suggested she stop doing so, but her family made avid readers. One option, offered an audience member, is to write about relatives who are dead.  But if you’re honest about dead people, she concluded, you have to be honest with yourself.

Ted Anton, Professor of English at Chicago’s DePaul University, is the author of four books, including Planet of Microbes and The Longevity Seekers (University of Chicago Press, 2017, 2013)

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