The long gray Michigan winter may have settled over our campus, but four talented and nationally-recognized writers are arriving to lift us out of the dullness. Over the next few months, two events will bring our college community together around the power of poetry and story. Get ready to be surprised, moved, bewildered and delighted: the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series is back for the spring.
Coming up first on February 4 are Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Lesley Nneka Arimah, two writers whose work represents a wide span of genres, cultures and experiences. A poet and activist, Castillo was born in Mexico and immigrated to California. In an interview with PBS, he describes that as he navigated the United States as an undocumented person, English fluency and writing became “a way to kind of offset any questions or any suspicions about my documentation status. By way of fear, along came poetry.” The poetry that flowered out of his childhood fear is now critically acclaimed for the way Castillo has been able to capture diverse voices through fragments of striking imagery. In addition to the numerous awards he has earned for his writing, Castillo has also drawn recognition for his work in eliminating barriers to success for undocumented poets.
Having spent her childhood moving back and forth between Nigeria and the United States for her father’s military work, Arimah is also familiar with the feeling of being an outsider in a new country. Talking about this experience to the Star Tribune, Arimah said, “You learn to be an observer. And as somebody who eventually moved into documenting the human experience, being an observer is a useful tool.” Her debut collection of short stories, “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” features characters set in a wide variety of places, from Africa to a magical alternative reality to a post-apocalyptic dystopian world. Although her stories cross physical and figurative boundaries, they are unified around Arimah’s powerful ability to portray the tensions and complexities of human relationships.
Arriving next on March 26 are a pair of writers whose work embraces the same kind of raw honesty and vulnerability through two very different approaches. Award-winning nonfiction writer Dawn Davies is the author of “Mothers of Sparta,” her debut “memoir in pieces.” Although she writes about motherhood, she warns on her website: “If you’re looking for a parenting book, this is not it.” Instead, it is a book about relationships and loneliness, fear and love, the struggle with bodies that break down, tragedies that can’t be controlled and the moments of grace and beauty that emerge out of complexity and pain. With humor, transparency, and poetic precision, Davies tells the story of her life through sixteen powerful essays whose images linger long after they end.
Poet Kaveh Akbar also threads his own story throughout his work in “Calling a Wolf a Wolf.” Interspersed throughout the collection are a series of poems with titles that begin “Portrait of the Alcoholic,” which trace Akbar’s path through addiction into recovery. In addition to exploring themes of longing, hunger, and temptation, Akbar also reflects on faith, memory, and his childhood as an Iranian immigrant. He writes the kind of poetry that defies easy explanation, but his layers of metaphor and lyrical language invite readers to press through confusion into wonder. Akbar has also worked to support other poets: he founded the website Divedapper to highlight talented poetic voices through longform interviews.
Great writing offers an invitation to expand our perspective beyond the boundaries of our little Midwest campus and inhabit experiences that might be vastly different from our own. In the process, we learn to be more patient in uncertainty, more understanding of others’ lives, and more open to empathy. The Visiting Writers’ Series offers you a chance to connect not just with the work of these authors but with the wider community of students and faculty who gather around a shared love of literature.
Both VWS events will feature a Q&A with the authors at 3:30 p.m. in the Fried-Hemenway auditorium of Martha Miller and a reading at 7 p.m. in the Jack Miller Recital Hall. To learn more about the events and volunteer opportunities, visit https://hope.edu/arts/jack-ridl-visiting-writers-series/index.html and find @jrvws on Instagram. Everyone–English majors and math majors, students and community members, passionate book lovers and people who can’t remember the last time they read for pleasure–is welcome to attend.