College Hosts Inaugural Writers’ Week

Community members can attend virtual readings from a diverse range of authors as part of a week-long series celebrating creative writing. The event, funded through a partnership between the English Department, Cooper Foundation, and the Lang Center, is being spearheaded by Associate Professor of English Chinelo Okparanta, Swarthmore’s newest Director of Creative Writing.

“It came to my attention … that there was no set period during the academic year in which Swarthmore could celebrate its creative writers while also engaging with the brilliance of other non-Swarthmore affiliated writers,” said Okparanta in an email to The Phoenix. “Having had some wonderful experiences as a participant at the Writers’ Weeks or Writers’ festivals at other universities and colleges, I wanted to see how I could bring this initiative to Swarthmore.”

The series kicked off on Monday, March 21 with remarks from President Valerie Smith, followed by three readings from Swarthmore alums and writers Maya Shanbhag Lang ’00, Sam Taylor ’97, and Keetje Kuipers ’02. Lang opened the reading with excerpts from her memoir “What We Carry”, which was named an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review in 2020. Taylor and Kuipers, both writers of fiction of poetry, followed with selected readings from their work. 

Computer science and psychology major Tiffany Zheng ’22 decided to attend Tuesday, March 23’s program after learning that Carmen Maria Machado, whose 2019 memoir “In the Dream House she recently read, would be speaking. 

“[Machado’s] writing style was super unique, it encompassed so many different styles and genres, and the story was also really compelling, and I just really wanted to learn more about her creative process,” said Zheng, reached by email. 

Lydia Churchill ’22, found about the Writers’ Week through an email from English Department Administrative Assistant Donna McKeever and also decided to attend to hear Machado read. 

“I was so excited when I came across Carmen Maria Machado’s name! I’d read “Her Body and Other Parties” earlier this semester and was blown away by each short story,” said Churchill. “Hearing her speak about how she finds inspiration in horror and fairytales — as well as the way her work utilizes tools from both genres for a desired effect — was fascinating. I definitely want to re-read the book now and also immediately ordered her memoir after the talk.”

Tuesday’s event also featured readings from novelist Andrea Lee, in conversation with President Smith and Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi. 

“Speakers were chosen based on suggestions from students and faculty alike,” said Okparanta. “For the alumni readings on opening night, I took recommendations from members of the English department … for the other authors, I took a rough poll within the English department and came up with a list of authors that students were very excited about.”

Wednesday’s program highlighted work by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Balakian — who spoke with Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt — as well as readings by novelist and short story writer Lan Samantha Chang and novelist Naomi Jackson. 

Sophia Puang ’24 decided to attend the second day of readings on Tuesday, March 22, after being encouraged by a friend. 

“I think a big thing that I noticed was that a lot of the authors wrote something that was obviously important to them, but it also hurt them to write it because it was so personal,” said Puang. “Another thing is that time worked in interesting ways in a couple of pieces, either giving the reader background on the character or showcasing the development of a mind or way of thinking which I thought was really interesting.”

Thursday’s programming, scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., will feature readings from Danez Smith, writer Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, and Swarthmore-based novelist Rachel Pastan. Smith is an African American, non-binary, queer, and HIV-positive poet and writer originally from Saint Paul, Minnesota. They are the author of two poetry collections: “Don’t Call Us Dead” (2017), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and [insert] boy(2014). Sekyiamah is a Ghanian writer, feminist, and blogger who co-founded the award-winning blog “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women” in 2013. Pastan — who has previously taught fiction at the college and currently serves as a thesis supervisor in the department — is the author of four novels, including, most recently, “In the Field(2021). 

On Friday, guest writers Monica Suk, Angie Cruz, and Ryan Ku will deliver readings followed by the announcement of the student winners of the college’s annual fiction, poetry, and essay-writing prizes. 

“The goal of Writers’ Week is to create a space of time during which students and faculty can gather with national established writers and celebrate literature,” said Okparanta. “Writers’ Week has our students at its heart, as I feel that our students can learn a lot via their conversations with the established guest writers.”

In planning this year’s Writers’ Week, Okparanta drew on inspiration from similar events hosted at Amherst College, Northwestern University, and the University of North Carolina. Although some of the writers invited to participate in the event had scheduling conflicts, Okparanta explained that she felt lucky to be able to secure the participation of most. 

“I hope that this week is the beginning of a new tradition at Swarthmore,” she said. “For now, I’m planning for a biennial event, but my goal is for it to become an annual event. Of course, all of this will depend on funding as well as on student and faculty interest and participation.”

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the work that went into organizing this event but I wish it were in-person rather than online. We are at the stage of the pandemic where it is safe to host in-person events. The only reason why they’d do it online now is because it’s logistically easier and less expensive. Instead of bringing in a dozen writers throughout the week they should’ve focused on just bringing three writers for a big in-person event. Everyone has had enough of sitting on Zoom. As cool as it is to listen to these authors read and speak it is nothing compared to an in-person event. Especially considering the College’s newly relaxed policies, this should have been in person. I didn’t attend any of the readings because I don’t want to sit on Zoom anymore. If it were in person I would’ve gone. Let’s have more in person events please. An event is more than just the semantic content it contains, it’s about the experience as a whole of sitting in a physical space with friends and sharing a space with an admirable person. That’s what makes it exciting. This featured image of a Zoom room filled with people with their cameras off is so depressing that it genuinely makes me sad. Why are we inviting famous authors to read their work to a webcam facing a sea of gray squares. Is this really the best we can do. Come on.

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