The event, held in collaboration with the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program, spotlights the work of two current graduate students and two University of Minnesota alumni.
The University of Minnesota’s Department of English and Creative Writing Program hosted the First Books Reading event on March 2 to showcase publications from four authors, two of whom are current graduate students and two who are University alumni.
The authors, Erica Berry, Nen G. Ramirez, Emily Strasser, and Chaun Webster, discussed various themes in their novels and poetry collections, ranging from fear to harmful stereotypes to fragmented and secret histories.
Berry’s novel was published in February. Ramirez’s, Strasser’s and Webster’s books will be published in April.
“Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear” by Erica Berry
Berry’s debut novel centers on depictions of wolves, both physical and symbolic, and how these depictions reflect on human perceptions of fear and identity.
The novel combines research, personal stories, folklore, science and psychology to better understand the gap between the physical wolf and the way it is depicted in people’s subconscious.
Berry, a college-educated MFA, studied wolves for her environmental studies thesis while an undergraduate at Bowdoin College. She later began to investigate the fears and the various depictions associated with them in more detail.
“I really started to fixate on the specter of fear in my own life, especially after having a few scary encounters with strange men I didn’t know,” Berry said.
Berry hopes “Wolfish” will help readers feel less isolated in their fears and challenge the way people view danger and safety. Berry believes that studying, reading and writing about fear, as she does in her book, can help people feel less alone in their anxiety.
“All Women Are Born Wailing” by Nen G. Ramirez
Ramirez’s first collection of poems tackles the “crazy Latina” stereotype, the way Latina communities have internalized that stereotype in negative ways, anti-Latina violence, and family history.
Ramirez, a university MFA candidate, wanted to be a writer since second grade and focused mainly on fiction writing until they joined their high school’s slam poetry team.
Ramirez wrote most of the poems in the collection in 2016 as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. However, they did not see them all as a unified work at the time.
Ramirez, like Berry, hopes their poems help people feel less alone.
“I’m writing for and putting this book together for Latinos and people with mental illness, like people who belong to the same communities that I’m in and writing about,” Ramirez said. “I want readers to feel less alone.”
Ramirez said the topics discussed at the gathering, including trauma and race, are often sidelined in public discussion. They hope this book will allow audiences to engage with these long-neglected topics.
“That silence just creates a lot more pain,” Ramirez said.
“Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History” by Emily Strasser
Strasser’s debut book follows her personal journey as she reckons with the legacy of her grandfather’s involvement in building nuclear weapons in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Strasser, who is based in Minneapolis, received his MFA in nonfiction from the university.
The novel is a decades-long effort that began in Strasser’s senior year of college after she began thinking about a photograph she saw as a child in her grandparents’ house of her grandfather standing in front of nuclear tests.
Today, Strasser said she can’t say whether the photo even exists or if it’s a “fabricated memory.”
Strasser said this book and the story behind it have special value, especially given current global events. Ultimately, the book is about digging into untold stories and seeking the truth.
“It’s a book about complicated stories and telling the truth about a complicated story,” Strasser said. “It’s about uncovering the secrets of our own families, of this country’s past, often a very dark past, and I argue that we really need to dig into those unexamined stories, as messy and contradictory and complicated as they can be be.”
“Wail Song: or wading in the water at the end of the world” by Chaun Webster
Webster’s book questions what can and cannot be recovered from fragmented historical archives that exclude stories of black lives.
Webster, an MFA candidate at the university, said that it is difficult to trace how this project started and that there were many stages of development during the writing of the book, including extensive amounts of reading.
Webster said the book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” by Christina Sharpe, a professor of English literature and black studies at York University, had a particular influence on concepts crucial to his novel.
Webster wants readers to engage with the questions he poses in his book about what can be recovered from black history.
“Those questions shape our world,” Webster said. “Those questions shape the world we live in that we have inherited, a world that has been fundamentally shaped by the slave trade.”