On Thursday, October 6, this year’s Visiting Writers Series launched with a winning author, Dao Strom. Born in Vietnam, Strom is currently a Portland-based writer whose newest work, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People (published in 2015), is a crossroads of music, poetry, and visual art. I attended all but one of the Visiting Writers Series events last year and none of them stood out the way Strom’s set did. There was a microphone and DJ equipment set up stage left with two chairs. Center stage stood a taller microphone. Behind that, against the wall, the screen had been pulled down and images of Strom wearing wings and walking on the beach were projected onto the wall in time with instrumental music playing in the background. Her reading was a beautiful mixture of her own voice singing original work, a collection of instruments, and readings she gave, with key words or definitions or phrases projected onto the screen behind her. At one point, a man in a hazmat suit came and constructed four poles around her as she stood at the center of the stage. He began wrapping the poles in white paper, trapping her inside a white cocoon as she spoke, the projector casting images onto the layers of paper surrounding her. One of the poles accidently collapsed so the paper fell prematurely but the projected images on the paper jail around her was still a profound effect.
Strom calls her recent work a hybrid form of literature.After her reading, in answer to a question from an audience member, she said that she can’t really write short stories recently. She’s more focused on exploring the intersections between music and prose and images. Her written work in We Were Meant To Be a Gentler People is comprised of prose that defies traditional grammatical conventions. The book comes with her musical album, East/West. This work focuses on disparate voices. Strom herself fled Vietnam when she was a child so much of her work centers on themes of violence, diaspora and understanding identity.
The Visiting Writers Series began a few years ago. It is organized by creative writing professors Pete Rock and Samiya Bashir. The program is designed to bring prominent and diverse writers to the Reed student body. Pete Rock, when asked about the series said, “it's a chance to listen to and interact with contemporary authors (who are not taught in most courses at Reed—poets and prose writers who are walking the earth RIGHT NOW).” The series, according to Pete, is about trying to bring diverse authors to the student body. By this he means authors with a wide range of styles (realism, fantasy, hybridizations), ethnic or racial backgrounds, locations, age, and notoriety. This year Samiya and Pete have chosen four poets and four prose authors. Budget costs limit the number of out-of-town authors the professors can invite, but the lineup this year is impressive.
The actual events are usually accompanied by poetry and writing salons on the Tuesday or Wednesday before the readings. The salons consist of author-led small workshops or discussions in Greywood, open to the Reed community. On the Thursday of that week at 6:30pm the authors give their readings in Eliot Chapel. These do not last more than an hour and include a Q & A afterwards, many authors even have their books out for sale and are willing to sign books and talk to students afterwards. Pete Rock describes the benefits of attending this event as, “less than an hour, free coffee, cider and cookies, no pressure.” I can’t tell you folks enough, the cider is great.
This Thursday (October 27) Sophia Samatar, the author of two novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories and multiple short stories, will be giving a reading. She teaches at James Madison University in the English Department. Much of her work focuses on African and Arabic literature.
For students looking to hear amazing authors, learn more about those authors’ writing approaches, or just take an hour break from work and drink some hot cider, these events are perfect. Every author chosen is incredible in their own right.
For more information about the Visiting Writers Series, check out the website: http://www.reed.edu/creative_writing/visiting-writers/