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​The 54th Annual UND Writers Conference: The Healing Arts

Writer's Block | March 8th, 2023

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the body impacts the mind. We hear a lot about getting enough sleep (and “sleep hygiene”) and the “gut biome” and other things. But, we’re told it goes the other way too. Neuroscientists and doctors are learning more all the time about how the mind impacts the body. This is perhaps most prevalent in new fields like epigenetics (“how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work”) or “positive psychology and the science of happiness.” And, what their research reveals is that sometimes (although not always) the best treatment for trauma or the way to experience joy might not be a pill, but rather a holistic approach that could include visual images, literature, music, movement, mindfulness and more. The results seem to conclude that the arts heal in ways big and small. But those outside of Western science didn't need the quantitative data to confirm what lived experience has taught throughout history. While the skill and purpose of the creator may vary, the arts enable humans to express the inexpressible, to release emotions, and to reconnect to oneself and others. The 54th Annual UND Writers Conference (3/24-26/2023) features authors and artists whose work considers the role of arts in emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. Our invited guests will discuss how acts of aesthetic creation evoke compassion, facilitate understanding, and can bring people together in unique ways. But, we also wanted some hands-on arts experience, so there will be workshops and opportunities for those in attendance—in person at UND’s Memorial Student Union or online—to share and create their own work, which will hopefully bring a little joy to all as we wait for spring to finally arrive.

The Conference will feature readings, panel discussions, workshops, a reading by "Voices of the Valley," and open mic sessions. All events are free and open to the public in person (UND Memorial Union in Grand Forks) or online. Registration is necessary to receive your Webinar Zoom link. For more information, visit the Conference website at www.undwritersconference.org or follow us on Facebook (@UNDWritersConference) or Twitter (@UNDWritersConf)

Niki Tsukamoto

What does it mean to live with “the ultimate goal of creating a life that is the ideal work of art?” How does one merge the simple day-to-day acts of existence—eating, dressing, breathing—with something that is often thought of as existing only in museums? In 2005, Niki & Yusuke Tsukamoto opened Lookout & Wonderland Workshop in an attempt to find out. While their partnership has resulted in gallery shows, the Tsukamotos’s focus has been on increasingly been on “creative work that helps to raise awareness of the need for community-based care, sustainable living, and pathways toward global health and well-being.” As textiles artists, this can mean many things. One might expect using natural fabrics that are grown with carbon-sequestering farming techniques or dyed with sustainably grown plant-based dies. However, this can also mean using “deadstock” fabric from the fashion industry or creating fabric dyes from local invasive species! The possibilities are endless with imagination, craft, and a willingness to be at the avant-garde. Moreover, the art of Lookout & Wonderland doesn’t isn’t always a unique item that remains separate and untouchable. Their work is wearable, literally, and available for sale online. For aspiring artists of all kinds, at all ages, and all stages, Niki Tsukamoto—one half of Lookout & Wonderland—will discuss her art, process, and how it has become an integral part of her life work.

Niki Tsukamoto will present on her work on Thursday, March 24th at 4pm. She will also participate in the noon panels on Friday, March 25th, “The Arts & Well-being,” and Saturday, March 26th, “A Life with the Arts.”



Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Magic still lives, as proven by the writing and life of Ingrid Rojas Contreras. From the enchantingly familiar worlds of her fiction to the mystical in her own, telenovela-esque life, Contreras’ entry to the writing scene is nothing short of spellbinding. With two novels and over a dozen articles written for sources such as Buzzfeed, The New York Times Magazine, and the Huffington Post, you might recognize her from appearances anywhere from NPR to the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” podcast. Her most recent novel, The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir, now finalist for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction, captures the otherworldly of her own life. The autobiography weaves a fantastic tale of her real-life childhood in Bogotá with a curandero (healer/mystic) grandfather, and life after a car crash left her with amnesia and the ability to see ghosts. Nonbelievers will be swayed by the magic of the extraordinary and the sheer emotion of the journey to Columbia with her mother to reclaim her past, as Contreras bares her witty, lyrical heart to the audience with an exploration of identity, colonial history, and cultural inheritance. Even without magic, her debut novel, The Fruit of the Drunken Tree, will transport you to South America and entrance you with the coming-of-age of two Colombian girls growing up in a country of turmoil and escalating conflict that you can’t look away from. A masterful tale of perseverance, hope, and willpower, its acclaim stretches from being a New York Times Editor’s Choice novel to a California Book Awards Silver Medal winner in First Fiction.

Come experience Contreras’ magic in person (or online), reading from her work Saturday, March 25th at 8pm. She will also feature on the Saturday panel, “A Life with the Arts,” at 12pm.

~Valkyrie Bradford is a Master’s student in English at University of North Dakota.

Tracy K. Smith

The poetry of the Poet Laureate of the United States for 2017 and 2019, Tracy K. Smith, epitomizes the UND Writers Conference theme of “The Healing Arts.” Smith’s poetry offers a salve for the pain caused by racial and political division in the United States. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars (2011) takes an Afrofuturistic theoretical approach using the classic elements of the science fiction genre to explore the relationships between Black identities, technology, and imaginings about the future. For example, in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Smith pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Similarly, in Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987), the first of her Xenogenesis trilogy in which Butler takes readers beyond Earth to focus on human and extraterrestrial interactions, Smith uses the imagery and the expanse of space as a mechanism of liberation and knowledge. Her 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry winner, Wade in the Water (2019), is a collection that includes letters from Black soldiers during the Civil War, correspondences between White enslavers, and the elimination of the Declaration of Independence. Smith bridges the past with the present in her exploration of the theme of equality. Smith once wrote in the New York Times that her political poetry “becomes a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry.” How does a celebrated poet use the lyrical power of poetry to reconnect a divided nation? The first step will be to lean in and learn from Tracy K. Smith at the reading and discussion of her collections and a community workshop at the UND Writers Conference to “heal” from the past.

Tracy K. Smith will read from her work on Friday, March 24th at 8pm. She will also participate in the noon panel, “A Life with the Arts,” on Saturday, March 25th.

~Davina Bell is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota



Xavier Pastrano 

Did you ever have one of those really awesome teachers in high school? Like, a teacher who knew everything about all the cool bands? A teacher who even played in a band? A teacher who, when you listened to the music his band played, you had to admit, sounded pretty damn good? And that same teacher wrote and knew everything that was currently going on at this exact moment in the world of writing? And, most importantly, a teacher who really listened when you told them how you felt, then, somehow, he showed you how to write with those feelings? And maybe, just to top it off, one day a local TV station showed up to do a report on that teacher because that teacher was doing such a good job teaching students how to write poems. You probably didn’t have a cool teacher like this, because there might only be one: Xavier Pastrano, who teaches high school English and college composition in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but to limit Pastrano's role to that of a teacher is to only see part of the picture. Seemingly everything Pastrano touches becomes creatively edged. Pastrano plays bass in a sludge metal band called Skin of our Teeth. He also published three books of poetry. To round things out, Pastrano is an esteemed visual artist (he in fact designed the poster for this year’s conference).

An alumni of the University of North Dakota, Pastrano will lead a workshop at the 2023 UND Writers Conference entitled “Healing Through Lines: From Poetry to Pens" at 10:00 am on Saturday, March 25th (in-person only, Memorial Union Gallery) and participate in the noon panel “Artistic Beginnings” on Thursday, March 23rd. Come listen and learn from one of the most creative artists and educators in the Dakotas (and yes, the cool teacher you never had), Xavier Pastrano.

~Casey Fuller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota



Morgan Talty 

In 1969, N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Momaday’s novel initiated what has sometimes been called the Native American Renaissance in literature, which helped usher in many important literary voices you may know, including: Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdich, and James Welch. Before the 1960s, Indigenous literary voices weren’t simply marginalized, they weren’t allowed. It might be hard to imagine a Native American Renaissance literature today simply because Indigenous writers like Terese Mailhot, Layli Long Soldier, and Natalie Diaz are some of the most vigorous and inventive contributors to the contemporary literary landscape. And yet, it’s also undeniable in some ways: Native writers are having a moment. One of the most important young Indigenous voices of the moment is Morgan Talty, a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Reservation and assistant professor of English in creative writing and Native American literature at the University of Maine, whose interconnected series of stories in Night of Living Rez has been called “a masterwork by a major talent” (The Star Tribune) and “stunning” (LitHub). Among the many luminous reviews of Night of Living Rez, it is not uncommon to find words like brilliant, moving, haunting, intelligent, visceral, beautiful, inventive, which is way saying what Indigenous writer Tommy Orange sums up so will about Talty’s stories, “It is difficult to be so honest, and funny, and sad, at once, in any kind of work. Reading this book, I literally laughed and cried." Don’t miss out on this one. Come and hear one the most important young Indigenous fiction writers, Morgan Talty, discuss his work at the 2023 UND Writers conference.

Talty will read from his work on Friday, March 24th at 4pm (online only event). He will also participate in the noon panels, “Artistic Beginnings” on Thursday, March 23rd and “The Arts & Well-being,” on Friday, March 25th.

~Casey Fuller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota



Alejandro Varela 

It makes sense that Alejandro Varela will play an important part at this year’s UND Writers Conference, as the theme of this year’s conference is “The Healing Arts.” Varela has a background as a public health researcher and his fiction often centers around exposing sites of harm, risk, stress, structural inequities, and locations of unspoken fear. Varela’s 2022 novel, The Town of Babylon, a nominee for the highly coveted National Book Award, focuses on a gay Latinx man returning home for his 20th high school class reunion. Back in his suburban hometown, Andres, the protagonist, reunites with his first love, endures the infidelity of his husband, confronts multiple forms of homophobia, and struggles with the death of his older brother--all while caustically and humorously revealing how small-town life in America can stifle those who are different. The New Journal of Books says The Town of Babylon, “combines a social scientist’s powers of observation and analysis with a master writer’s ability to delineate character in rich, absorbing prose. This is a challenging, fascinating portrait of contemporary America.” Publishers Weekly calls The Town of Babylon a “dazzling debut” and “an incandescent bildungsroman.” How does a writer pen incandescent, dazzling prose while simultaneously dismantling systematic forms of oppression with the eye of a social scientist? It sounds impossible, but that’s exactly what you can witness this year at the UND Writers Conference when Alejandro Vera reads from his important work.

Varela will read from his work on Thursday, March 23rd at 8pm. He will also participate in the noon panels, “Artistic Beginnings” on Thursday, March 23rd and “The Arts & Well-being,” on Friday, March 24th.

~Casey Fuller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota

Juliet Patterson

There are a thousand voices whispering to a single poet—so one could say UND Alum Juliet Patterson is more accurately a microphone to those that came before. However, her her lyrical works also speak of the future in and environmental activism.

From her breakout collection of poems, The Truant Lover, Patterson’s regard for history and musical poetry follow a narrative of self and searching. A Nightboat Poetry Prize winner and finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, Patterson’s powerful ability to conjure imagery follows to Threnody, her second poetry collection, a finalist for the Audre Lorde Poetry Prize. Focusing on the delicate nature of nature today, Patterson thrives in the space between contradictions, examining the dichotomy and intersection of reality and dreams, fact and fiction, life and death.

In her most recent work, Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide, Patterson takes a gut-wrenching look at her own history and the devastating effect of suicide across generations in the wake of her father’s own suicide as she recovered from a car accident. As poignant pondering of her forefathers’ lives and struggles combine with raw, unyielding confrontation of tragedy, it follows her real-life travel and metaphysical search for answers through the seasons and phases of grief. With the melancholy of unspeakable loss and a fervent determination to break the cycle, Patterson doesn’t offer solutions to a loss that cannot be quantified, but honesty as to the path she’s taken.

Juliet Patterson will read from her work on Saturday, March 25th at 4pm. She will also feature on the noon panels “The Arts & Wellbeing” on Friday, and “A Life with the Arts” on Saturday.

~Valkyrie Bradford is a Master’s student in English at the University of North Dakota.

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