2020, to put it lightly, was an awful year for most people. Our ways of living have been radically changed. COVID has been a constant worry and the presidential election caused stress for many. Although much in the immediate future is uncertain, we all must find different ways of coping. I usually read as a way of an escape. The feeling of escapism is something many of us are seeking again at the start of 2021. I found the following literature especially compelling because of how they relate to our contemporary moment. These make for great stories and insightful readings. If anyone is looking for a good read during these first few months of the new year, I highly recommend these works.
A post-apocalyptic story of a father and son traveling through a ruined America. The story imagines a future where all hope has been lost. It depicts the worst and best traits of mankind. With growing fears of where this country will go in the years after the 2020 election, along with COVID-19 being a consistent threat, the feelings of hopelessness in this novel can relate to our contemporary moment. Admittedly, that is terrifying. However, that makes this even more compelling. I can see pieces of the real world in this novel and it is so interesting. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. Warning: The novel does contain dark graphic descriptions and sensitive topics such as suicide.
This collection of poems by the award-winning writer depict a dark, gothic reality of the exploitation of marginalized people in the U.S. Many poems in this collection touch on topics such as white supremacy and being a queer person of color. With political policies and societal resentment set to clash for years after the 2020 election, it is important and intriguing to look through the eyes of someone who has already felt this oppression. I find Reed’s use of dark imagery and childhood references immersive. He depicts his disgust towards the historical/current treatment of people of color. This historical disgust can be felt by followers and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially after the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I highly recommend this collection to readers and poets who support the movement, and to anyone who is interested in the subject matter.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional story follows the journey of Elwood Curtis, a Black teenager growing up in Tallahassee in the 1960s. The story follows Curtis being sent to Nickel Academy, a fictional juvenile reformatory based on the controversial real-life Dozier School which operated in the state of Florida for 111 years. Curtis and other characters in the story face horrors that parallel the true atrocities that children who attended Dozier endured. The details and images depicted in this novel filled me with much discomfort, especially when you consider the fact that similar atrocities are happening still to this day. While human trafficking has become a larger issue in society, it is scary how the abuse and torture of Curtis and the other characters in Whitehead’s novel are a reminder of this problem. Although it is not outright kidnapping and trafficking per say, the story of the Nickel Boys taken away from their homes to a reform school where they are subjected to racially-motivated abuse and torture with the potential for being murdered, is a horrible parallel of the reality we live in. The elements of horror in this novel are extremely compelling. The building of tension and the development of Curtis’s character throughout the story were also well done.
I recommend these three titles, not just because I find their stories compelling (and they are!), but also because these stories remind us of the moment we live in. Even though some are based on events of both the past and possible futures, the themes of abuse, neglect, discrimination, and loss of hope are all too familiar still today. The more we read, the more realize that these topics in our society are not fiction. I hope that readers can see the similarities between these literary works and our realities like I have. I feel that these three books, and others like them, could bring more awareness to any of these issues and inspire us to address them. Instead of giving up hope, let’s look to a better future in 2021 and beyond. As Terry Pratchett said, “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”
Meet the blogger:
JOE JOYCE is a sophomore at Hamline University. He is a creative writing major and English minor. His concentrations are in fiction and poetry. He hopes to find work as a writer after graduating. In his free time, Joe likes to swim, play guitar and make audiobooks.
Covid have you in hibernation? While avoiding social interaction is essential to preventing Covid transmission, it’s also very isolating. Most of us feel drained emotionally, mentally, and creatively. Often writing prompts help me get pen back to paper after hitting a wall. Consider trying one of the following 10 writing prompts and challenge yourself to create a brief (25-500 word) flash fiction piece. Focus on setting (any place but the inside of our house, please!) by building a new space. What does it smell like, feel like, sound like?
Take us there and transport your reader because we all need to escape a bit right now.
- Write a story about a magical piece of furniture. This item creates a portal, but how? Where does it take us? What is a major problem and why does it hurt those your character loves?
- Take a trip. Describe the voyage and the arrival, but don’t name the destination. What’s the problem that erupts at your arrival? How will you fix it?
- Create a character that’s been reincarnated as a wild animal. What kind of animal? How does the character feel about it? What can/can’t be done? Who do they meet and why is there a problem?
- There’s music playing just beyond a hill, follow the sound and tell us why it’s terrifying. How can you make it stop and what will be the result?
- Create an underground world, who are the inhabitants and why are they so happy? What happens when people from the surface discover their weakness and invade the underground?
- Imagine a cruise ship full of non-human characters, where are they going and what are they leaving behind? Why is everyone dancing and/or singing constantly?
- Someone is giving chase through empty city streets. There’s an unknown substance everywhere. What happened and who’s after them? What happens when they get caught and find out they are the same person?
- A large body of water rests in the way. How did it get there and what’s on the other side? There’s aggressive animals in the water- what are they and why are they so angry?
- Thousands of fans gather before your character, why are they watching and how are things about to go horribly wrong? What happens when your character discovers everything they’ve been told is a lie?
- Create a new political system. Please. Maybe we can make it nonfiction some day.
Tip: If you need more inspiration- check out this ThinkWritten article for helpful tips and techniques to shake the writers block.
If you have any additional inspiring, odd, quirky, or compelling prompt ideas- please share them with us in the comments below.
Meet the blogger:
SAMANTHA WICKS is an Air Force Veteran and maintenance foreman. She enjoys murder mysteries and any apocalyptic tale that distracts from our own. Sam’s claimed residence in Texas, California, North Carolina and South Korea, but takes pride in calling Minnesota home.
Since March of 2020, many people have been undoubtedly looking for an escape from the gravity of the pandemic. As public spaces temporarily open and close, audiences are looking to online storytellers to help relieve some of their stress during this difficult time.
A large part of the content currently being consumed on the internet can be categorized under the umbrella term Visual Storytelling. Visual storytelling is the use of any artistic visual medium to convey a story. Examples include literature, photography, video, graphics, sculpture, performance, and more. One medium of visual storytelling that has arguably been hit the hardest during this time is live-performance. Many venues for concerts, plays, and even film have closed their buildings to prevent covid’s spread, laying off performers and others working in these venues. Similarly, schools and pre-professional theaters have been forced to close their doors and are looking to going online as the solution.
At Hamline University, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the Theatre and Dance Department faculty worked with students to process how the department could produce performances during the 2020-21 academic year. With the increasing trend of audiences consuming digital stories in mind, the group landed upon the plan to showcase their art through online video. This endeavor would create learning opportunities for students through their collaboration between disciplines, employing the use of many forms of visual storytelling to convey a message. Actors would gain experience working with dancers, stage technicians with graphic designers, and web designers with video editors. The performances would all explore a universal theme, how do we deal with times of change?
This idea partially stems from a project the university’s Dance Ensemble (a student dance troupe) had worked on and shared online last May. Working with Digital Media Arts students, they created a virtual dance performance entitled “In Transition”, its theme being movement in isolation. The group felt a call to action to create something uplifting during a time in which the months of city-wide quarantines were just being administered across the state of Minnesota and the world at large.
All of this is significant in our current Age of Information. In recent years the internet has experienced large swaths of brands, advertisers, and large media corporations moving much of their content online. We’ve seen an increase in streaming services like Amazon Prime Video whose streaming service launched back in 2006, Netflix in 2007, Hulu in 2008, and Disney Plus in 2019. With people spending more time at home, even more services launched just this year, HBO Max (May 2020), and Peacock TV (July 2020) among others. Several feature films have found their releases pushed straight to these streaming outlets, since most movie theaters have been closed for months.
Following the trend of increased media consumption online, I predict that more forms of visual storytelling will be shared throughout the internet in the years to come. As a writer and performer myself, I think this shift would be a promising development for both art forms. Through the convergence of written work and the internet, authors can have their work reach more people with less effort since they will no longer be limited to distributing paper copies. Performing will be more streamlined as well. For performers, international live-streams will draw in larger audiences. Live chats will allow audience members to engage with one another and the performers in real time, creating a tight-knit community around these works of art.
The internet offers the beneficial ability to share artwork across multiple platforms, something that their non-internet counterparts lack for the most part. Already we’ve seen story-based and performance content such as ebooks, audiobooks, podcasts, and YouTube personalities rise in prominence, as well as live-streaming news broadcasts, sports, and virtual concerts. These story outlets are popular, gaining a large following due to their ability to meet their audiences where they are. The writer’s challenge of meeting the audience where they are and bringing literature to them from the convenience of their phone or computer will inspire more people to get lost in the beauty of the written word, and our stories will have more power to impact the future and enact change wherever it may be needed.
This realization has positively changed the process of how I personally write my own creative works. Because I know that putting my work on the internet (either in blogs, online journals, social media, or personal websites) will reach a larger and more diverse audience, knowing this I am able to write more unifying themes and use my voice to make a positive difference in the world. I hope that this shift to online will empower writers and all artists to create for and inspire a broader audience. I’ve learned from this time that there might always be new ways for our voices to be heard as writers, and through adversity we are given even more reason to express ourselves through our artistic outlets in whatever forms they may manifest. I’ve learned that art has no limits, we as artists can make our art into anything we can imagine, and the internet is just another medium through which we can get our voices out there.
Increasing release of virtual storytelling may be a trend that continues past these trying times, allowing for faster and more convenient consumption of these art forms. The communities that can form around artwork that is released online can celebrate artists and inspire them to create more profound work that does a service to the artists themselves and the consumers who take in their work. It seems the intent of distance between the frame of the proscenium stage and the audience was centuries ahead of its time. Who could’ve known that they would predict the practiced distance between screen and viewer, and that through this distance we would all be so connected?
Meet the blogger:
KYRIN STURDIVANT is a Creative Writing Major and English minor in his final year of undergrad at Hamline University. Kyrin is a writer of poetry, fiction, and screenplays and enjoys practicing dance in his free time.
Listen to Interview:
(note: audio starts at :15)
On Thursday October 1, 2020, I had a conversation with Lily Crooks, an established member of the Twin Cities literary community and graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Hamline University. The plan was to speak over zoom, allowing us to see each other outside of the chain of emails that had been our introduction and only form of communication thus far. After 3 crashes on zoom, we elected to speak over the phone. Lily quickly moved to another room with better service as I googled “best phone call recording apps.” We spoke for around an hour. The free-flowing, unedited audio file of that conversation can be found at the bottom of this post. The following excerpts are gemstones and light bulbs, an illuminating understanding into Lily Crooks.
The first piece of Lily’s writing that I read was “Free Fallin’” published in Memoir Mixtapes, August 2020. In it, she writes about her annual family road trip they take to the Black Hills in South Dakota each summer and falling in love with Tom Petty.
Lily grew up in a family where “for many many years, we were not the kind of family where each of us had a walkman”. She was expected to entertain herself on road trips, and spent a lot of time with her own internal dialogue, the place where most of her writing begins to this day.
In high school, Lily was a theatre kid. Finding solace in allowing the “internal loud showy Lily” to come out while playing characters. A lover of not only theatre, but the spoken word, Lily initially thought she was going to become a playwright when she first began looking seriously at writing. “I love reading aloud. It doesn’t have to be screenplays. I love reading books aloud with friends, or on road trips and stuff like that. I wish we did more of that in my family, but we’ve just kind of started that because I insisted. But I just really appreciate the spoken style of storytelling.”
And so, she wonders how she might be able to inject whatever quality it is about her, or perhaps even the spoken voice, into her written works. “It’s very different writing with the intention to be spoken aloud and/or performed vs writing to be read. Inflection changes the whole meaning of a sentence, and how do you do that on the page if you can’t guarantee that this person isn’t going to hear you say it out loud”?
At this point, I check in to see if Lily has a hard-out I need to be working with (we’re about 40 minutes into our conversation) She tells me I’ve got about 15 minutes.
She purchased it on the last day of the Minnesota State Fair, inspired by an interview with Dan Savage where he had a bison head on his wall, from a vendor in the midst of packing up. She gave the vendor $200 cash (the head was listed for $400) enticing him with it being one less thing he had to transport. Then she remembered she needed to take it home on the bus. The deer’s name is Chauncy.
We discussed the concept and importance of having “shrines” in your home. Deborah Keenan was the first person who really brought this idea to her, naming that very corner her shrine. “I never considered it (the space pictured in the photo above) as that kind of space, but it serves exactly the same purpose as a small altar to loved ones who’ve passed on or mementos that are more than just knick knacks. Especially when winter comes, I feel like Minnesotans need a lot of little quiet areas in their home to look at and feel joy.”
Coming to the end of our time I asked her what she was working on. Not just in terms of art or writing, but also spiritually, personally, or in terms of a goal she has set for herself.
Her father has recently passed away, an experience that she’s found speaking about openly has helped in her processing of it. They weren’t particularly close, and as the oldest of his three children, she’s been put in charge of wrapping up his affairs. A task made even more challenging due to COVID-19, making the process longer and unable to get together with her family as much as she’d like. Oddly enough, she says the experience has brought her closer with her younger brother.
Creatively, she’s been revisiting a piece she started a long time ago about her family history. She is also working to be more engaged in community work and mutual aid, and is looking forward to keeping up her momentum in that this winter.
And finally, I asked if she had any magic parting words.
“I don’t think I do. Um, if it’s about writing I hate to tell you that there isn’t magic and a lot of it is work. You just have to do it. Sorry. You have to just sit down and do it. And the best advice I ever got was ‘you can’t revise words you haven’t written’ so you just gotta do it. Your first draft is supposed to be bad. Sorry. That’s a long answer.
See, I’m bad at remedy.
Write it up y’all, you gotta do it.”
No facet of the public consciousness is invincible. Even the most spotless legacy can be tarnished by the unearthing of otherwise overlooked or long-forgotten iniquities. We see this in the growing re-examination of long-dead historical figures, Christopher Columbus for example. Yeah, the dude actually wasn’t so great. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, may have been acquitted of child molestation charges, but even the king isn’t above the public’s court of law. Justin Trudeau? Although the prime minister’s Liberal government survived Canada’s recent federal elections after several blackface incidents from his past were brought to light, his party is down 20 seats in Parliament and in fact lost the popular vote by more than a percentage point to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.
Yes, “cancel culture” doesn’t always lead to consequences. Christopher Columbus is too dead to defend himself, as is Michael Jackson, but neither faced true justice for their wrongs within their lifetimes. The blackface scandals may have damaged Trudeau’s reputation, but he’s not out of a job, and neither are many other public figures smacked with serious allegations, whether for racism or sexual assault.
Surprisingly, the young-adult literature community is better at holding their own accountable than many branches of the U.S. government. Prominent figures like Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie have faced some social ramifications after being accused of sexual harassment, but those feeling the most heat were condemned not for what they were believed to have done, but for what they were believed to have left undone. Not for a crime, but for their own shortcomings, namely, for failing to live up to the YA community’s general consensus on inclusivity, representation and cultural sensitivity.
If you browse over the Twitter accounts of today’s notable YA authors, you will find that they are overwhelmingly liberal, and more likely to have supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary than Bernie Sanders, even though they are also likely to support keystones of Sanders’ policy platform, such as universal healthcare and student loan forgiveness. This preference is no coincidence. Sanders has frequently been critiqued by fellow left-liberals for being dismissive of “identity politics” and for tone-deafness to the issues faced by voters of color.
The YA community, meanwhile, is deeply invested in diversity issues as its target market becomes minority-majority. Less than half of all children born in the US today are white, and members of Generation Z are far likelier than their predecessors to identify as LGBT. These issues have taken the front seat as demographics shift, from the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books which seeks to amplify marginalized perspectives in children’s and young-adult literature, to the #OwnVoices movement, which asserts that marginalized protagonists should be written by authors from the culture they represent. This Tweet by YA author Kosoko Jackson takes it a step even further:
“Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?”
But his words boomeranged back at him. Jackson failed to live up to his own standards, as he is one such YA author who came under the hot-seat for writing outside of his lane. His debut novel, A Place for Wolves, starred a main character who, like him, is a gay black male. Jackson, however, has no personal connection to the Kosovo War, the conflict against which Wolves is set, and he wrote an Albanian Muslim villain, despite Albanian Muslims having borne the brunt of ethnic cleansing by the Serbian and Yugoslav governments during the war. This spelled doomsday for his book in the hands of critics on Goodreads, the social cataloging network that allows users to review books that aren’t even released yet.
“Genocide isn’t a romantic backdrop for your story,” reviewer ‘Nina’ wrote on Feb. 26, 2019, a month before Wolves’ scheduled publication day. “i don’t need a book about soft gay boys cuddling during a genocide that neither of them are part of or really affected by, an authors note that says there is two sides to every story of ethnic cleansing, and a muslim villain who comes from the group being ethnically cleansed,” said ‘Maxwell’ that same day.
Wolves’ community rating on Goodreads, which had previously been more than four stars out of five, plummeted to less than three as more caustic reviews piled up. You have to wonder how many of these critics had actually read the book and how many were just bandwagoning along with their friends. Even a fellow YA author who had previously praised Wolves took back his endorsement after reading the criticisms.
As a result, Jackson asked publisher Sourcebooks to cancel Wolves’ impending release, and 55,000 ready-to-go copies of the novel had to be pulped. Put into context, that’s a larger first printing than runaway bestsellers The Hunger Games and The Lovely Bones, which both saw 50,000 initial copies.
This wasn’t the first time such a controversy unfolded, nor was it the last. In January 2019, Amelie Wen Zhao postponed the release of her Anastasia-inspired fantasy Blood Heir due to accusations of insensitive parallels within the book to antebellum chattel slavery, although the book’s universe features an ethnically diverse empire in which magical powers, not race, are the basis for oppression. A revised version was released in November.
In the spring of 2019, memoirist Katie Heaney liked a Tweet comparing bisexual people in heterosexual marriages to girls who studied abroad in college and won’t shut up about it. Heaney was quick to regret this, as her Goodreads reviews went on to suffer for it— reviews of a book that, at the time, was more than a year from publication: April 2020’s YA romance Girl, Crushed. None of these ratings and reviews have to do with the actual content of the book; they are all condemnations of an online action which the author later apologized for. To Goodreads’ credit, many of these reviews were removed for being irrelevant, but some users just re-posted them, minimally repackaged, and said as much.
Don’t these people have better things to do with their lives? Think back to the scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post, and consider how silly it seems to go after an author’s Twitter history rather than hold accountable those with actual power, whether in their own lives or in the larger world, for their wrongdoings. Why don’t they take up armchair detective work, and go cancel some serial killers? The Delphi murderer still hasn’t been caught, even though one of his victims recorded audio and video footage of him within her last moments. Anyone know this guy?
But I digress. Based on the flack Jackson and Heaney got from their seemingly innocuous online activities, it might do some serious good to think before you post. Maybe our parents were on to something, after all.
Meet the blogger:
KELLY HOLM is a member of Hamline University’s class of 2021. She is an award-winning student journalist for The Oracle and an English and creative writing double major. Besides Runestone, she’s interned with Sentinel Publications, Elicit Magazine and GenZ Publishing. She hopes to find work as a professional writer.