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The global face of Southern lit

The North Carolina Writers' Conference provides support and camaraderie in a solitary profession

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Barbara Lau
  • Barbara Lau

Few regions are as rich in literary tradition as the American South. Fewer still remain as vibrant, with a diverse assortment of writers from Cormac McCarthy and Ellen Bryant Voigt to North Carolinians Lee Smith and Clyde Edgerton regularly producing varied and exciting work. These days, hovever, newcomers to the tradition often bring new accents and experiences.

Starting this Friday, writers from all over the Southeast and beyond will gather in Durham's Sheraton Imperial Hotel for the 22nd annual weekend-long North Carolina Fall Writers' Conference. The conference is sponsored by the North Carolina Writers' Network, one of the largest statewide literary organizations in the country with a membership exceeding 1,500.

Tanure Ojaide
  • Tanure Ojaide

A conference is held in the spring and fall of each year, and both are opportunities for writers working in many different genres—fiction, poetry, screenwriting, creative nonfiction and journalism—to mingle, discuss and study the craft of writing and the business of getting published with nationally recognized practitioners in both fields. This fall, the guiding theme for discussion is "Many Voices—One Community," and Sunday's keynote panel will include readings by writers from or involved with the state's immigrant communities, discussing the challenges they face and their unique perspective on Southern literature and culture.

For Marjorie Hudson, a conference organizer and longtime affiliate, the point of a multiethnic panel is that one does not need to have roots dating back to the antebellum era to be a Southerner. "It's not just in New York that there are people who are second generation immigrants who have stories—they are here too," Hudson said in a recent telephone conversation. "They may think of themselves as having outsider status, but we consider everyone insiders here!"

Paul Cuadros
  • Paul Cuadros

The moderator of the "Many Voices" panel is Barbara Lau, a folklorist with Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies who has done ethnographic fieldwork on Cambodian communities in North Carolina for the last 15 years. "When you think about it, language can also be a barrier and is a barrier for people who have in various times in the last 200 years come to live in North Carolina," Lau said in a recent interview. "It's interesting for a conference about writing to think about writing ... in terms of identity and in terms of power."

Among the other multicultural North Carolina writers on the panel are MariJo Moore, a poet of Cherokee, Irish and Dutch ancestry, Tanure Ojaide, a multi-award-winning Nigerian-born poet and fiction writer working in UNC-Charlotte's African Studies department, and Hispanic journalist Paul Cuadros, who has written on labor and agriculture issues for the Independent. Cuadros will discuss his experiences working with North Carolina's emerging Hispanic community, with a focus on his new book A Home on the Field, his account of a Siler City high school soccer team that won the 2004 state championship, using their story to address larger issues of immigration and integration. Cuadros will also run a seminar on how to write and publish a memoir or other nonfiction work, using his own success as an example.

John Balaban
  • John Balaban

Other panels will feature area notables as well. John Balaban, poet and creative writing professor at North Carolina State University, is intimately familiar with the power of language to humanize a people who might otherwise be ignored. A non-combatant volunteer in the Vietnam War, he later recorded oral poetry from the peoples of the Mekong delta region and translated it into English, bringing this venerable tradition into contact with a worldwide audience. At a panel on poetry and political engagement, Balaban will read from a new book of poems. "It looks at America and the world and what one's citizenship means in terms of moral and spiritual stands that people take deliberately or take without even thinking about it," says Balaban, who will also lead a master class in poetry.

The traditional backbone of a writing conference is its seminars, and these will be led by such once and current North Carolina writers as Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, Michael Malone, Betty Adcock and Stephanie Green. Subjects run the gamut from mystery to nature writing to effective use of metaphor. The business end of writing, including such practical topics as how to write a query letter and how to self-publish, will also be covered. There's even a seminar on the contract law and copyright issues one should know to avoid the well-publicized fate of Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was revealed to have been plagiarized from multiple sources.

Betty Adcock
  • Betty Adcock

Rounding out the weekend are live entertainment, a documentary film screening, faculty readings and the Literary Hall of Fame award ceremony. Surrounding the conference's special focus will be a number of services for writers at every stage of their careers, including seminars on different aspects of the writing and publishing process, a critiquing service, and a "Manuscript Mart," where writers will have the opportunity to go over drafts of their work with professional editors and agents.

The N.C. Writers' Conference runs this weekend, Nov. 10-12, at Durham's Sheraton Imperial Hotel, 4700 Emperor Blvd., I-40 at Exit 282 (Page Road). The walk-in registration fee is $375. Food is not included. For the conference schedule and information on other events and services offered by the Writers' Network, go to www.ncwriters.org or call 967-9540.

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