Amistad’ author will join faculty in fall

Kane Loukas

It wasn’t the good pay or convenient parking that ultimately led Alexs D. Pate, author of “Amistad,” to take a teaching position at the University this fall.
“I’m just looking for a place I feel comfortable,” Pate said.
Pate will settle into a joint associate-professorship with the departments of American Studies and Afro-American Studies this fall. Students and staff who have come to know him through his writing, local multicultural events and performance arts anxiously await Pate’s arrival.
“He’ll bring a lot of energy to the English department,” said Shannon Olson, a 1998 graduate of the University’s master’s of fine arts program. Although Olson is finished taking classes for her degree, she said she might try to take Pate’s writing class this fall. “He’s a very engaging speaker and a very engaging reader.”
A Twin Cities resident since 1981, Pate has taught on and off at Macalester College in St. Paul during the past six years.
He is basing his University curriculum on subjects he taught in the past, an amalgamation of African-American history and issues of popular culture. “The Poetry of Rap” and “The Fiction of African American Men” are two of his past class offerings.
Shifting his teaching career across town to the University was something that “just sort of happened,” he said. Pate acquainted himself with the University by contributing to on-campus events and guest teaching for professor training programs.
His decision to move has much to do with his attraction to the University’s large, diverse student body and its graduate-level writing program.
Once Pate moves into his office in the Afro-American Studies section of the Social Sciences Building, the first scheduled class on his docket is “Conflict and Conflict Development,” an advanced fiction writing workshop offered this fall.
Conflict isn’t a new thing, Pate said, but it is often overlooked in most fiction writing classes that spend all of the students’ time on only language, structure and character development.
“My feeling is that most good fiction is centered around a good problem,” he said. “The way that a problem is constructed and how you keep the reader from finding out how the conflict will turn out is the key to a good story.”
In referring to “Amistad,” he said the element of conflict was salient in the success of the story: “If somebody tries to capture your ass and make you a slave, that’s a pretty good conflict.”
Speaking about the three or four hours a day he spends writing, he said, “Writing is a life; it’s not academic. I try to write for myself a lot and for the people I’m trying to tell stories to.”
In his Uptown Minneapolis duplex, Pate is at work on his next book, “Multicultiboho Sideshow,” a postmodern satire about artists and arts funding in the Twin Cities. As a playwright and performing artist, the versatile author is a veteran of the local arts scene.
Despite his wide-ranging experience, Pate didn’t begin writing until 1987. After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pate worked for five years with Minnesota-based Control Data Corp. Upon his departure, he began working earnestly on his first novel, “Losing Absalom.”
The book was critically celebrated and in 1995 received the Best First Novel award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and a Minnesota Book Award for best fiction. Despite the considerable recognition for “Losing Absalom,” it wasn’t until his adaptation of David Franzoni’s screen play “Amistad” that Pate felt his talent was truly validated.
Pate will use his reputation as a talented writer to promote a regular visiting writer scholar position in the Afro-American Studies department. The position, similar to Pate’s professorship, is being promoted by staff members who work with the University’s Archie Givens Sr. Collection, a 7,000-item collection of African-American literature and artifacts on Wilson Library’s fourth floor.
John Wright, associate professor of Afro-American and American Studies, said he hopes Pate’s presence at the University will draw interest and help make the proposed residency program a regular feature of the University.
“I’ve been aware of his rising national popularity as an author,” Wright said.
In addition to his creative writing class, Pate will teach a second class in Afro-American Studies and a third in American Studies. He named the black arts movement, black literature in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Amistad trials of 1839 and 1840 as possible class topics.