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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

First Books Reading event highlights debut novels from UMN community

The event, co-hosted with the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program, spotlights the work of two current Master’s students and two University of Minnesota alumni.

The University of Minnesota’s Department of English and the Creative Writing Program co-hosted the First Books Reading event on March 2 to showcase publications from four authors, two of whom are current Master’s students and two who are University alumni.

The authors, Erica Berry, Nen G. Ramirez, Emily Strasser and Chaun Webster, discussed different themes in their novels and poetry collections, varying from fear to harmful stereotypes to fragmented and secret histories.

Berry’s novel was published in February. Ramirez’s, Strasser’s and Webster’s books will be published in April.

“Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear” by Erica Berry

Berry’s debut novel centers around depictions of wolves, both physical and symbolic, and how these depictions reflect on people’s perceptions of fear and identity.

The novel combines research, personal stories, folklore, science and psychology to better understand the gap between the physical wolf and the way it is depicted in people’s subconscious.

Berry, a University MFA graduate, studied wolves for her environmental studies thesis while she was an undergraduate student at Bowdoin College. She later started to examine the fear and various depictions associated with them more closely.

“I began to really fixate on the specter of fear in my own life, especially after having a couple scary encounters with strange men I did not know,” Berry said.

Berry hopes “Wolfish” will help readers feel less isolated in their fear and challenge the way people view danger and security. Berry believes that studying, reading and writing about fear like the way she does in her book can help people feel less alone in their anxieties.

“All Women Are Born Wailing” by Nen G. Ramirez

Ramirez’s first poetry collection tackles the “crazy Latina” stereotype, the way Latina communities have internalized that stereotype in negative ways, violence against Latinas and family history.

Ramirez, a University MFA candidate, wanted to be a writer since second grade and mainly focused on fiction writing until they joined their high school’s slam poetry team.

Ramirez wrote most of the poems featured in the collection in 2016 as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. However, they didn’t see them all as a collective work at the time.

Ramirez, like Berry, hopes their poems help people feel less alone.

“I write for and put this book together for Latinas and people with mental illness, like people that belong to the same communities that I’m in and writing about,” Ramirez said. “I want readers to feel less alone.”

Ramirez said the topics discussed in the collection, including trauma and race, are often sidelined in public discussion. They hope this book allows the audience to engage with these long-neglected subjects.

“That silence just creates a lot more pain,” Ramirez said.

“Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History” by Emily Strasser

Strasser’s debut book follows her personal journey reckoning with the legacy of her grandfather’s involvement in building nuclear weapons in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Strasser, who is based in Minneapolis, received her MFA in nonfiction from the University.

The novel is a decade-long effort that began in Strasser’s senior year of college after she began thinking about a photograph she saw as a child in her grandparents’ house of her grandfather standing in front of nuclear test blasts.

In the present day, Strasser said she can’t say if the photo even exists or if it is a “fabricated memory.”

Strasser said this book and the history behind it hold special value, especially considering current global events. Ultimately, the book is about digging into untold histories and seeking the truth.

“It’s a book about complicated stories and telling the truth about a complicated history,” Strasser said. “It’s about uncovering the secrets of our own families, of this country’s past, often a very dark past, and I make an argument that we need to really dig into those unexamined stories, as messy and contradictory and complicated as they may get.”

“Wail Song: or wading in the water at the end of the world” by Chaun Webster

Webster’s book asks questions about what can and cannot be recovered from fragmented historical archives that exclude stories about Black lives.

Webster, an MFA candidate at the University, said it is hard to trace how this project began and there were many stages of development while writing the book, including extensive amounts of reading.

Webster said the book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” by Christina Sharpe, a professor of English literature and Black studies at York University, had a particular influence on concepts crucial to his novel.

Webster wants readers to engage with the questions he poses in his book regarding what can be recovered from Black history.

“Those questions shape our world,” Webster said. “Those questions form the world that we live in, that we’ve inherited, a world that has been shaped fundamentally by the slave trade.”

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