By Megan Ockert
“There is such a literary presence in Flint,” Carmen-Ainsworth high school teacher and writer Jes Mathews told her audience at the Flint Literary Festival during its inaugural run July 21-22. “People don’t realize that Flint is booming in the literary world.”
And one of the festival’s featured writers, Christine Maul Rice of Chicago, lauded the impact of Flint on her work.
“I owe everything to Flint,” Rice said from the podium at the Flint Public Library Saturday. “I have so many incredible memories of this place.” Her award-winning 2016 novel, Swarm Theory, is situated in a place based on Grand Blanc.
The Flint Public Library, in collaboration with East Village Magazine and Gothic Funk Press, hosted the first ever Flint Literary Festival.
The event celebrated writers Kelsey Ronan, Rice, and Christopher Paul Curtis, all with Flint roots, and gave several local and regional writers a chance to share their work. Due to unforeseen consequences, poet Sarah Carson, originally scheduled as a featured reader, was unable to attend.
The festival planning committee was made up of University of Michigan-Flint lecturer and writer Scott Atkinson, writer and former journalist Bob Campbell, Flint Public Library workshop leader and Gothic Funk Press publisher Connor Coyne, East Village Magazine editor Jan Worth-Nelson, and Marketing Coordinator at the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, Katie Curnow.
The first day of the two-day event kicked off with readings from Ronan and Rice, and ended with an open mic night at The Golden Leaf Club, emceed by Nic Custer, poet, writer and former managing editor of East Village Magazine.
Ronan, who wrote for East Village Magazine for two years while pursuing her writing career, shared an excerpt from “All the Girls in the World Beware,” a short story included in her latest compilation, Chevy In the Hole.
She said Chevy in the Hole features 13 short stories centered around the fictional Molloy family beginning in 1937 during the Sit-down Strike and ending ten years later.
Featured author Rice, whose novel Swarm Theory recently earned the Book of the Year Award by the Chicago Writers Association, also taught a two-hour generative writing workshop. Her novel takes place in the fictional setting of New Canaan, modeled after her hometown just outside Flint.
Event organizer Connor Coyne said he hopes the Flint Literary Festival will become an annual event. He said he was particularly happy with the panel discussions that took place on Saturday. “The most exciting things were conversations I wasn’t a part of,” said Coyne.
The event offered five panel discussions with local experts providing insight on topics such as finding a home for your writing, the kinship between journalism and literature, telling stories about Flint from multiple perspectives, and the craft of poetry.
Students from the library’s Teen Writer’s Workshop also were present to read their work and debut their anthology Darkness SandWitch. and The Flint Youth Theatre shared a performance adapted from the work of Newbery-award winning author and Flint Literary Festival featured reader, Christopher Paul Curtis.
Local and regional writers also were given the opportunity to read their work. Jes Mathews, an 11th and 12th grade teacher at Carman-Ainsworth, shared poems from her first published work, Simply, and an excerpt from 318: A Chubby Chick’s Tale of Weight Loss Surgery, which she described as her “very personal weight loss journey,” because she “had to tell the bad things” about herself.
Her advice to fledging writers was to enter writing contests. “They work,” she said. “That’s how I got my first book published.”
Mathews also shared a poem she wrote for a project involving her students based on the Flint water crisis. Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint features creative dialogues from 38 seniors and their reactions to the ongoing crisis. Their work is being incorporated into an installation by Chicago-based artist Jan Tichy for Michigan State University.
“Young people want to be heard,” Mathews said. “The kids were very motivated to complete the activism project. They kept saying, ‘We have a voice. We are so excited.’”
Ronan said that while the water crisis is an important issue Flint residents are facing, she feels that “Flint has such a deeper history than what is being presented.”
Worth-Nelson agreed, saying, “You can’t ignore that is happening, but you have to negotiate it. There are beautiful things in the world too.”
Panelists also spoke about the difficulties of getting published and the tricky relationship between writer and publisher. “Working with a publisher is a love-hate relationship,” said local author Tom Powers. “But you have to work with them. You have to be persistent.”
Several writers also cautioned about the pitfalls of rejection. “Don’t get discouraged from rejection,” said Atkinson, editor of Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology. “Use them to build on. Not all rejections are created equal. There are good ones and bad.”
The festival ended with a reading from acclaimed author Christopher Paul Curtis, born and raised in Flint. Curtis attended the University of Michigan – Flint upon graduating from Flint Southwestern and worked 13 years in “the shop” at General Motors before quitting to write full time. Curtis has used the city as the setting for many of his novels, including Bucking The Sarge, Bud not Buddy and The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963, which he said is his favorite work to date. He now lives with his wife and three children in Windsor, Ontario.
Raffle prizes selected by the committee included a bag of Flint-based swag. First place included a copy of Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Madman of Piney Woods; Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology, edited by Scott Atkinson; East Village Magazine trinkets, a city bird Michigan State Symbols mug, and more.
Festival attendees were also treated to a book fair Saturday afternoon where local writers sold their latest works.
Surveying the bustling book fair, festival committee member Katie Curnow said, “The coolest thing about Flint is how much we support each other.”
EVM Staff Writer Megan Ockert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.