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Putting an Arizona flavor on a global writers event

@nonfictionow 2018 celebrates local writers @ASU and the PHX community at large
October 29, 2018

Freshly minted director of ASU creative writing program Matt Bell helps bring international conference to Phoenix

Matt Bell knows the importance of a sense of place. A native of Hemlock, Michigan, a small community about two hours outside Detroit, the ASU associate professor of English noticed how strongly it influenced him only after moving to Arizona five years ago.

“Something that surprised me when I moved to Arizona was I realized how much more Midwestern my imagination was than I had previously thought,” he said. “I didn’t really think of myself as a Michigan writer, even though (my second novel 'Scrapper') is obviously set there. But it just became really apparent that this landscape is very different and that if I’d grown up here, I’d have written completely different kinds of books.”

NonfictioNOW, a regular gathering of more than 400 nonfiction writers, teachers and students from around the world, shares that sentiment about place. At every instance of the conference, honoring local communities and traditions is part and parcel of the festivities — following 2017’s conference in Iceland, the event adopted the Icelandic custom of húslestur, gathering after dinner to read and discuss ideas.

This Thursday through Saturday, NonfictioNOW will take up residence in downtown Phoenix, with Tucson author Francisco Cantú serving as the opening keynote speaker.

“It’s really exciting to have this national and international focus but still have a local identity that’s specific to Arizona,” said Bell, who was recently named director of ASU’s Creative Writing Program.

Bell and colleague Angie Dell, event director at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, lobbied hard to bring the prestigious conference to the Valley of the Sun after joining the board a couple of years ago.

Bell considers it part of his new directorial responsibility to create more opportunities for creative writing students and faculty to engage and strengthen their community, as well as create more of a connection between the program and other parts of the university and the community at large.

The author of two novels, two short-story collections, a nonfiction book and several stand-alone pieces in leading literary journals, Bell’s work tends to explore such themes as parenthood, marriage, the environment and climate change. He serves on several thesis committees, for students with majors from sustainability to literature, and believes in the power of the humanities and combining disciplines to envision a new future.

He has also served as an editor for national literary magazines and as a faculty adviser for ASU’s Hayden’s Ferry Review.

With a third novel in the works, classes to teach and an international event to oversee, Bell somehow found time to chat with ASU Now about the upcoming conference, his philosophies about why and how we write, and the things he has learned along the way.

Question: What are you most looking forward to at NonfictioNOW 2018?

Answer: I’m really looking forward to all the keynotes. The conference is sort of Arizona-focused, so Francisco Cantu is giving the first keynote on Friday night. I thought his book (“The Line Becomes A River”) was really fantastic and I’m really excited to have someone writing and working in Arizona kick off that first big event. Panel-wise, one of the things that’s really exciting to me is the breadth. There’s panels on how writing and the #MeToo movement have influenced each other, there’s panels on writing about place, writing on disability … there’s some performative sorts of things, the idea of nonfiction as bodily performance. So a lot of really different modes of thinking about what nonfiction is. Anything that can make your sense of what writing is larger seems really thrilling. And I’m glad so many people here will get to be a part of that.

Q: Why is it important for writers to be involved in their local literary community?

A: One of the biggest mistakes writers make is they don’t get involved in their local community until they need something from it. They don’t go to their local bookstore and they don’t go to readings and they don’t work on the magazines or help other people with things. And then one day, they have a book come out and they want the bookstore to carry their book and they want people to come to their readings. I think you build that goodwill in part by participating. Be a part of the culture that you want to exist, and then it’s there for you when it’s your turn.

Q: Why do you write?

A: One of the reasons to write is to find out how you really feel about something. For me, it’s sort of an avenue of learning and research. I’ve had failed novels where it just didn’t turn out, but the year I spent thinking about that thing was super valuable and I was changed by it anyway. I think there’s also an escapist kind of writing, where you’re trying to get away from your life. The kind of writing I admire more is that which is trying to get closer to your life and find out what your real feelings are and your real emotions and thoughts are.

Q: You’ve written everything from novels to poems to criticism. What’s your favorite form of writing?

A: I really do like doing a lot of different things. In some ways, I don’t ever want to be too sure of what I do. You want to be adaptable. But I think the novel takes most of my time and attention. It seems to me that the novel is capable of the kind of big-scale complexity that you want for talking about something like climate change, but also something like family, which is endlessly complex.

The other thing I really love about novel writing is the deep dive into a subject or an area of research. I’m working on a book about the environment and climate change and the wilderness right now, and it’s probably the most research I’ve ever done about anything. The privilege to get to learn about something for a couple of years while you work on a book is really exciting. And I think maybe unique to that form. At least for me.

Q: How did you come to write about themes like the environment and family?

A: I didn’t know when I was starting to write that I would write as much about family and parenthood as I have. But I come from a big family and I think some of it is thinking about that. I’ve been married for almost 15 years, and that’s the central relationship in my life, so it’s not surprising to write about that a lot. As for the environmentn … the experience of climate change is so difficult to think about or even really feel; it’s hard to think through. So I think if you can create felt experiences on the page or a smaller-scale model that people can sort of apprehend a little bit easier, that seems useful. But it’s got to come in a good story and beautiful language, and it’s got to move people emotionally. I think if it moves people, they’ll remember it and they’ll keep thinking about it. So that seems to be the goal.

Q: What kind of challenges have you encountered as a writer?

A: The first year I lived in Arizona, I really struggled to write, and I thought, well maybe it’s just because I’m starting a new job and I’m in a new place. At some point I realized I hadn’t dreamt in like six months, and I had this weird feeling like time wasn’t passing because the weather was the same every day. Eventually I realized nothing was reminding me of anything; the part of your imagination that is memory being triggered was just not happening. You don’t look at the desert and remember Michigan.

Then the second year here it got better, and then I was fine. But I had to almost rebuild memory triggers after moving here. I got like a weird melancholy about it always being the same day. It felt like the semester just sort of ended. It was really strange. And now, of course, I’m used to it. After you spend a lot of time in the desert, you start to see how it changes. But yeah, that first year was weird.

Q: What has writing taught you about yourself?

A: Something that surprised me when I moved to Arizona was I realized how much more Midwestern my imagination was than I had previously thought. I didn’t really think of myself as a Michigan writer, even though (“Scrapper”) is obviously set there. But it just became really apparent that this landscape is very different and that if I’d grown up here, I’d have written completely different kinds of books. So the environmental writing I’m doing now is still very much set in the Midwest and trying to think of these issues in the places that I know and I’m from. And I’m sort of starting to bridge those two worlds. But that was really interesting, to discover that there’s a sense of place that’s thematic for me that I didn’t really understand until I moved here.

Top photo: Associate Professor Matt Bell on Oct. 16 talks about his writing career and his work in bringing the international writing conference NonfictioNOW to the Valley in early November. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Mobilizing young voters to register and vote

October 29, 2018

ASU students encourage their peers to make history in Nov. 6 midterms

Early voting for the Nov. 6 midterms is underway, and pollsters are predicting record turnouts. Many believe this election will make history, and people are voting at three times the rate of the 2014 midterms, according to a variety of reports.

The wild card of the pack, as ever, are young voters in the 18-24 age range — known as millennials and Generation Z. Getting young adults to cast ballots in elections, especially midterms, has historically been a chore. That's because they tend to move more and are less likely to be connected to their communities. They also claim their vote doesn't really count.

But that's not really true.

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted this past April, millennials are expected to exceed baby boomers in 2019 as this country's largest living adult generation in their share of the American electorate. Millennials made up 27 percent of the voting-eligible population in 2016, while boomers made up 31 percent. This year could be the tipping point — if they decide to cast their ballots.

Registration numbers among Arizona's young voters is slightly up this election, according to Garrett Archer, senior analyist for the Arizona Secretary of State's office.

"Because of their growth in registration, there's room for them to have an influence on the election," Archer said.

Two Arizona State University students — Jesse Avalos and Judah Waxelbaum — are doing everything they can to convince their peers that their vote counts.

Avalos, president of the Young Democrats, and Waxelbaum, chairperson of the Arizona Federation of College Republicans, agreed to talk to ASU Now about their opposing views, their love of civic engagement and what they’ll be doing to get others active as the 2018 midterms beckon.

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Jesse Avalos

Question: Was there a specific incident or event that drew you to politics in your youth?

Jesse Avalos: Back in high school, my humanities teachers would always talk about the importance of politics. They would assign us to read local news articles on local elections and write summaries on candidates. It is through this I was able to explore the importance of elections and how they made an impact on me. I realized I did not want to just look at politics but see what role it plays in my life as well.      

Judah Waxelbaum: There was not one specific event that got me involved in politics. I joined my high school’s Teenage Republican club my junior year and have been involved since. Through Teenage Republicans I developed my love for civic engagement and activism. It quickly became a large part of my life; in 2017 I was awarded Outstanding Teenage Republican in Arizona and Outstanding Teenage Republican in the Nation.

Q: Why did you join your specific party?

JA: I joined the Democratic Party right when I turned 18. A big reason why I joined was because it was the party that focused on expanding opportunities. Making sure that everyone could have a fair shot at the American Dream. Leaders such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama inspired me as well throughout my life.

JW: I believe in personal responsibility, individual freedom and limited government. I am a member of the Republican Party because I believe in those core values. A country where anyone from anywhere can do anything is what the Republican Party strives for, and that is what I want for our great nation.

Q: What are the attributes and traits of your party that you most admire and respect the most?

JA: The emphasis on community and diversity. I admire this because it encourages different outlooks and perspectives when it comes to making important decisions. All of this is what I respect out of the party; they are always trying to bring new insights with bringing everyone at the table.

JW: One of my favorite traits about the Republican Party is the diverse set of ideas within. The Republican Party is a big tent that contains many types of Republicans. The fact that as a party we are willing to debate and discus issues is one of our best features. We do not all just simply follow along; we speak our minds and find common ground as a party.

Q: What do you feel are the main issues going into the Nov. 6 election, and what would be your ultimate outcome?

JA: Key issues going into the midterm elections are going to be health care and immigration. If Democrats take both chambers, they will continue to fight for solutions. End goals would be on pushing for affordable health care and working on comprehensive immigration reform.  

JW: The main issues we are debating going into this election are health care, border security and the economy. The best outcome would be the Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate. We are moving in a great direction right now and I hope we keep making progress without delay. The economy is reaching new records every day; unemployment is at a 40-plus-year low. We are witnessing arguably the best economy in our history.

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Judah Waxelbaum

Q: Why do you think so many young people are apathetic toward politics?

JA: People do not feel that the current system is working for them. Change is not occurring as fast as they want it to for them. They feel important actions such as voting do not hold value, which leads towards a disassociation with politics. Currently I define the current crisis of apathy as “people not being engaged in politics.”  

JW: Many young people either think their vote does not matter or that policy does not impact them. Those notions could not be further from the truth. Everyone’s vote matters because policy crafted by our elected officials dictates many aspects of our lives. Many elections this cycle will be decided by fewer votes than students in a lecture course. Anyone’s vote could be the vote that tips our nation one way or another.

Q: What will you be doing to get students to go out and vote?

JA: Engaging with as many students on and off campus in helping them understand the importance of their vote. Educating them on voting and communicating on what is at stake this election season. Hosting voter-registration drives with students as well.   

JW: The Arizona Federation of College Republicans works to get students involved throughout Arizona through civic engagement and activism. At Arizona State we hold a weekly meeting along with weekly phone banks and candidate walks. We will be reminding as many students as possible to vote via social media and on campus events. We bring in a wide range of Republican officials and candidates to talk about the issues facing Arizona and learn how we can get involved to make a difference. It is our goal to make politics fun and engaging for everyone because it impacts everyone.

Top illustration courtesy of Pixabay