A host of international writers spoke during the Mount Saint Mary’s MFA in Creative Writing’s virtual “Borderlands” conference held Oct. 15-17. The sixth annual international literary conference explored physical and emotional borders around the world through a film screening, readings, workshops and talks.
“Since the Mount is particularly situated near the California borderlands, this was an excellent opportunity to expose students to what border writing means,” said Juana Moriel-Payne, director of the MFA’s Latin American/LatinX Creative Studies certificate program.
“Borders are everywhere,” says attendee Andrea Mauk MFA ’22. “We have borders within ourselves, borders within our homes and neighborhoods, and borders within our countries. We have to understand what makes us feel comfortable or uncomfortable about stepping on other side.”
Speakers included Betina González, an Argentinian writer who explores the border not just geographically, but also ideologically; JD Pluecker, who writes about the border while living in Texas; and Stephanie Elizondo Griest, a travel writer who has written about borders around the world, including those in Moscow, Beijing and Havana.
In addition to talks, students wrote alongside the featured writers in workshops.
“My favorite author was Betina González, who taught a workshop on the use of rhythm and emotion in narrative, particularly in fiction,” said Jason Robison MFA ’23. “Hearing someone speak specifically to the use of sound and rhythm was immensely helpful in distinguishing the prose form from poetry.”
González's workshop looked at how prose creates emotion. “Her prompt was a Matisse painting of human forms dancing and holding hands,” says Robison. “When viewers look at the painting, they experience joy and connection. González asked, ‘How can prose allow readers to experience the same emotions?’”
JD Pluecker was another favorite speaker. “He was absolutely phenomenal,” said Mauk. “He uses primary documents in his writing, like a property deed or a river map. He is more than a poet. He is an archeologist because he is digging into the past to see what came before, and he is an architect because he is building it back. I thought, ‘If I were to write a poem along my river, what would it look like?’”
Students found inspiration in examining multiple art forms. “A goal of our program is for students to understand that creative writing is not an isolated activity,” said Moriel-Payne. “The more you are in connection with other artists, the better intellectual you can be.”
The lessons learned are empowering. “As an undergrad at Arizona State, all the Chicano writers from the ‘80s were our foremothers,” says Mauk. “This conference and border writing itself gives me the opportunity to hold hands with them and be their peer. I’m the next generation border writer! We are continuing that space that Gloria Anzaldúa created, and we are expanding it.”
“Everything I learned is still seeping into my consciousness,” said Robison. “I’m already thinking about what to do next. I’m two chapters into my novel, and now I’ve got to change everything!”