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National Book Awards come a semester late

When the flood hit Fargo-Moorhead last year, class wasn’t the only thing that was cancelled. The National Book Awards, an event that Concordia hosts each spring, had to be postponed as well.

Now, a semester later, authors Annette Gordon-Reed and Maxine Hong Kingston will visit campus on Oct. 30 to participate in the fourth annual National Book Awards at Concordia College. The authors will teach master classes, give readings from their works, and hold a public conversation moderated by Kerri Miller from Minnesota Public Radio.

Concordia is currently the only college that has a continuing relationship with the National Book Foundation.

Each year, Dr. Scott Olsen of the English department and Tracey Moorhead, senior associate to the president, visit the National Book Foundation’s awards ceremony in New York City. They attend readings by all the finalists the night before, and that is when they decide which authors to invite to campus.

“In a way, it’s an audition,” Olsen said. “The night before the awards, all finalists are equal.”

The professors try to pick authors who have a dynamic stage presence and the ability to engage students.

“We often go thinking a certain book or author would be good,” Moorhead said, “then realize they don’t have quite the public presence we’re looking for.”

The event, originally scheduled to take place on March 26 and 27 was postponed this spring because the organizers couldn’t be sure when the flood crisis would be over.

“It didn’t make sense to either squeeze it in or do a poor job,” said Dr. James Aageson, dean of arts and sciences.

With last spring’s day-to-day class cancellations, road closings and water rising, the organizers couldn’t be sure when the authors would be able to get to Concordia, or even if the campus would be open. Even so, the college waited as long as possible to change the date.

“We waited until the 11th hour to cancel,” Olsen said.

Faculty is taking advantage of the unusual timing of the event. Dr. Linda Johnson is requiring the students in her Women’s History 344 class to attend either the conversation or the master class with Maxine Hong Kingston. One’s of Kingston’s featured books, “The Woman Warrior,” is a text that Johnson uses in the course. The book, which includes the legend that inspired Disney’s “Mulan,” addresses issues of identity and gender.

“We don’t fully know women’s stories until these authors bring them to life,” Johnson said.

Olsen believes that Gordon-Reed’s book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” is valuable for the same reasons. The book, which tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress, Sally Hemings, and her descendants, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in addition to the National Book Award.

“The story really does blend itself into almost every discipline on campus,” he said. He said the book addresses race, class, and gender—issues that are relevant on any college campus today.

The master classes, which will be held in Birkeland Alumni Lounge and Frida Nilsen Lounge at 9:20 a.m. on Oct. 30, will allow authors to be creative about what they want to discuss. Past authors have discussed everything from their own books and research to the creative process.

Aageson believes the master classes in particular are an opportunity that is “too good to pass up.”

“I think part of a good education is taking part in these opportunities,” he said. “These are golden opportunities for students to encounter ideas and first-rate authors.”

Olsen hopes that students and faculty alike will leave the event with an enriched understanding of American history and literature. Events such as the National Book Awards, he said, are an opportunity to focus on the talent of American writers.

“This is a way to re-emphasize the intelligent and literate community of the United States,” he said. “When you leave, you are somehow larger than when you began.”

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