National Book Awards concludes its final chapter at Concordia

Concordia College’s National Book Award program ended its 15-year run this week with a panel discussion featuring nonfiction writer David Grann and poet Nikky Finney.

Grann, a 2017 National Books Awards finalist with his novel “Killers of the Flower Moon,” made his first appearance at Concordia this year, while Finney, winner of the National Book Award in poetry in 2011 for her work “Head Off and Split,” returned for a second appearance after first speaking on campus in 2012.

The National Book Awards program has been hosted at Concordia since 2005 and was originally started by Scott Olsen and Tracey Moorhead. Laura Probst and Philip Lemaster ran the program this year, deciding which previous winners would come and speak at the school and setting up masterclasses with the faculty. The National Book Foundation decided to discontinue the program after 2022.

The lecture, which took place Thursday night, saw a mix of students, faculty and the surrounding community turn out in attendance and was moderated by former National Public Radio correspondent and Cobber alumni John Ydstie. Ydstie asked the two guests a range of questions, varying from their writing process, the inspiration behind their work as well as the value of literature and storytelling.

A standout moment from the discussion came when Ydstie asked both Grann and Finney about recent movements to ban certain books from school libraries that make readers uncomfortable. Both writers deal with topics of social injustice and racism in their writing and highlighted the need for truthful storytelling.

“Sometimes stories are forgotten, and sometimes they are eviscerated on purpose,” said Finney. “Being uncomfortable is part of human nature.” 

Finney said the types of stories that make people uncomfortable must be told, and they must be told truthfully because they are a part of history. This sentiment was echoed by Grann, who said he often felt like he was chasing history while writing “Killers of the Flower Moon”:

“This idea about leaving out history — it just literally makes no sense. The reality doesn’t disappear if you leave it out, and it takes away our ability to understand it if it’s removed.”

Each author also read out excerpts from their work and participated in a book signing after the talk.

“It’s beneficial for the students for a lot of different reasons,” said Lemaster. “We bring in two different writers where it seems like they’d have little overlap in the context of what they do, but in conversation, there are similarities that John (Ydstie) will try and bring out. It’s a learning opportunity for people who are interested not just in writing, but in history, or gender or justice more broadly.”

In addition to the panel, several classes got to work with either Grann or Finney in a masterclass, where students were free to ask questions to the writers about their experiences. Grann gave a lecture to the global cinema course, as well as the creative writing and nonfiction students, while Finney spoke to the school’s poetry and women’s and gender studies classes.

Greg Carlson, a professor in the Communications Studies department who leads the global cinema class, said he was thrilled for students to get the chance to work with such experienced writers.

Several of Grann’s books have been adapted to film, with the adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon” expected to be released next year. Carlson and the directors of the National Book Award program thought it could be a great learning experience for students.

“I don’t think students have even realized how fortunate they are to have this opportunity,” said Carlson. Speaking of Grann specifically, Carlson said the students will be deeply impressed by someone who routinely presents on a wide variety of important topics.

Probst and Lemaster’s goal was to use this opportunity to benefit the campus community as much as possible, and the two directors spent time figuring out where Grann and Finney’s work would best align with students.

“We wanted to have other sources of venues for them to discuss more than the writing process,” said Lemaster. “We don’t want the national book awards program to be something that is just, this is something that benefits students in the writing major or the writing minor. This is something where writers and authors and poets can bring insightful information to students in a broad area of study.”

Students taking part in the masterclass were often assigned the writer’s work in preparation for their lecture.

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