Finally, a Festival of Their Own

by Julie Hail Flory

In the age of best-selling authors like Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and J.K. Rowling, it may be hard to imagine that women writers are still struggling to get out of the shadows of their male counterparts.

But if you look beyond the surface of the popular titles on bookstore shelves, can it possibly be that publishing is still a mans world?

Its a funny world,says Valerie Sayers, professor of English and author of five novels, two of which were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year.There are more women publishing than ever today, but its much harder for women to get attention in places like the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. The balance of review attention in terms of literary fiction is still very much geared toward men.

Sayers need not look very far for another example of the gender gap. She has done the math and reports that over the more than 40-year history of the Notre Dame Literary Festival, there have been about three times more male author participants than women.

So yes, theyvecome a long way, baby,but theres still work to be done.

Even though the situation has improved dramatically in the last several years, we really wanted to rectify that situation and also give our many, many student writers who are women a chance to meet, talk to and interact with women writers who are prominent,Sayers said.

With that goal in mind, Notre Dames Creative Writing Program will host its first annual women writersconference on April 15 and 16, titledA Festival of Our Ownand featuring distinguished writers Alice McDermott, Katherine Vaz and Lily Hoang, who will read selections from their work that touch on the inaugural theme of Catholicism in the United States.

McDermott, whose celebrated novels includeCharming Billy,which won the National Book Award and American Book Award, will read at 7 p.m. on April 15; Vaz, the author of two novels,SaudadeandMariana,and Hoang, an MFA almuna of the Creative Writing Program whose books includeParabolaandChanging,will present a joint reading at 7:30 p.m. on April 16. All three authors will participate in a panel discussion at on April 16 at 2 p.m. All events will take place in McKenna Hall and are free and open to the public.

I feel like as a writer I often worry about my writing being too female or too womanly and so that is one concern,says Hoang, who herself has avoided some of the industry pressures by working with smaller, women-run presses, but remains well aware of the challenges she and her sister writers face.I think that its a marvelous idea to have a festival to celebrate women writers and Im absolutely honored to be with these two wonderful writers at this conference.

Women writers traditionally have had bigger challenges both because its harder to get noticed and also because very often women are doing the bulk of domestic or child care work,says Sayers, who hopes the festival will provide an opportunity for discussion about the evolving roles of writing women.

Those things are changing as the years go by, but itll still be interesting, I think, to talk to each of the three women about how they experience their place as writers in the world today.

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