“Even without access to literacy, women have sung their stories, woven them into cloth, stitched them into quilts, embroidered them into paj ndau, danced them in ceremonies, chanted them alone and in groups. Women in various cultures have invented their own forms of writing.”
The excerpt, written by author May-lee Chai, is part of the forward she penned for a forthcoming essay collection, “Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism,” published by UNCW’s Lookout Books. The book features all female contributors.
“I wanted to address the historical importance of having an essay collection written entirely by women about place,” Chai explains. “I wanted to remind readers how women have been forced into positions of servitude throughout much of human history, yet women have resisted this oppression and found ways to tell their stories against all odds.”
Through a range of subjects, from infertility and motherhood to foot binding, to racist marketing tactics of the U.S. gambling industry, here are 20 contemporary femme writers who “trespass across various confines,” as Chai notes. The collection is at the center of this year’s Writers’ Week, October 29 through November 2, held at UNCW.
May-lee Chai, now based in San Francisco, was an assistant professor at UNCW’s Department of Creative Writing. Chai is one of four “Trespass” contributors slated for panels and lectures, including keynote speaker Camille T. Dungy, and fellow authors Toni Jensen and Joni Tevis.
“I am naturally excited to see the creative writing faculty at UNCW, whom I have missed since I moved,” Chai tells. “I am looking forward to reconnecting with my wonderful former students. I want to see how Wilmington is doing after Hurricane Florence! I remember so many beautiful trees covered in Spanish moss, the landscape of the city. I’m hoping Wilmington is recovering and doing all right again.”
Writers’ Week unofficially kicked off Sunday, October 28 with a free community writing workshop with essayist Joni Tevis in partnership with Athenian Press. Like “Trespass,” many panels this week will focus on issues of representation, access and authenticity, and how women challenge the status quo.
“Environmental and place-based writing has long been shepherded by men, from Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, to Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben,” notes Lookout Books publisher and Ecotone director Emily Smith. “The collection makes a home for vital new essays by women who challenge those traditional boundaries to make room for greater complexity.”
Tevis also visited the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington (GLOW) on Monday to meet with an eighth-grade English class. Extending traditional reading tours beyond bookstores to include libraries and classrooms has been fundamental for Smith since founding Lookout in 2012. Both funded in part by a grant from South Arts, the events offer students opportunities to study writing with a published author. The idea is to show them their stories matter.
“Our authors have visited the Levine Cancer Center in Charlotte, the Hawbridge charter school in Saxapahaw, and Wilmington’s own Roland-Grise Middle School,” she lists. “Since [‘Trespass’] is devoted to women’s stories of family, personal history, and the places its authors call home, we were committed, for this particular visit, to inspiring and empowering young women, and GLOW is the perfect partner.”
Writers’ Week remains an invaluable resource for students, which includes an Alumni Career Panel (in partnership with HAWKtalks) “Classrooms to Career” at 10 a.m. on November 1. Everything is free and open to the greater Wilmington community, too. Other guests will include poet Cortney Lamar Charleston, who will lead a poetry craft lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.
Book editor Julie Buntin and literary agent Samantha Shea will give practical publishing advice on Thursday, with a presentation at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. “It’s such a dynamic group,” Smith adds. “I always wish more people took advantage of [Writers’ Week].”
While Chai will host a craft lecture on fiction and ghost stories on Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 12:30 p.m., she also will read from her latest work later the same evening at 7 p.m. In addition to writing the foreword to Lookout’s anthology, Chai released a new book, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” on October 23. On its pages, readers meet “left-behind children” in the villages of China. The kids are being reared by their grandparents, as their parents go to work in megafactories to make material items Americans buy. Having lived in the South, Chai tapped into the notion of family and how it plays an important role in people’s lives, and frames their relation to history and communities.
“You will meet families who may remind you of our own,” Chai notes. “In each of these stories, I center family relationships—sometimes fraught, sometimes funny. . . . I think most readers can relate to a family story, even when the family is located on the other side of the globe. The tensions that can run within families remain the same.”
Varying themes surrounding the idea of family, particularly of motherhood appear in essays throughout “Trespass.” Belle Boggs’s “Imaginary Children” is about being a teacher and studying motherless characters in literature. Camille Dungy’s “Differentiation” follows the challenges and joys of a traveling author with her “lap child,” which especially resonates with Smith, mother of an 8-month-old. “I love everything that Terry Tempest Williams writes,” Smith adds. Williams’ essay in “Trespass” also appears in her own memoir, “When Women Were Birds.”
Dungy also is 2018’s Buckner keynote speaker, who will take the stage at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Author of “Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History,” and a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award.