Thursday, March 13, 2008

Columbia College's Story Week speaks a universal language

photograph: Justin Schmitz

by Cory Robertson

Randall Albers, chair of Columbia College's Fiction Writing Department and founding producer of Story Week Festival of Writers, chuckles when he says that Mucca Pazza, who'll be performing at Story Week's "Literary Rock & Roll" event at Metro, is a "30-piece circus-punk marching band." The first word he uses to describe the group, however, is "amazing," and he says it with a tone of genuine admiration. Yet one can't help but wonders whether Albers could have foreseen the inclusion of such an act 12 years ago, when he first had the idea for Story Week. He initially modeled the festival on a "Poetry Week" he experienced as an undergraduate at Tulane; one filled with visiting beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. But diversity is and always has been the theme of Columbia College's Story Week, and this year may beat all, with visiting authors hailing from a wider array of countries than ever before and enough multimedia, musical and theatrical twists to make the age-old medium of the story as young and fresh as the first day of spring.

The 2008 festival has appropriately been dubbed "Stories Without Borders," and one glimpse at the author lineup reveals a wealth of international voices. Headliner Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, boasts a ream of bestselling novels, including Queen of Dreams and The Conch Bearer, a work of children's fiction. Junot Diaz, the first Dominican-born man to become an acclaimed author in the United States, is the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which topped Time magazine's list of Best Fiction for 2007. Plenty of hometown pride will be felt too, with the inclusion of authors like Jonathan Messinger, whose work Hiding Out was released by his own Featherproof Books, and ZZ Packer, a Chicago native now living on the West Coast, whose short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was a New York Times Notable Book and a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist.

Story Week's theme of diversity reaches beyond the writers themselves to encompass a cornucopia of events, from the down-to-business aims of "Publishing Bootcamp" to the experimental performance series "2nd Story" and the thought-provoking "Reading and Conversation" series, in which authors will be asked to address issues like immigration and cultural awareness. "We knew that we were heading into a political season," says Albers, bringing to light the many-sided implications of the term "borders." With an overarching goal of pluralism, Story Week promises not to overlook any possible perspective relating to its theme.

The goal of inclusion also means reaching out to the broadest possible audience. "In addition to those people who would normally go to a reading, we're always trying to find ways to appeal to people who might not normally go to a reading," Albers says. Story Week draws as few boundaries as possible, allowing writers to share the stage with musicians, sound effects to accompany storytelling and performance art to provide segues between readings, as it will when writer/performer Hillary Carlip takes the stage throughout Literary Rock & Roll.

Story Week will culminate in the celebration of the 30th release of Hair Trigger, Columbia College's annual literary anthology, which, Albers reminds us, has never failed to win a national award. In fact, Story Week itself seems to be a celebration of near-epic proportions -- one which has exceeded the expectations even of the man who first pondered the idea back in the mid-'90s while wondering how to bring in more visiting writers to Columbia College. "It's for many years now gone well beyond the dream that I originally had," Albers admits, adding that "now the dreams each year get a little bigger."

Story Week takes place March 16-21 at various locations; for more information, visit