While the University attracts a diverse array of authors and speakers from around the world to Ann Arbor, very few events celebrate the Midwest itself as a literary region. This is no coincidence — the Midwest, often unfairly, has never been considered a hotbed for writers and artists in the same way that other parts of the country, like New York or San Francisco, have. West Coast, East Coast and Southern authors can all claim their region as part of their identity as a writer. Even Canadians have pride in their literary tradition. But where does that leave the Midwest?
Seven years ago this month, several Michigan residents who were passionate about their area decided it was time to finally highlight the Midwest’s literary potential. This Saturday, their legacy continues with the Midwest Literary Walk, an event that celebrates authors who are from the Midwest, live in the Midwest or write about the Midwest.
The walk takes place in Chelsea, a picturesque small town just a short drive from Ann Arbor. Participants can attend as many or as few events as they want, depending on their interest in each author or theme (or how early they want to get to the Chelsea Ale House for a craft brew). In between readings, talks and author Q&As, the writers and guests amble through downtown Chelsea — each event is located at a different town landmark, allowing visitors to explore the classic Midwestern hamlet as well. The event is hosted by the Chelsea District Library.
“[The visitors] get a little taste of Chelsea,” explained event organizer Rich Fahle. “A lot of people haven’t been here before; in fact, we find every year that the majority of people who come don’t live in the town. We try to introduce different neighborhoods or parts of Chelsea.”
While the scavenger hunt-style design, which leads attendees around downtown, may be the most unique feature of the walk, the event’s real draw are the big name writers who come to speak. The high quality of the visiting authors, poets and journalists has been consistent throughout the festival’s history, and this year is no exception. Unsurprisingly, given the size and stature of its writing programs, four of the writers speaking on Saturday have connections to the University.
This year’s line-up seems to have an especially socially-conscious tilt to it, possibly inspired by the heightened political awareness and tension in the country right now. One highlight of the event is a conversation on immigration literature between two literary stars at the University: Derek Palacio, author of Cuban-American novel “The Mortifications,” and Peter Ho Davies, author of “The Welsh Girl” and most recently “The Fortunes,” a Chinese-American epic. Heather Ann Thompson, also at the University, will be showcasing her Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” These authors will address contemporary issues as far-ranging as the role of the immigrant in American society and modern mass concentration.
“There does seem to be a lot more socially conscious writing happening,” Fahle said. “What Derek [Palacio] and Peter [Ho Davies] are doing, writing about the immigrant experience in America, is really finding its way into some of the best literature out there. There’s a real hunger for these stories right now.”
Several lauded poets will appear at the walk as well. Kwame Alexander, a Michigan native whose blend of poetry and fiction has earned him prizes in both adult and children’s writing, will attend. In 2015, Alexander’s basketball poetry novel “The Crossover” won the Newbery Medal, the children’s literature award that now places him in the ranks of Madeleine L’Engle and Christopher Paul Curtis. Newly-minted literary star and Detroiter Airea D. Matthews, whose first book of poems “simulacra” will be released this Friday, will also feature during the day’s events.
Rain or shine, the walk will celebrate its seventh year this Saturday, part of the growing literary scene throughout Michigan and the Midwest.