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Getting Serious About Our World and Writing Social Justice: an Interview with Nan Cuba

by Writing Workshops Staff

3 months ago


Getting Serious About Our World and Writing Social Justice: an Interview with Nan Cuba

by Writing Workshops Staff

3 months ago


Welcome to an inspiring conversation with Nan Cuba, a distinguished author and instructor who is leading the charge in the realm of socially conscious fiction writing.

Nan is the award-winning author of Body and Bread, a novel that garnered accolades such as the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award. Her work has graced the pages of esteemed literary journals like Harvard Review, Columbia, Quarterly West, and the Chicago Tribune's Printer's Row, among others, and she is teaching a new class for Writing Workshops titled Getting Serious About Our World: Writing Social Justice, an 8-Week Fiction Workshop.

Nan's impact also extends beyond the written word; she is recognized as an investigator of extraordinary violence, featured in Netflix's documentary The Confession Killer and Hulu's Wild Crimes: Murder in Yosemite. As a literary luminary, she has received prestigious fellowships, including the Dobie Paisano Fellowship and a San Antonio Artist Foundation Fellowship, along with an artist residency in Spain at Fundación Valparaiso.

Nan is also the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit writing arts center in San Antonio, further exemplifying her commitment to nurturing literary voices.

In our interview with Nan, she will delve into the art of crafting fiction that tackles pressing political and social issues with integrity and insight. With a belief in the power of storytelling to challenge and expand our understanding of the world, Nan's workshop aims to equip writers with the techniques and tools needed to address social justice topics within their fiction.

Drawing on the wisdom of Anton Chekhov and emphasizing the importance of stating a problem correctly rather than prescribing solutions, Nan invites writers to become unbiased observers and honest conveyors of the human experience. Join us in this enlightening conversation with Nan Cuba as we explore the transformative potential of socially conscious fiction and the craft behind it.

WW: Nan, your impressive body of work ranges from award-winning fiction to deep investigations into the causes of extraordinary violence, as seen in documentaries like "The Confession Killer." How have these diverse experiences informed the curriculum of your "Getting Serious About Our World" workshop?

NC: Writing should be a process of discovery. I started as a journalist, and with each article, I wrote to understand the issue, often surprising myself. Otherwise, writing would be, as a friend once worried, only homework. I wrote my novel, Body and Bread, to figure out why my brother committed suicide. Instead, I discovered the degree of emotional damage felt by loved ones left behind. For my work interviewing and writing about a serial killer, I tried to find the causes of extraordinary violence, only to know later that sometimes, it can’t be explained. For my novel inspired by that experience, Menace Between, I found there are no absolutes when considering issue-related stories. The world and human nature are too complex, and fiction is designed to expose those emotional truths. Our “Getting Serious About Our World” workshop will focus on writing to discover, not to report what we think we know.

WW: The workshop description mentions the Russian humanist Anton Chekhov's perspective that artists should be "unbiased observers" rather than judges. Can you elaborate on how this philosophy will shape the workshop and the techniques taught to students?

NC: In a letter to his publisher, Chekhov said, “You scold me for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, the absence of ideals and ideas, and so on and so forth. When I describe my horse thieves, you want me to state: stealing horses is evil. But nobody needs me to tell him that. Let juries judge horse thieves; my job is simply to show what they’re like.” Most artists have strong opinions and hope to convey them in their writing. That’s commendable. However, writing a story to make a political or social statement is propaganda, and the reader rightfully resists such manipulation. No minds are changed, and only the writer feels satisfied. Chekhov also said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” Even when writing satire or dystopic, utopic, or apocalyptic fiction, genres that seem designed to address issues, questions should be raised; both sides of an issue should be considered. To do otherwise would be to claim the issue is simple and human experience is uncomplicated. In our workshop, we will practice techniques that investigate reader and writer assumptions. Questions will be left for readers to consider.

WW: Given your background as the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, how do you believe writing arts centers and workshops play a role in amplifying social justice issues in literature today?

NC: Artists are curious and actively witness what’s happening around them. Their art reflects what they’ve seen, presenting universal concepts that are difficult to articulate. Kant correctly believed objective reality, “noumenon,” was inaccessible, so each person’s story, poem, or essay is a unique creation, a perception only that person could imagine. Writing arts centers and workshops encourage people to share their versions of reality, generating discussions about how people treat each other and react to the world. When participants are asked to incorporate their cultural identifiers, such as language, dialect, traditions, history, values, and/or storytelling design, social justice issues naturally appear. Workshops encourage analyses of these fictionalized social-justice truths while exposing participants to various issues and interpretations.

WW: You emphasize in the course description that socially conscious fiction should raise questions rather than provide answers. Can you share an example from your own writing where you've tried to challenge both your readers' and your own preconceived notions?

NC: In the novel I’m finishing, Menace Between, which has four characters participating in a national investigation of a man confessing to hundreds of murders, the arresting sheriff, Pratt Hamer, frames the inmate, Clayton Biddle, for a murder he didn’t commit. Sheriff Hamer is loosely based on the sheriff who arrested Henry Lee Lucas, but I met that sheriff maybe four times and knew nothing about him or his life. In other words, the character I created is completely fictional. But when I had Sheriff Hamer frame Clayton and manipulate the criminal justice system to give him the death penalty, the character risked becoming a one-dimensional villain. Heck, as someone who opposes the death penalty, I didn’t like him either, so I investigated the issue. Why would a man devoted to the legal system and longing to equal his father’s reputation as an officer of the law break the law in such an immoral way? While developing the story’s response, the other side of the issue was revealed, complicating the reasoning, and raising questions for the reader.

WW: The workshop aims to help students determine their intended readers before giving feedback. Why do you believe it's essential for writers to understand their audience when crafting socially conscious fiction?

NC: I believe it’s essential for writers to understand their audience when writing anything. In many workshops, participants assume the story should be pitched to the “general reader,” who is white, male, middle aged, cisgendered, English speaking, abled, and Western thinking, meaning craft operations should be designed for that profile. When a writer is free to write to a different audience, say one that includes Mexican immigrants, her story might contain Spanish and cultural allusions, and its structure might include magical realism and more narration than dialogue. At the start of each workshop discussion, classmates should identify a story’s intended audience to ensure the effectiveness of their feedback.

WW: For those who attend the "Getting Serious About Our World" workshop, what do you hope they take away from the experience, both as writers and as individuals who care deeply about social justice?

NC: Our goal as fiction writers is to observe honestly and deeply the human experience, and our process should be one of discovery. We should feel compassion for our characters, causing the reader to react with empathy. If writers are society’s witnesses, charged with presenting an objective view of what we’ve seen, we should offer stories that enlighten, that challenge preconceived thinking, that entertain, of course, but also reveal the beauty, wonder, horror, and confusion of being alive. That means noticing what’s happening around us and reacting. When that happens, rather than creating a story to support our opinion, we should investigate the issue through characters from both sides. The result is revelatory for the author and thought provoking for the reader.

You can learn more about Nan's upcoming Getting Serious About Our World: Writing Social Justice 8-Week Zoom Fiction Workshop, and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?

Instructor Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award; it was listed as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O, Oprah’s Magazine and was a “Summer Books” choice from Huffington Post. Other work has appeared in Antioch Review, Harvard Review, Columbia, Quarterly West, and Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row. Journalistic pieces were published in LIFE, Third Coast, and D Magazine. As an investigator of the causes of extraordinary violence, she is featured in a Netflix documentary, The Confession Killer, and another by Hulu, Wild Crimes: Murder in Yosemite. Cuba is included in Texas Monthly’s “Ten to Watch (and Read)” and has received a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a San Antonio Artist Foundation Fellowship, and an artist residency at Fundación Valparaiso in Spain. She is founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit writing arts center, and was Writer in Residence at Our Lady of the Lake University.

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