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Witt Series Speaker Hillary Jordan Discusses The Writing Life

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From writing processes to racial tensions, students and faculty were given the opportunity to discuss the book “Mudbound” with the author Hillary Jordan, on Wednesday Oct. 3 in Bayley auditorium.

“Mudbound” is a fictional novel set in the south that explores racism, poverty and violence during the Jim Crow era. An adaptation of Jordan’s novel was released in 2017 by film producer Dee Rees.

This event was held as a part of the Wittenberg series and was orchestrated with a Q & A style. English professor Kate Polak facilitated the event and gave opening remarks.

“I want to think about Hillary Jordan also as someone who is a deeply reflected humane activist through her work,” Polak said.

After reading an excerpt from Jordan’s blog, Polak opened the floor to the audience. Associate professor of English Michael McClelland was the first to ask a question.

McClelland asked that with this “…idea that you write to change the world, can literature do that?”

In response, Jordan shared that literature, being its own form of art, can change the world.

“Literature is really the only art form that can put you directly into the mind of another human,” Jordan said. “One of the things that causes racism or sexism or some of the problems that we’re dealing with is fundamental ignorance.”

Literature, Jordan said, “helps dissolve those harsh lines.”

Though things began with a question from faculty, students offered their own questions as well.

One student asked, “in ‘Mudbound,’ you tackle a lot of really difficult topics… so for you what did you find to be the hardest thing to portray, to write?”

Jordan approached this question noting that the challenges she faced came along the way. However, there is a first time for everything.

“The biggest challenge was that I had not written a novel before,” Jordan said as a few laughed. “I had to teach myself how to do that while I was doing it.”

Other challenges came with character development where Jordan said that it was the characters that she most identified with whose realities were hard to “inhabit.”

“It wasn’t even the black characters, cause I’m not black obviously,” Jordan said.  But it was the characters who had the most complex personality.

Jordan also feared that the “history police were gonna come after me,” she said.

“When you’re writing about people who are far from your own experience,” Jordan said, “you do have a tremendous responsibility to get it right, to do it respectfully.”

Jordan also added that her creativity with grammar had a lot to do with defining a certain personality within her characters.

“I actually had different grammatical rules for every character in ‘Mudbound.’ So like Laura is the only character that uses semi colons.” Something that she said Laura would care about, being that she is an English teacher in the novel.

When the discussion shifted to writing processes, one question asked by professor Julius Bailey set the tone for racial discussion.

Bailey proposed, “would you possibly change the sense of hope and optimism that Dee Rees seems to kind of separate from because of the political times?” Bailey asked.

Would you, Bailey asked offering more, “…disagree for those who would tell me, talking about the book, that reading it in an Obama era is a different read?”

“I think it’s very different now,” Jordan said, “I think the whole progression of the film was very much about a response to now.”

Jordan went on to say that two years after Obama became president, she felt that her book might become irrelevant.

“That’s such a joke right,” Jordan said laughing, “but that is sort of what I thought…we kind of grown on the path [at the time] because we have [had] a black president.”

As a final remark to future writers in the audience, Jordan stated that writing a book is a marathon, but to be a good writer you must read a book from start to finish.

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