This year’s In-Print Festival of First Books (eighteenth in the series) took place in the Student Center Ballroom on March 28 and March 29. This event consisted of a few noteworthy writers whose first books were published in the past year. Michael Kleber-Diggs (he/him) debuted his poetry collection Worldly Things in 2021, Jasmine Sawers (they/them) debuted their collection of flash fiction The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore in 2023, Prince Shakur (he/him) debuted his memoir When They Tell You to Be Good in 2022, and Ira Sukrungruang, who was a visiting editor and writer himself, writing novels like This Jade World (2021) and Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations (2018). In-Print Festival of First Books XVIII celebrated the successes of our visiting writers as well as talks of diversity, inclusivity, and first books within the world of publishing.
Jill Christman, director of Creative Writing at Ball State, acted as the moderator for the event. As she introduced each writer, she gave them the opportunity to tell how their book came to be and how writing has affected their respective lives. Also, she detailed an artists need to crack open our capacity for curiosity and compassion, and how each author accomplished great creative visions in their first books.
Michael Kleber-Diggs & Worldly Things
Michael Kleber-Diggs recounted his journey with poetry with Worldly Things, writing for the book that he didn’t fully realize to be a collection of poetry. Sitting down with his mentor Juliet Patterson, she advised him to print each individual poem from the past few years. After what I’m sure to be a daunting amount of “click, print, click, print”, Kleber-Diggs saw the potential for a book. Crafting and articulating a version that he believed was quintessential to the creation of this book, even with edits from a friend, hoping that it would represent what he hoped it would represent. Months later, as Kleber-Diggs stood in his yard, Milkweed announced to him that he had won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize.
In his reading of Worldly Things, he opens his reading with a love letter to Sean Hill, his ongoing mentor in Postcard to Sean:
“My own feet falling as I puzzled my way through some particular poem part. Wanting to know more about prayer. A specific Catholic prayer I used to recite. Sean, a bird tweeted and trilled a morning song, quite short, quite grand. It got me wondering what creatures call above the rattle.”
Jasmine Sawers & The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore
Their journey beginning in an MFA class about flash fiction at Indiana University, discovering gritty realism wasn’t where their passion resided. It was a freeing experience, and they discovered the heart of what their writing encompassed. Fairy tales. “The blueprint of how we learn about stories.” Not longer after, they won the Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest, and although agents flooded their inbox, flash fiction was the passion. People coming out of the woodwork telling them that flash fiction had no future. As Sawers put it, “their voices got into my head, and I stopped writing for a handful of years. I don’t recommend this to any writer, but I had this belief that if you aren’t writing a novel, you don’t deserve to write.” After some time away from writing, Jasmine Sawers discovered Rose Metal Press. Placing emphasis on uplifting marginalized voices as well as showcasing stories in the same vein as their own, they jumped back on the horse and their book The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore was accepted by Rose Metal Press shortly after.
In their reading of The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore, they open their reading with a flash called The Weight of the Moon:
“The Moon fell from the sky last Tuesday. I rolled her into the shed and gave her some water. Thank you, she said. Don’t you worry about it, I said. I patted her sorus-looking crater. I got some lotion and rubbed it on. Thank you, she said. Everyone was so worried. The tides, she said. The rotation of the Earth on its axis, they said. The migration of the birds, the turning of the seasons, they said. The invisibility at nighttime!”
Prince Shakur & When They Tell You to Be Good
Studying creative writing as an undergraduate at Ohio State University, Shakur already held a long history of book writing, but wanted to understand what it meant to be a writer outside of an academic space. From the Philippines to South Korea (and budgeting very poorly he may add), he found himself freelancing as he bounced around the world. This book, When They Tell You to Be Good, is essentially a book about the life of Shakur. His radicalization through Black Lives Matter, his dad, and many more things swirling within his mind. While learning the freelancing business in Ohio, he decided to move to France to turn 24 mostly because James Baldwin went to France when he was 24. Over the next two years of freelancing and editing during lockdown with his agent, the book went up for submissions. 7 months passed, rejections aboard (crying everyday as Shakur put it) but through a personal connection, When They Tell You to Be Good published at Tinhouse in 2022.
In his reading of When They Tell You to Be Good, he begins with a section of his memoir of him coming out to his mother:
“Shortly after that night, my mother enrolled me in therapy. In our first session, my mother was invited. I looked the therapist squarely in the face, fidgeted in my seat, and asked, “I just need to know that I’m safe. How would you define mental and physical abuse?” The therapist was a young, white woman with a warm demeanor. Her brown hair touched her ears. She looked between my mother and me in her narrow office and cleared her throat before explaining the difference between the two.”
Ira Sukrungruang & This Jade World
Although Ira Sukrungruang had been published before and was the visiting editor for In-Print VXIII, he recounts his experience with his first book, Talk Thai. When he sent out the book originally, he was on his way to become a monk (to figure shit out he said) with the reoccurring thought “I’m going to be famous.” Often hiding his cellphone in his monk robes awaiting the call, it was about two weeks or so when he discovered that the process would be much longer than he anticipated. Eventually, the book when through every publishing house in New York and received “very wonderful rejections”. He noted a very interesting take about what it means to be Thai American and how publishing houses wish to find a specific instance of the Asian American experience, but not account for each specific experience but the one they believe will sell the most. He delved into how to market for books like this and eventually, he shelved his memoir for three years and began writing instead of waiting. Eventually, he sent his memoir to the University of Missouri Press and Sukrungruang quoted, “everything worked out from there”.