Although writing in different genres, authors Charles Boyer and Randall Horton are both familiar with the challenge of translating lived experience into language.
The Kenyon Review and the Department of English will welcome the two Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) award winners on Monday, Feb. 19. Horton will read from his work, Hook: A Memoir, and Boyer will read excerpts from his novel, History’s Child.
“I started writing in prison, actually, if I’m going to go back that far,” Horton said. Before writing fiction and poetry, Horton wrote essays for a program in which he participated while incarcerated.
“We would have to write essays on things that we thought had led to incarceration … so the journey came out of that, being able to express what was going on inside me that I had never done before, even though I had been to college,” he said.
Randall Horton is a poet, memoirist and an associate professor of English at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. His memoir Hook: A Memoir (2015) is the winner of the GLCA New Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction. Horton’s previous work includes poetry collections The Definition of Place (2006), The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street (2009) and Pitch Dark Anarchy (2013). He is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature.
Horton constantly finds himself “flipping language sometimes for the sake of itself.” In other words, Horton looks to manipulate language to suit his own narrative, which has not historically been the dominant one. He describes this practice as “essential” for a writer from the African American vernacular tradition.
“This is the only language I have, and so for me, it’s always to play with that language, to flip the narrative in terms of the fragmented,” Horton said.
While Boyer’s GLCA-winning book is a fictional work of literature, he nevertheless found himself concerned with the facts of history and daily life throughout the writing process.
Set in post-World War II Poland, History’s Child follows the life of teenager Tadek Gradinski. It’s inspired by Boyer’s father-in-law’s coming of age during the Stalin Era. Boyer’s father-in-law began running messages for Stalin anti-resistance fighters and was eventually sent to the gulag along with his parents.
“He had way too exciting a life,” Boyer said.
Boyer sat down with his father-in-law to discuss the experiences that shaped those of History’s Child’s protagonist. While difficult to follow in translation, Boyer was inspired by his father’s struggles. “Knowing everything he’d been through and still seeing how he survived and how he really seemed to triumph [inspired me],” he said. Boyer’s father-in-law shared that he was tortured for three days at the age of 17 by the NKVD — the interior ministry of the Soviet Union — but he did not break.
Boyer is a fiction writer, poet and professor at the Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts. Boyer’s novel History’s Child (2016) won the GLCA 2017 New Writers’ Award for the Novel, along with the 2014 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award for the Novel. The Larcom Review, the Atlanta Review and Livingston Press have all published Boyer’s work. He is the recipient of a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board and a fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.
While his father-in-law’s narrative certainly influenced History’s Child, Boyer makes it clear that his father-in-law’s life simply provided the structure for the novel. “It was good to know certain things and have the outline there for me in certain ways, but not to know too much so I didn’t feel I was really writing a disguised biography. It’s very much a work of fiction,” he said.
Charles Boyer and Randall Horton will read selected works in the Cheever Room of Finn House on Monday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m.