The Power of Fiction: A Lecture by Award-Winning Author Steven Dunn

By ABIGAIL RUSSELL

As a continuation of the Colorado College English Department’s Visiting Writer Series, Steven Dunn visited campus on Tuesday, May 7. He is the author of  “water & power” and the award-winning “Potted Meat,” and he was recently shortlisted for Granta magazine’s “Best Young American Novelists.” Dunn not only contributes to the community through writing but also by co-coordinating “The Art of Storytelling” — a monthly reading series which features established writers, poets, and performers of color to create a space that connects writers, readers, and listeners from various communities. 

Dunn’s reading included a short story, as well as excerpts from both of his novels, which gave the audience a taste of his writing style and demonstrated his purpose. 

Photo By Daniel Sarché

“Potted Meat,” a fictional novel written as a series of short stories narrated by a young boy growing up in West Virginia, deals with issues of abusive parents, poverty, alcohol addictions, and racial tensions. “water & power,” Dunn’s second novel, is written in a similar style of short anecdotes. In this work, Dunn employs a string of brief interviews told from a variety of voices as opposed to that of a consistent narrator. These stories reveal truths of Dunn’s time in the Navy, and the corruption he observed across the globe while serving, specifically in Thailand. 

Dunn spoke to his personal writing process, and shared approaches and strategies that he used while constructing these two works.  

One of the first noticeable things about Dunn’s work is that they are both written in a very intimate, documentary-like style. One as a personal narrative of sorts, the other a series of confidential interviews, but both are works of fiction. Dunn, especially in his writing of “water & power,” chose this paradoxical fictional route because it uproots the normative military narrative, which in his opinion is problematic. For Dunn, the typical “this is how it is” form of these novels leaves no room for questions or uncertainty. Conversely, Dunn was seeking that very ‘questioning’ that these subjects do not lend themselves to. He found that including reality while also allowing himself to “stretch” things allowed for this very effect. 

Further, he expresses his beliefs in the widespread and fundamentally reliable nature of fiction. “[Coming out and reading at Colorado College] to me that is an act of fiction because I’m creating a narrative around this thing, and that is only to say that I give a lot of credibility to fiction,” said Dunn. “I believe in the power of this thing.” 

Dunn deliberately walks the line between entertaining through humor and addressing important issues. Dunn notes that this strategy is invaluable, as he holds that it can make his readers more influenceable. “Sometimes it feels like an opening, like if you can laugh then maybe sometimes you’re receptive to what came before or what will follow,” he said. 

Further, Dunn explained how he chose which experience-based stories he included in his novels and which he ultimately did not. He attributed this elimination process to maintaining the thematic flow of his works. “Like whatever did not fit thematically, what was starting to happen with the book, I had to not include,” Dunn said.  

Dunn disclosed that although he has written largely in the short anecdotal style in the past, the novel he is currently working on is coming about differently. Dunn reported that he writes where his material takes him and that his current project is taking him in a slightly different direction. 

Throughout his reading, Dunn spoke a lot to racial representation in the variety of spaces he’s encountered throughout his life, specifically as an educator and novelist. He touched on people’s viewing  of him as simply a person of color, and problematic situations he’s encountered trying to balance his personal identity with his racial identity. Both of his works focus largely on this theme, and evidently that is a message he wants to relay to his audiences. 

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