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"Collaboration" by Jamie Burmeister



Riding Amtrak and flying—not the same as tooling along in Anna’s Bookmobile, but I’m grateful to have gotten back to presenting To Drink from the Silver Cup to various audiences. My first event back on the road (so to speak) was held in my hometown of Gallup, New Mexico in the Zollinger Library at the University of New Mexico (UNM). I’ve never been nervous leading up to these events before, because they’re energizing for me, and the belief that the people who need to hear me will be present has continued to be affirmed in so many ways. But I was nervous about this reading in Gallup.

Although I’d done a couple of smaller events in town at the Westminster Presbyterian Church last October, this was a bigger event, more widely publicized, including an article and photograph based on an interview by star reporter Elizabeth Burrola. In part because of broad publicity, I knew that the audience might be quite diverse—including students and professors from UNM, students from the campus LGBTQ+ support group, people from or connected with the Rehoboth campus, and family members. I try to tailor the excerpts I read to what I think will interest my audience, so the unknown diversity made prepping a harder task than usual. There had also been some recent exchanges with family members that made me uncertain as to whether some of the audience would be friendly or not.

As usual, I needn’t have worried, but I’m still learning that. The audience was made up largely of students, mostly Navajo, who were encouraged to attend by the promise of extra credit from their instructors. Several professors also attended. There was a handful of people connected with Rehoboth, one of whom is the parent of a gay daughter and one of whom is going through her own earnest process of discernment as to how the church should treat gay Christians. There were also family members—allies and as well as non-allies who simply came to support me as their sibling. The Q & A period was lively with thought-provoking questions from all three groups. Everyone spoke in a friendly voice. The library staff was beyond welcoming and genuinely excited to have me kick off their Herstory Month program. After the event I walked out into a flurry of wet snow happy and energized.

My second event as the tour resumes was at the University of Nebraska/Omaha (UNO), two nights ago. Two university events back-to-back. This was a joint reading with UNO professor Lisa Knopp, who read from her latest book Bread: A Memoir of Hunger. My friend and colleague Jody Keisner conceived of the event several months ago, before our books had been released. She worked tirelessly to organize the space and the catering and, in her words, “marketed like crazy.” That all paid off, as the auditorium seats seventy, and the staff had to bring in thirty extra chairs. The Creative Nonfiction Department gave students incentives to attend, which meant the audience was largely made up of writing students. One professor had even assigned and discussed my essay, “A Good Stranger” (Isthmus, Fall/Winter 2014), prior to the reading to whet his students’ appetites.

The image, “Collaboration,” hangs on one wall of the auditorium where we read, and this was truly a collaborative effort, beginning with Jody’s choice to bring together two writers whose books at first blush seem quite disparate but turn out to have much in common, as they explore spiritual journey in different ways. I enjoyed how Lisa and I deferred to one another throughout the Q & A portion and genuinely appreciated one another’s work. I felt that the students, who supplied the majority of the questions were also our collaborators because they brought our processes and our work to life through a different modality from our presentations, often being personally vulnerable. One queer man shattered the myth that young LGBTQ+ young people are not interested in what their predecessors might have to offer as our struggle continues now and in the future. Conversations after a reading, as people come up to have books signed are so deeply meaningful because people often share snippets of their own stories. One of the highlights for me was to be honored as the second person to whom a young woman came out, sharing a bit about her conflicts with her religious upbringing. I thrive on the engagement.

The collaboration goes on after a reading too, first in the form of friends responding with delight over a successful event. A Native American Literature professor I’d met at the pre-reading dinner spontaneously invited me to be a guest in her classroom when she learned that I was on campus the next day. There I learned some things and was also able to share—how you make Navajo fry bread, for example–but also deeper things. This morning another professor commented on Facebook that the readings sparked great classroom discussions the following day. This is why we write. This is why we tell our stories.

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