In conversation: Venita Blackburn


As part of the College of Arts and Humanities blog series on new faces in the college, we will introduce you to three accomplished professors and authors who are joining the Department of English and the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing for academic year 2018-19.

Next up: Venita Blackburn, fiction, in conversation with MFA communication specialist Jefferson Beavers.

What are you most looking forward to, teaching at Fresno State?

I’m looking forward to getting back in the classroom. It’s strange to non-teaching folks in my circles, but I actually really enjoy teaching. All of my aptitude tests have told me so. The graduate classes are really exciting, too. It’s fun to see progression of interest and skill in the students.

Your debut story collection, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, was published in September 2017 by the University of Nebraska Press, after winning the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. What’s your collection about, and what about the book makes you the most proud?

Yup, that’s my book, and it’s really about people that have subtle and sometimes startling powers that prove more troubling than super. There are themes of family, sexuality, religion, and such, but it is really about coping with talents in a world that has lost the way to measure those skills, and in many ways invokes suffering where there is misunderstanding.

I’m really proud and amazed at how well the book has been received on the prize circuit. I did almost no publicity after publication, and it still made it to the PEN and Young Lions finalist stage.

What are your teaching specialties? How did you become involved with those areas

I’m very much a sentence writer. That sounds obvious, ha! But there are distinctions between lyrical and narrative work. I care about plot and structure and momentum, but I care more about language and voice and syntax that can evoke emotion. That, along with the flash fiction form, are my specialties, I suppose.

Flash fiction is fun because it is timely with our civilization of reduced attention spans. That’s my TV answer. Lovers of literature recognize how challenging the form is and how some people make it look so easy when fitting a lifetime of human insight into 500 words is pretty spectacular.

How do you hope your background will elevate the English Department’s offerings at Fresno State?

I didn’t grow up in Fresno, but I did grow up in California. I lived in Compton up until I moved to Arizona for grad school. I’d love to say being a person of color is going to offer me a lot of license to interpret the souls of my students based on the demographics, but truthfully that only goes so far.

I have this problem I’ve had my whole life—it’s an honesty reflex. I tell people what I see. In workshops, honesty is really all we can offer each other of value as long (as it comes in context, of course).

What are you reading right now?

I just read the novel Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, and loved it. I kept flipping back to the author’s name expecting to read a different age or gender or nationality because the accuracy of perspective is so precise yet vast.

What is a book you think everyone should read, and why?

Read Signs right now, for sure.

What’s a fun fact people may not know about you?

I studied martial arts as a kid, and I recently took courses on yoga instruction. Writers need to take care of our bodies.

What are your fall 2018 office hours?

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 to 1:50 p.m., and Mondays and Wednesdays, 3 to 3:50 p.m., in PB 439.

In this series:
Aug. 20—Brynn Saito
Aug. 27—Venita Blackburn
Sept. 4—Joseph Cassara
Joining us Fall 2019—Mai Der Vang

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