Home is a sensation. It’s the places where you’ve laughed and cried, where old street corners and gas stations carry memories, where even the silence feels familiar.
On Wednesday evening nostalgia filled the Mackenzie Room, as a vibrant, eager audience gathered for the first Stegner fellow reading of winter quarter. The reading featured two first-year fellows: Jalen Eutsey and Ashley Hand.
Both writers drew inspiration heavily from their past experiences with home and family. “In so many poems, Jalen leaves us in an uncomfortable certainty,” Amanda Gunn, second-year Stegner Fellow, said in her introduction of Eutsey.
This quality is apparent in Eutsey’s recited tales of “bird-chested boys” who played in the dangerous streets of West Bryant, Florida. Similarly, in his poem, “Snuff,” Eutsey writes about his father’s tobacco addiction — “I learned what you can and can’t make of a man” — recounting the time his father had offered him tobacco as a teen. His words leapt from playful to solemn, pausing every few lines to allow for contemplative silence.
The concept of home took a different shape for Hand. As a service academy graduate and former military officer frequently deployed worldwide to various armed conflicts, Hand’s stories draw greatly from her experiences in the military overseas. She left active duty in 2018 to pursue an MFA at Cornell University and has been a writer ever since.
“There’s a very thin veneer of fiction overlaid over my life experiences,” Hand told the audience. Her characters are often deployed abroad, and the readers follow them through trauma and isolation.
Hand invited the audience into her tiny hotel in New Mexico as she read the chapter of her first novel, “Gas Stations in New Mexico.” She read at a pace that was almost meditative, grounding the audience in vivid details of a failed engagement. Although she never explicitly stated the emotions of her protagonist, I could feel them by heart.
When asked how and when they realized writing was their calling, both writers admitted that there wasn’t a single moment, but rather a collection of moments that lead them to pursue their professions.
“I started writing — what I struggle to call poems today — in high school,” Eutsey said. To him, writing has been a continual process of commitment and recommitment. The mentors he met throughout his writing education have been crucial to his success.
“I’m still trying to figure out if writing is my thing,” Hand replied with a smile. “I was a real introvert growing up and stories were a good escape for me.” She went on to explain how she joined the military so she could go to college. She never thought that being a writer was a practical profession until she met a writing mentor in college who encouraged her to pursue it.
“Writing is just the most embarrassing profession,” Hand said as the room burst into laughter. She revealed to the audience that the excerpt she read was originally written as a journal entry when she was crying on a plane.
Through beautiful poetry and prose, Eutsey and Hand showed the audience the power of mundane experiences in life. They encouraged the audience to find writing mentors who will support them and to always be on the lookout for inspiration. You never know when you’ll come across a good story.
The next Stegner Fellow Reading will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 8, featuring Jemimah Wei and Madeleine Cravens.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.