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Author Steven Dunn Is Building Community for Denver Writers of Color

Steven Dunn: Whiting Winner 2021.EXPAND
Steven Dunn: Whiting Winner 2021.
Beowulf Sheehan
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Steven Dunn writes, speaks, eats and lives his life with a gifted authenticity, full of observations, sparking ideas, everyday comedy, foodie obsessions, love of family, and fierce support for social justice in a literary world that hasn’t fully caught up to the strength of BIPOC talent. The author of two published novels, one of which was made into a short film (with plans to adapt to feature length), Dunn is now juggling new projects, including a book underway on the rapper Nas. The author just won a prestigious Whiting Award as an emerging American writer. Never mind that he’s also an aficionado of canned-fish delicacies and a master Etch A Sketch artist.

Dunn first answered Westword's Colorado Creatives questionnaire in 2017, reflecting on his own artistic journey and the city's; we decided it was time to catch up with him again.

Westword: How has your creative life grown or suffered since you last answered the CC questionnaire?

Steven Dunn: It’s grown into a lot more explicit collaborative projects, where I have tons of people writing things in my books. You wrote about our reading series, Art of Storytelling, when we first started, and at the time I didn’t know that some of the writers and performers we featured would eventually become collaborators in my books and other things. Like André Hoilette, Tameca L Coleman, and Georgia-based rapper Paron Jamall, will have a few pieces in my book about the rapper Nas. D.L Cordero joined our writing group about two years ago. And you, Susan! You read those beautiful poems about Louis Armstrong at Art of Storytelling, and here we are now. Thank you! So yeah, being in the practice of intentionally cultivating community and space for others influenced the hell out of my creative life.

Lorenzo James, Ahja Fox, Thuyanh Astbury and Steven Dunn of The Art of Storytelling.EXPAND
Lorenzo James, Ahja Fox, Thuyanh Astbury and Steven Dunn of The Art of Storytelling.
Art of Storytelling

As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Denver (or Colorado)?

Damn, that’s tough. But I think it’s in line with why me, Lorenzo James and Ahja Fox started Art of Storytelling: recognizing the gaps in the perceived perfection of Denver and acknowledging that perfection doesn’t necessarily belong to people of color, so we made our own shit kinda free of the white gaze. So I’d love to go a little bigger and start a statewide book/art awards and literary/art festival for artists of color to fill that gap left by the mostly white judges, readers, organizers and winners of the Colorado Book Awards.

How do you fit into the art-as-activism movement, and why is message-making in your field important?

Collaborating with other marginalized artists, and doing what I can with the li’l platform I have and paying them — so not only trying to increase “exposure” (I kinda hate that term, but I don’t know what else to say right now), but also trying to help out a little of their material realities. It’s small, but that’s all I can do now.

What are you reading these days?

Mostly student work. I teach at two MFA programs, and I have twelve students who submit 25 pages of writing once a month. But outside of that, I’ve been reading Dr. Regina Bradley’s beautiful book Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South . And I’m reading lots of tender kids’ books with my five-year-old son. Shout-out to Berenstain Bears!

What’s your dream project?

To write a book mapping French colonialism through sandwiches, and to travel to each of these countries to eat the sandwich, like going to Vietnam to eat banh mi, to Mexico to eat a torta, to Algeria to eat a garantita, and so on.

What advice would you give a young, hopeful Black writer in your field?

Form groups with other Black writers at various levels: writing groups, advice groups, resource groups. So you can gossip (super important, and I’m being serious), help each other improve and make opportunities for each other.

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

Chef Edwin Sandoval, who owns Xatrucho, “a private cooking concept pop-up that serves Latin-inspired comfort good.” I first met him recently at Bobby LeFebre’s Proyecto Sobremesa’s dinners for Colorado creatives activating radical imagination for racial justice. Edwin catered the dinner, and good lord! His food lit my whole body up. And he talked about the stories of the food, and where he was born in Honduras. I was so lit up that afterwards, I was like, “Maaan, we gotta write a book together, some type of narrative cookbook or some shit!” So that’s another dream project. Food!

What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?

Mainly, I’m excited for this TEDx Mile High event All Together  to drop on June 26. Imma be talking about cataloguing softness. And my homie Suzi Q Smith will be speaking at the same event. This shit gonna be LIVE!

Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local literary community in the coming year?

The poet/scholar/artist/activist and fucking fierce light Karia White. I first met Karia at a reading organized by Assetou Xango (who is also the shit). I’ve been reading Karia’s auto-ethnography that explores Black women’s bodies and voices under misogynoir. She combines poetry, scholarship and stories to make this smart, caring and generous book. It’s really something, and I love Karia.

Hear Steven Dunn speak at TEDx Mile High: All Together, streaming online on Saturday, June 26, from 5 to 7:15 p.m. Admission is free (or make a donation). Learn more and RSVP in advance at Eventbrite.

Follow Steven Dunn at his website and on Instagram.

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