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Bemidji writers get highlighted in statewide contest

Abby Swafford, left, and Devery Fairbanks. Submitted photos.

BEMIDJI—Although they used different writing styles to do so, Bemidji area residents Devery Fairbanks and Abby Swafford both stepped forward to share their stories through a statewide campaign.

Fairbanks and Swafford were among the top 12 finalists in St. Paul-based Penumbra Theater's My America contest, which encouraged writers "to describe how they experience our nation and what they dream it can become," a release said. The campaign was sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio. The work of the finalists will be recognized during the event "Let's Talk: My America," which will be held March 12 in St. Paul.

"There was an inclusiveness about it," Swafford said about why she decided to submit her writing. "It's really been about this process of writing and sharing stories with each other and having this intentional space in order to do that."

The finalists met in St. Paul over several occasions to hone their work. Throughout that process, Swafford completely re-wrote her original piece, choosing to follow a different narrative. Both Swafford and Fairbanks used their writing to share stories and lessons from their background.

In her first submission, which she wrote as a play, Swafford tackled issues of growing up with a mixed-race identity. In the revision process, she wrote about her background in another way, describing both the good and bad aspects of growing up in Bemidji.

Fairbanks wrote an essay about overcoming a harsh youth, which was riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, to becoming the college teacher he is today. In his essay, Fairbanks recounts not only his own struggle, but those that are reflected more broadly in the Native American culture, such as poverty and low education levels. While he wrote about those struggles, he went on to describe how his Native American heritage also proved a unique conduit out of his destructive lifestyle. Now 60, Fairbanks recently celebrated his 36th year of sobriety.

"I signed myself into an American Indian culturally based treatment center, and that is when my life began to change," Fairbanks wrote in his essay.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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