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Oxford Conference for the Book Goes Online

Much like everything else in 2020, the Oxford Conference for the Book, the longest-running event produced by the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, had to be canceled because of COVID-19 a mere two weeks before the event.

This year won’t exactly be business as usual, either, but a slate of online panels and conversations are planned for the beginning of March.

Since large in-person gatherings remain impossible, several sessions will be available at beginning March 8, and they will be highlighted throughout the week on social media.

“I couldn’t have dreamed that we wouldn’t meet in person for the book conference two years in a row, but we wanted to make sure that the show went on in one form or another this year,” said Jimmy Thomas, conference director.

The conference will carry over a number of previously scheduled sessions, but some with modifications. The Twenty-Seventh Oxford Conference for the Book will host “University Press of Mississippi: The Next 50 Years,” with Craig Gill, director of the UPM; Pete Halverson, senior book designer; Tonia Lonie, business manager; Lisa McMurtray, associate editor; and Jordan Nettles, marketing assistant and digital coordinator.

As a memorial tribute to longtime book conference participant and John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence for 1997-98, a collective reading of Randall Kenan’s “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks” is planned. The selection comes from his latest story collection, “If I Had Two Wings,” published by W.W. Norton only days before his death in August 2020. Past and present Grisham writers-in-residence will read the story.

This year also includes the awards ceremonies for the Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, which came to Ole Miss in 2020 to be administered by the Department of Writing and Rhetoric in honor of Morris, a UM writer-in-residence and instructor from 1980 to 1991. Awards are given in both fiction and poetry.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Oxford Conference for the Book, a wonderful university and Oxford tradition,” said Stephen Monroe, chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric and director of the awards. “The Willie Morris Awards Advisory Board and our national panel of judges heartily endorsed this union, and we are honored to be on this year’s stellar OCB program.”

The finalists are the first to be named since the awards moved to the university earlier this year. The awards were created in 2008 by Reba White Williams and Dave H. Williams, of Connecticut, to promote contemporary Southern writers while also honoring the life and legacy of Morris, their longtime family friend.

The three finalists for this year’s fiction prize are Chanelle Benz, for “The Gone Dead”; Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, for “The Revisioners”; and De’Shawn Charles Winslow, for “In West Mills.”

Susan Nicholas, coordinator of the Willie Morris Awards, said she hopes this year’s virtual format will make the awards available to a wider audience.

“While we are disappointed that our original vision for an awards ceremony in Oxford can’t be realized, it has been fun working with the team at the Oxford Conference for the Book to gather video clips from our judges and winners,” saidNicholas, who is also an instructor of composition and rhetoric.

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet and UM professor of English, will host the always highly anticipated poetry session with Cortney Lamar Charleston, Sandra Beasley and Teri Cross Davis.

Catarina Passidomo, Southern Foodways Alliance Associate Professor of Southern Studies and associate professor of anthropology, will be in conversation with Catherine Coleman Flowers about her book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight against America’s Dirty Secret.”

Flowers is founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and the rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative. Her session is part of the center’s spring Future of the South initiative, which focuses on the theme “Southern Environments.”

Besides the prerecorded sessions, Square Books will host live readings in the evenings. “Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” will air a special Oxford Conference for the Book episode at 6 p.m. March 11 on WUMS – University of Mississippi. The show will be repeated at 8 a.m. March 12 on WYXR – Memphis Public Radio and 7 p.m. March 13 on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. It also will air March 13 at 3 p.m. (ET) on WUTC – University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and 9 p.m. on Alabama Public Radio.

The conference also will co-sponsor a keynote lecture by Dorothy Allison on April 16 during the Glitterary Festival.

Sponsors for the conference include Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Square Books, Lafayette County Literacy Council and the Junior Auxiliary of Oxford. The conference is partially funded by the university, the Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, the R&B Feder Foundation for the Beaux Arts and a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council. Promotional support comes from Visit Oxford.

As always, the conference is free and accessible to the public. The latest information will be available on the website at

By Rebecca Lauck Cleary