“The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”—sound familiar? After a mud-slinging and protest-inducing election, blatant lies and baseless claims from our highest government officials, and the rise of “alternative facts,” Merriam Webster’s definition of propaganda hits too close to home. In a culture where truth is under fire, libraries are refuges. Throughout history, libraries have provided havens for accurate information and intellectual stimulation. For their 2017 Flash Fiction Contest, UNCW’s Randall Library chose a theme that would address threats to truth in the U.S. and internationally.
“This year we chose the theme ‘propaganda’ to be controversial about what’s going on in the news and politically in the country and the world,” says Christopher Rhodes, Randall’s facility coordinator and cultural activities liaison. “I hope it starts a conversation.”
The Flash Fiction Contest at UNCW’s Randall Library presents students with an annual challenge: In one week, participants write a short story and incorporate both a chosen theme and Randall Library. On Tuesday, April 18, the library will host a reception to celebrate contest winners and present the published book of all stories.
For the book’s introduction, Rhodes and Randall’s humanities librarian, Lisa Coats, reached out to UNCW’s Office of International Programs to find foreign-exchange students who would be willing to write about their experiences with propaganda. They interviewed Anis Amir of Pakistan and chose him to be a part of the book. Amir’s story provides insights about how the media shapes our world views.
“Anis talks about being no stranger to propaganda coming from Pakistan,” Rhodes says, “and he compares the ways in which propaganda is used in Pakistan versus the ways it was used during the 2016 president campaign here . . . It’s really quite moving and enlightening.”
Both graduate and undergraduate writers contributed stories to the contest and subsequent collection. Their takes on propaganda vary in form and approach. The first place story, “To Whom It May Concern” by Megan Ellis, addresses the possibility of privatization and censorship in public libraries, how they would operate as a business venture rather than a repository of scholarship and knowledge. Adam Gnuse’s “In the End Times,” in second place, follows a professor struggling to find hope in a new world devoid of truth. Third place, “Yoke & Literature Vs. North Carolina” by C.J. Pendergast, is written as mock news articles, and set in a reality where engaging in literature is a crime.
All the stories, including the three winners and other honorable mentions, have been collected in a book, created in collaboration with the university’s Department of Art and Art History and the UNCW Publishing Laboratory. In the hands of graduate students in the publishing laboratory, the book’s design has improved over the years. The PubLab, as it’s known colloquially, produces Ecotone, an acclaimed literary magazine that strives to reimagine the idea of place. It also handles book design for Lookout Books, UNCW’s imprint, which recently gained national recognition with “We Show What We Have Learned” by Clare Beams—a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. For this year’s Flash Fiction Contest, Jeffrey Oloizia designed the cover, while Megan Ellis created the interior layout.
To accompany each story, Shannon Bourne, a lecturer in studio art, assigned her students a project in which they each created illustrations for a story. “It’s fun because some of them have a lot of talent and some are new to graphic design,” Rhodes says. “So the artwork is always all over the map, but always really cool to look at. . . . It’s a learning experience for them.”
Rhodes oversees events and exhibits in the library, and always looks for chances to engage students in art and culture. It is one of the most exciting parts of his job.
“I like to be a guide and resource for letting students do what they want to do within our space,” he explains, “to talk about and promote their academic life on campus.”
The reception is a student-led event and will feature readings by the three contest winners. Designer Oloizia also will speak about his creative process and the challenges of creating a cover that both captures the idea of propaganda and avoids being too controversial for the university. The event is free and open to the public, and will take place in Randall Library’s Sherman L. Hayes Gallery on the first floor. Refreshments and food will be available.