Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate captivates Prairie Lights listeners with original storytelling in debut novel

Reading from her debut novel, Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Regina Porter tackles a tangling story of two racially distinct families across a span of six generations, challenging conversation amongst her Iowa City audience.


Jenna Galligan

Regina Porter reads an excerpt from her book, The Travelers. Porter is a graduate from the University of Iowa, and she was a part of the Iowa Writers Workshop during her time at the university.

Kyler Johnson, Arts Reporter

Attracting authors from all over the nation to share their work in front of Iowa City patrons, Prairie Lights featured Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Regina Porter on Monday, Nov. 4 to read excerpts from her debut novel, The Travelers.

Following the lives of both an Irish-American and an African-American family across a span of six decades, the novel tackles how disparate lives and backgrounds can still be intricately woven together — albeit under the surface.

Porter chose to read the second story from the novel, which she prefers to call a “collection.”

“I will call anything I write a short story collection,” Porter said with a laugh. “Otherwise, I’ll never finish it.”

Regardless, Porter’s now finished project resonated with listeners. The audience sat mesmerized to Porter’s smooth command of her prose, breaking only to laugh at the plentiful wit sprinkled throughout the piece.

“Regina arrived with years of being a playwright under her belt and a clear vision,” said Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in reference to Porter’s beginning in Iowa City.

Chang went on to say how the novel is thrillingly original, calling Porter a one of a kind writer.  Chang also said the selection for the night was heart-stopping, really showcasing a strong presentation of Porter’s work.

Porter said one book in particular that helped inspire her original and blended style of the novel was A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The book utilizes and effectualizes a flurry of writing forms — taking literary risks that inspired Porter to take her own, she said.

“I want to take chances,” Porter said. “It’s important to show how our lives intersect. How these families’ stories are blended is very American, I think.”

The blended storyline did have to be handled carefully, according to Porter. During a discourse following the reading, Porter said it was essential to find an editor who would honor her multi-dimensional presentation of the story. Including not just her written words, Porter highlighted a vast number of photographs in the book’s binding to help tell the tale as a challenging, yet rewarding aspect of the novel.

Porter also addressed the rewarding challenge of finding a balance between the book’s handling of serious material, such as trauma, along with humor. However, Porter said, continuing with the blended theme of the evening, the two concepts were ultimately bound together in the novel through the humor often rooting itself in a place of sadness.

“I believe trauma moves from generation to generation,” Porter said.

The problems of the older generation in Porter’s novel do not simply vanish amongst a younger one, she said. Being raised in an environment of unresolved trauma ultimately diffuses onto others — whether wanted or not. Spanning six decades and shifting character perspectives throughout the novel really allows Porter to show a variety of generational perceptions.

Tackling her story with an Iowa City audience opens the doorway for such discussion among the residents, effecting a change beyond her voice on the page. Both her spoken and written word dropped a dose of her personality back into a literature community that played a role in her development of the novel.

“Sometimes a reading is good, and sometimes a reading is interesting,” said Kathleen Johnson, the events coordinator at Prairie Lights. “Very rarely does the way the author answers questions lead to an even more intriguing discussion.”