A little over a week I was at the Brooklyn Festival. The weather was beautiful – a warm and windy Fall day. Due to the construction happening around Borough Hall everything was a little more spread out this year. The Hall’s grand steps, featured in every article about the festival and usually completely filled with people, stood empty behind a chain link fence. Food trucks were parked in front of the Cadman Plaza Post Office, a little farther down than their normal spots. The Post Office steps functioned as an al fresco dining area where Lori, my Festival buddy, and I enjoyed some delicious (if overpriced) empanadas mid-day. The new set-up also utilized a section of park around the Korean War Memorial which usually stands empty, filling it with the booths belonging to the smaller literary magazines. I liked it. In fact, I hope they continue using it next year – hopefully moving the booths out of the too narrow, sad walkway adjacent to the Courthouse that no one really likes.
After several years of attendance one thing I’ve learned is that the moderator has the ability to make or break a panel. This was painfully reinforced at Darkness & Light – a panel which featured an extraordinary line-up of international authors: Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) & Andrés Neuman (Argentina/Spain). Krasznahorkai, I can’t be alone in believing, will eventually win the Nobel. Which adds a certain prestige to the whole enterprise. People develop expectations. Which is why the moderator must have been a last minute substitution, after the original moderator was struck down with cholera or the bubonic plague. That’s the only logical explanation. Because it was immediately clear he hadn’t read any of the authors’ books. In fact, he did everything to avoid talking about them altogether. Instead he followed a painful line of questions which included reading aloud Genesis 1:3 and asking the panelists to comment (because Europeans don’t feel Americans are religious enough); discussing the length of daylight in the different time zones where they are from; and ENDING the panel by having them talk about whether they felt print books vs. digital readers (which have built in light sources – he actually included that as a qualifier) were effecting how they wrote and/or how their books were enjoyed. The panel is called light and dark, get it??? You think it’s a metaphor – but noooo, he meant it literally. SURPRISE!
No rotten fruit was available to the audience, and I’d already eaten my empanadas. And so this madness was allowed to play out unchecked.
Each author did give a brief reading at the beginning, before anyone realized what was in store. László chose to read his passage first in English and then, movingly, in Hungarian. Most of the audience questions were, not surprisingly, directed at László and mostly pertained to his work in film. Luckily, Neuman and Aidt were on other panels later in the day. And Laszlo did sign my copies of Satantango & Seiobo There Below afterwards – one personalized to me and the other to my husband. If, after that, you still feel you might have missed something the video of the panel is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
On the other end of the spectrum – as wonderful as the before mentioned panel was terrible – The New Latin American Literature: A View From Within had an incredible line-up of authors. Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, Andrés Neuman (again) and Alejandro Zambra. Daniel Alarcon acted as moderator. The discussion covered a variety of topics – magical realism and The Boom, writing for an English speaking audience, life in Mexico City and (as the title says) the state of Latin American literature today. Overall it was an incredibly vibrant 60 minutes, one of the few events I’ve ever attended which conveyed a sense of the camaraderie we like to imagine exists among writers. I left believing The New Latin American Literature was a real movement rather than just a pretext on which to organize a panel.
Despite the numbers he was working with Alarcon engaged each writer individually, asking questions which showcased their personalities & interests. Alejandro Zambra came across as the most defiant of the group, while Guadalupe Nettel seemed to be the most socially & politically involved (a journalist herself, she was the only one to bring up the killing of journalists in Mexico). Luiselli brought up, not for the first time, the generation of Latin American writers who came immediately after The Boom and are still waiting to be translated into English. Andrés Neuman – whose short story collection I knew I had somewhere (wrongfully neglected) on my bookshelves – displayed a thoughtful, intellectual side. I found his book, The Things We Don’t Do published by Open Letter, immediately upon arriving home. I can’t wait to start reading it.
There were other panels and more than one new discovery. Imperium, when described by the author Christian Kracht, seems a much more intriguing book than its marketing conveys. I heard the Congolese author of Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, give a spirited reading from his novel in French – and quietly laughed as his British translator strove valiantly to emulate that passion but was hindered by being… well… a little too British. I also spent some time and money at the Feminist Press booth. I finally own a copy of Virginie Despentes King Kong Theory. But my favorite purchase of the day was without a doubt the anthology The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran.
The Brooklyn Book Festival, despite its being held in September, always serves as the mile marker of my year in books. It’s where I go to see the authors who excited me in the months preceding and where I discover the authors who’ll occupy me for the weeks that remain. I imagine that there are dozens of similar, if not larger and better, book festivals happening throughout the year that I know nothing about. So I’m throwing out a question – do you have a festival which plays the same, or a similar, role for you?