An Annual Tradition: The 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival

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.
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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!

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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.
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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.

I also received a rather smart tote bag.
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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?

 

Reading Assignments for the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival

Fall is here… more or less.  The weather is still closer to 80 than 70 degrees.  And the view from my window looks nothing like the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog that just arrived in the mail (a couple sitting on the tailgate of an old pick-up truck, a lake surrounded by pines, fall leaves covering the grass).  But it is September and in a few short weeks it will be one of my favorite days of the year.  The Brooklyn Book Festival is being held on Sunday, September 22nd.

I’ve already put together my spreadsheet (yes, I put together a spreadsheet) of the panels I’ll be attending.  I’m a sucker for panels.  I always overbook myself, forget to eat and leave way too little time to tour the tables set up in Brooklyn Borough Plaza.  This year’s line-up looks especially distracting with a number of translated authors in attendance.

There are at least three books I hope to read before the Festival day arrives.

The Assignment: The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things FallingMy Reason:  There’s been a ton of buzz around this novel.

The Panel:  Personal Stories, National Memory: Fiction can be as narrow or contained as a single consciousness, or open up and embody something intrinsic to an era or nation. Alexander Maksik (A Marker to Measure Drift), probes the shattered inner world of a Liberian war refugee; Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez (The Sound of Things Falling) captures the dread and violence of his country’s drug war years, and Oonya Kempadoo (All Decent Animals) offers a polyrhythmic, panoramic view across contemporary Trinidadian society. Moderated by Anderson Tepper. Special thanks to the Colombian Film Festival New York.  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street)

The Assignment:  HotHouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka

HothouseThe Reason:  History about books, where can you go wrong?  Plus, I always like to attend at least one “industry” panel.

The Panel:  Publish and Perish? E-books are killing publishing! The corporations are killing publishing! Self-publishing is killing publishing! While headlines continually bemoan the end of the literary world as we know it, others argue that the reports of publishing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Janet Groth (The Receptionist) and Boris Kachka (Hothouse) take a look inside two of our most storied institutions—The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and consider the past while taking the pulse of the literary world today. (Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont Street, 3PM)

The Assignment:  The Corpse Washer By Sinan Antoon

The Reason:  This was a coin flip – between The Corpse Washer and Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s Where the Tigers Are At Home (Roblès sits on a 4PM panel called Lost and Found: The Journey Begins At Home).  I’ve been reading a lot of French novels lately and decided on something different.

The Panel:  What Fills the Void After War? Three acclaimed writers from countries that have known conflict and political unrest discuss war’s aftermath and how it informs their work. With Irish writer Colum McCann (TransAtlantic), Sri Lankan writer Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon (The Corpse Washer). Moderated by Rob Spillman (Tin House)  (Borough Hall Community Room, 209 Joralemon Street, 5PM)

If you’ll be in Brooklyn on the 22nd here’s the link to the 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival events schedule.  You know, so you can make your own spreadsheet!

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The Brooklyn Book Festival Cometh

BrooklynBookFestivalThe Brooklyn Book Festival is happening Sunday, September 23rd.  This year’s schedule is very exciting!  There are several panels – more than I can remember seeing in past years’ schedules – dealing specifically with International authors & translated lit.  England (see The London Review of Books), Central & North Africa, India, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago are all represented.  Almost all of them conveniently located in the Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room.  Below is a quick list (copied & pasted right from the schedule) of the panels which caught my eye.

  • 10:00 A.M. The London Review of Books presents The Novel and the City, a conversation about literature and the urban imagination with Mexican author Alvaro Enrigue, and cultural writer Christine Smallwood. Moderated by Adam Shatz, London Review of Books. – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 10:00 A.M. Home Is Not A Place. Four authors read and discuss their books whose protagonists are challenged to create and negotiate their identity in a new homeland–a journey fraught with confusion, rebellion and uncertain outcomes. Graphic novelist Leela Corman (Unterzakhn), and authors Patricia Engel (Vida), Luis Alberto Urrea (Into the Beautiful North)and Jose Manuel Prieto (Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire).Moderated by Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) – Saint Francis Screening Room (180 Remsen Street)
  • 12:00 P.M. Through the Eyes of a Child. Join Somali-English author Nadifa Mohamed (Black Mamba Boy), Maaza Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) and Congo’s Emmanuel Dongala (Johnny Mad Dog and Little Boys Come from the Stars) for a conversation on contemporary African novels which explore themes of identity, memory and violence through child narrators. Moderated by Bhakti Shringarpure, Warscapes – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 1:00 P.M. From the Ruins of Empire. Leading Indian writers Pankaj Mishra (From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals Who Remade Asia) and Siddhartha Deb (The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India) read from their books and discuss the modern world and the East, and the movements and personalities that helped shape both – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 1:00 P.M. Humanity in the Age of the Cyborg and Higgs Boson. The ancient question “What is the Self?” gets a new twist with the rise of nanotechnology, biotechnology and “smart” robots that increasingly assume functions previously handled by human muscle and mind. How do we define consciousness and existence in the age of cyborg bodies and artificial intelligence? Siri Hustvedt (Living, Thinking, Looking), Jim Holt (Why Does the World Exist) and Andrew Blum (Tubes) discuss mutating selfhood and what still makes us human. Moderated by Greg Milner – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)
  • 2:00 P.M. Calabash Presents. Jamaica’s legendary Calabash International Literary Festival celebrates 50 years of Jamaican independence with readings by premier Jamaican-born novelists and poets Chris John Farley (Kingston Noir), Jacqueline Bishop (Snapshots from Istanbul),and Ishion Hutchinson (Far District).Moderated by Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 3:00 P.M. BOCAS Presents. Trinidad’s groundbreaking annual NGC Bocas Literary Festival comes to Brooklyn to celebrate 50 years of Trinidad & Tobago independence with readings by Earl Lovelace (Is Just a Movie), Victoria Brown (Minding Ben) and Anton Nimblett (Sections of an Orange). Moderated by Nicholas Laughlin, BOCAS organizer and editor of the Caribbean Review of Books – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 3:00 P.M. Power to the People: Grassroots Revolution in the Post Hope Era  What’s the connection between social change and electoral politics? Does the hope we can truly believe in come from the ground up? And what can we learn from the peoples’ revolutions from around the globe? Tariq Ali (The Obama Syndrome), Todd Gitlin (Occupy Nation), and Marina Sitrin (Everyday Revolutions) will discuss the necessity and effectiveness of individual action in the political sphere. Moderated by Laura Flanders (The Nation) – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)
  • 4:00 P.M. Reality Denied. Science Fiction authors Carla Speed McNeil (Finder: Voice), Lev Grossman (The Magician King), Hillary Jordan (When She Woke) and Terry Bisson (Fire on the Mountain) read and discuss their books, which are part-medieval, part-magical, part-historical, part-apocalyptic and all reality bending! Moderated by literary agent Seth Fishman – Saint Francis Screening Room (180 Remsen Street)
  • 5:00 P.M. The PEN Translation Committee Presents North African Writing in the Wake of the Arab Spring. Noted translators, editors and poets Pierre Joris (Exile Is My Trade: a Habib Tengour Reader), Deborah Kapchan (Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition) and Peter Thompson (A Passenger from the West by Nabile Farès) explore the effects of the Arab uprisings in North Africa on poetry and narratives and discuss their recent works in translation. Moderated by Nathalie Handal (Language of a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond) – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 5:00 P.M. The Center for Fiction Presents Beyond Earth. From alternate histories to entire universes these writers create intricate worlds for their readers to explore. Naomi Novik (Temeraire series), N.K. Jemisin (the Inheritance trilogy), Rick Bowes (From the Files of the Time Rangers) and Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) will read brief selections from their work and discuss the art of world-building in fantasy writing and beyond. Moderated by Noreen Tomassi (The Center for Fiction) – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)

The events highlighted in that pretty shade of lavender?  You probably noticed they’re all science fiction related.  They (and the promise of food trucks) were just the leverage I needed to get my husband to agree to spending the day in the city.  Book festivals aren’t really his thing, but he’s a bit of a foodie and a definite sci-fi geek, so what you’re witnessing is a compromise in action.

If you’re in NYC that weekend it’s (in theory) only a quick subway ride from Manhattan – and worth every delayed train, local stop and transfer.  So, do any of these panels look good to you?  Or did you see something on the official schedule that I missed?  Leave a comment below.

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