Viva Book-Lyn! Book Festival rocks the borough
Sunday’s ninth annual Brooklyn Book Festival, held at and around Brooklyn Borough Hall, drew tens of thousands to Brooklyn – the center of all things literary. Bookworms swarmed Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights as hundreds of renowned national and international writers and emerging authors appeared to speak about their work.
Following a weeklong program of Bookend Events that began Sept. 15, the festival featured more than 100 panel discussions, readings and other book-related activities for all ages. The Literary Marketplace at Borough Hall Plaza welcomed literary magazines and presses from across the country, including Brooklyn-based independent publishers Melville House, Archipelago and Akashic Books.
Among the venues were Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza, Columbus Park, Brooklyn Law School, St. Francis College, the Brooklyn Historical Society and St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church.
The festival was supported by AT&T and presented by the non-profit Brooklyn Book Festival Inc. and the Brooklyn Literary Council. This year, the festival’s cultural and programming partners were BAM, Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn Public Library, Cave Canem, National Book Foundation, New York Review of Books, PEN American Center, Poetry Society of America, St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, St. Francis College and The Nation.
Book Festival Presents James McBride, 2014 BoBi Honoree
Brooklyn native James McBride was the winner of the 2014 Best of Brooklyn Inc. (BoBi) Award, which each year recognizes a writer for his or her extraordinary contributions to the field of literature. McBride, author of “The Good Lord Bird” and “The Color of Water,” among other books, spoke with award-winning actor and producer Wendell Pierce, from HBO’s “The Wire.”
The long-time friends joked with each other, bantered back and forth, and at times, spoke more seriously. Their affectionate rapport was never more apparent than when Pierce asked McBride about how he characterized his mother in his books and McBride shot back, “You knew my mother – so tell me what you thought of her in my books.”
Influence of the Real
World-famous authors Francine Prose (“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932”), Paul Auster (“Winter Journal”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Lovely, Dark, Deep”) spoke together at a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” held at St. Ann & The Holy Trinity Church.
During the discussion, which was moderated by journalist Hirsh Sawhney, the authors read their work and then discussed how events from their personal lives have inspired their writing.
Reception for Librarians
“The best teacher in my life kept me in a cardboard box,” said author Jonathan Lethem (“Motherless Brooklyn”), reminiscing with his former P.S. 29 fourth-grade teacher, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Fariña, who taught at the Cobble Hill school for decades, described the “cozy box” she made out of a washing machine crate where kids were allowed to read if they earned enough points.
“That cozy box was filled all day long, but it was particularly important for kids like Jonathan who needed a little space to be on their own,” she said.
Lethem said that Fariña changed his life. “She was an amazing teacher. I would sometimes just hang around on Henry and Amity so I could see a little more of her after school.”
Moderator Johnny Temple, Chair, Brooklyn Literary Council, asked Lethem, “Did she set the bar too high?”
“Yes, she set the bar too high,” Lethem said. “Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong.”
The conversation took place at a special event for librarians, with greetings by Deborah Schwartz, executive director of the Brooklyn Historical Society, and an introduction by Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Comedians as Authors
At one of the most popular panels titled “Comedians as Authors,” famed comedian and actor Bob Saget spoke about his book “Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy” alongside acclaimed actor and writer John Leguizamo, while Sara Benincasa (comedian and author of “Agorafabulous”) moderated the discussion.
Saget joked, “These are the first book people I’ve seen before…I’m from L.A., where people ask, ‘what’s your favorite video?’” He explained that his choice to write a book was very organic. “It’s not an end-of-career look-back thing,” he said. When Benincasa asked Saget and Leguizamo what they’d choose if promised a lot of money to either write a book or perform, both men were stumped. Leguizamo said he loves wedding the two art forms together, while Saget quipped, “If you said ‘subway or Uber?’ I could’ve answered.”
Poets Laureate Past and Present
As in previous years, Sunday’s festival featured a range of poets, some of whom spoke at the event’s main stage. “Poets Laureate Past and Present” featured Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang, U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95 Rita Dove, Marie Howe (New York State Poet Laureate) and NYC Youth Poet Laureate Ramya Ramana.
The event was introduced by Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America. Each of the poets spoke about how they were humbled to be in each others’ presence; 19-year-old Ramana, who read a powerful poem titled “A Testimony in Progress,” among others, said that Rita Dove has been one of her greatest inspirations. Dove praised Ramana and said that prior to the panel, Ramana told her, “I just need to write…I’ve always had that need.”
Chang told the crowd that she has worked closely with Ramana as a sort of mentor, and that the two have “had so many heartfelt conversations about what it means to be a poet today.”
Each poet read from her work and offered remarks about poetry and its place in the world. Howe said, “the greatest thing about poetry is that it’s not a commodity…you can carry it in your mouth.”
I Am What I Am What I Am
Jess Row just published a provocative, futuristic novel, “Your Face in Mine,” about “racial reassignment surgery,” which allows a Jewish white man to take on a new identity as an African-American.
As research, Row talked to plastic surgeons in Thailand who told him such a thing already exists. They just don’t use that name for it.
“They were unsurprised and even a little bit blasé about the idea of writing a novel about racial reassignment surgery,” he said at a morning panel with authors Phil Klay and Kathleen Winter.
It’s the Little Things that Count
“Masters of the dark arts” — that’s what moderator Rob Spillman called hilarious and heartbreaking fiction writers Owen Egerton, Sam Lipsyte and Rivka Galchen, who talked about their creative processes.
“I find myself centering on questions and awkwardness and things that are splinters in my brain, that are disturbing me,” said Egerton (author of “How Best to Avoid Dying”).
“I write to find out what people are going to say,” explained Lipsyte (author of “The Fun Parts”).
“I do think that literature or art or whatever it is comes when you bump off auto-pilot for a second,” said Galchen (author of “American Innovations”).
A Force Unleashed
Sin — such a subject for a Sunday panel discussion.
“It’s something of a Catholic theme — disgust of the flesh in general,” said Matthew Thomas, whose insightful and heart-rending novel “We Are Not Ourselves” has been getting great reviews. “In an Irish-Catholic environment, there’s not an awful lot of physical affection.”
Ann Hood spoke of the contradictory attitudes of the flashy-dressing Italian-American Catholic women in “An Italian Wife,” her just-published novel: “You don’t go out without looking sexed up, but you’re not supposed to have sex.”
Novelists Tiphanie Yanique and Tommy Wieringa were their fellow panelists.
The Double Life
The whole world thinks Maddy Freed’s famous actor husband is gay. Why doesn’t she?
“I’m really interested in self-delusion as a flaw,” novelist Amy Sohn, who tells the fictional Freed’s tale in her latest novel, “The Actress,” said at an afternoon panel.
Sohn — whose earlier novels made her the scourge of the Park Slope mommies — did some acting in her childhood and her early 20s. She made Freed a better actress than she had been, which was like “wish fulfillment,” she said.
Novelists James Magnuson and Chloe Krug Benjamin were her fellow panelists.
At a panel titled “Digital Lives,” OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder spoke about his new book “Dataclysm,” which unpacks a plethora of data to examine how we live in the digital age. Joining him was Astra Taylor, author of “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power in the Digital Age” and Alice Marwick, who authored “Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Age of Social Media” – which, she explained, looks at “how people look for attention online.” Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for the New York Times, moderated the panel.
The panelists acknowledged that while much of the discourse surrounding technology is often extreme – people tend to think new advances are either amazing or terrible – their work explores the more nuanced debates. Taylor spoke about the importance of inserting power and economics into the technology discourse, addressing such questions as whose interests are being served by the data collected by social media and other websites. Rudder, in response, noted that “there’s no way for [social media] sites to operate without keeping [users’] data.”
Marwick aptly stated that “we can’t put the genie back in the bottle…we’re not going back to a world where we don’t have these tools,” while Wortham spoke about the potential negative impacts of not having a presence on social media sites such as Facebook, suggesting that it might harm one’s career or chances of being hired because it diverges from the norm.
Creativity and Chaos
Three vastly different yet intertwined authors —Frankétienne, Vikram Chandra and Philippe Petit — discussed the utter chaos that exists, and at times is necessary, in the ultimate creative state.
The overriding question discussed was whether or not creativity is achievable with everyone and what that ultimately entails.
“I have to say that I think everyone is creative,” said Chandra (“Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty”). “I have two young daughters, one is 4 and one is 6, and I can see them putting the elements of the world together in new and exciting ways…. In different disciplines, different forms of creativity are required.”
On the subject of the creative process, Frankétienne (“Ready to Burst”) spoke on creativity and obsession and the different cycles along the way.
“I have always lived in exaggeration,” he said in French with his translator interpreting. “I have been nourished by obsession, dementia, rage and insanity. I have written more than 50 books, [painted] more than 6,000 paintings, [written] more than 20 plays and, at the same time in life, I must have encountered more than 2,000 women…. And now I’ve met my quota.” He said he is now in the cycle of speech.
Philippe Petit (“Creativity: The Perfect Crime”), who is known for his high-wire walk across the Twin Towers in 1974, said that one must welcome chaos. “Chaos is not something you can measure,” he said. “It is transformed with a little bit of help from you, the creator, into a positive work.”
Fact Finders and Fact Fakers
Seasoned journalists-gone-fiction-writers Lorraine Adams, Salar Abdoh and Boris Fishman met to discuss the writing techniques of fact and fiction fact writing. The discussion revolved around slippery truths and what temptations there are as a journalist to lie, expanding then on what is gained or lost from fiction writing.
Adams (“The Room and the Chair”), who previously worked at the Washington Post and received the Pulitzer Prize for her investigative reporting, spoke of her experience trying to discern whether or not sources claiming to be Holocaust survivors were true to their claims. She said the sensitive subject matter made it difficult to maintain the journalist’s goal of objectivity.
“There was a lot of temptation on my part to simply believe their stories,” Adams said on the subject of questionable sources. “I think that was a time when I was tempted to let go of my ‘objectivity,’ which I don’t really think exists.”
“I think there are degrees of truth,” said Abdoh (“Tehran at Twilight”), who is originally from Iran and is now a creative writing instructor at the City College of New York. “There is a difference between depth of understanding and shallowness.”
“What stays out of a story is just as important as what goes in,” said Fishman (“A Replacement Life”). He also expressed that this applies with fiction writing as well, and that the writer has to unlearn a lot in order to switch from writing journalistically to writing fiction.
“My father always said to not pretend to feel a way that you don’t feel because then you are left with not only the feeling you are trying to pretend you aren’t feeling, but [also] the feeling of pretending,” said Rebecca Carroll, moderating a discussion that defined, analyzed and took a discerning look at happiness.
The panel included three guest authors with contradicting book subject matter as they spoke, and at times argued, about happiness.
“I think Americans tend to define happiness as contentment,” said Eric G. Wilson (“Against Happiness”), who spoke of his experiences with bipolar disorder. “To go through life wanting to find happiness can lead to frustration… or a life of delusion.” In his book, Wilson explores his process of embracing melancholy, as well as the productiveness of sitting with moments of confusion and pulling from within.
Dan Harris (“10% Happier”) is an advocate for meditation leading to happiness.
“It’s more of the good and less of the bad,” Harris said about learning to control how we feed our own emotions. “It’s important to be more present for the good stuff and less caught in cycles of regret.”
Gretchen Rubin was their fellow panelist.
—Reporting by Rob Abruzzese, Lore Croghan, Meghan McDonald, Mary Frost and Samantha Samel
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