International Encounters at the Brooklyn Book Festival

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(I didn't make it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, but Tara Olmsted did, and here's her report! -- Levi)

The Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. At its worst the annual autumn event is complete chaos: no consistent theme, hot and crowded rooms, poorly moderated panels, no-show authors, smug hipsters as far as the eye can see. This year's list of participating authors is less exciting at the outset than in previous years: the type of book being discussed on all the panels feels pretty much the same, as if some kind of homeostasis has been achieved.

But at its best, the Brooklyn Book Festival s a platform for small, independent presses.  Publishers like Melville House, New Directions, & Other Stories, Europa, Other Press, Archipelago and Greywolf are there. (Technically some of these are not exactly indie publishers anymore, like New Directions, which has been absorbed by the big five publishing conglomerates. I still consider the presses “indie” because they’ve managed to retain the literary identity and traditions on which they were founded.)

Smaller indies are here too: Zephyr, Bellevue, The Head & The Hand. There are literary magazines: BookForum, The Paris Review, NYRB and Lapham’s Quarterly. And many of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores attend, including WORD, The Community Bookstore and Greenlight.  There’s a lot to discover at the outdoor booths.  And for me the highlight of the festival has always been (and remains) the author panels.

"Catch a Fire: Social Collapse in Multiple Voices" began one panelist short (a fairly common occurrence at book festivals). The Somali author Nuruddin Farah was unable to attend for reasons that were not explained.  But the smaller panel created an opportunity for the two present authors to expand their discussion beyond their individual novels and discuss the politics of Jamaica and Somalia.

Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings opens in 1976, Jamaica - the year men armed with machine guns invaded Bob Marley’s home and opened fire, seriously injuring his wife and manager. Marley received only minor wounds and went on to perform at the free “Smile Jamaica” concert two days later.  And then he left Jamaica, choosing not to return for two long years. Taking those events as the novel’s launching point, James goes on to explore the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora over the next three decades.

Marlon James is a charismatic speaker and the scope of the book, as he describes it, is impressive:  687 pages, 76 characters, written in Jamaican patois, set in both Jamaica and New York City. The panel's moderator hinted at moments of disturbing violence, which James defended as being necessary. He didn’t seem to believe in trivializing violence by sterilizing it. James also spoke on the topics that interested him and had crept into his writing: the politics of the island where he was born and its role in the Cold War; stereotypes and expectations he’s encountered as a Jamaican author; his views on politics as they relate to his writings; and, in response to one audience member’s question, which of Marley’s albums was the soundtrack underscoring the events in his novel (Rastaman Vibration is the correct answer, not Exodus).

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel is set 13,295 kilometers away in Somalia. The Orchard of Lost Souls follows the lives and fates of three women at the outbreak of that country’s 1987 civil war.  Like James, Nadifa Mohamed did not discuss her novel’s plot at length. She talked instead about her relationship to the place where she was born and the current wave of the Somali diaspora.  She and her family immigrated to England when she was only four years old, and so her experience is completely different than those of the (more conservative) Somali expats arriving in London.  She spoke of the ways in which the country where she was born is and isn’t home, and of how the characters in her novel both experience and perpetrate acts of violence.  The common theme for both both authors -- as for many authors on the panels I attended this year -- was our relationships to the countries where we are born and what that means in the wake of ever increasing globalization.

My next panel, again dealing with international literature and authors, was called "Cultural Collisions: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds".  I’m still not sure exactly what the title had to do with the actual panel.

This included the Brazilian author Paolo Scott (Nowhere People), Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd) and Cuban author Mylene Fernandez-Pintado (A Corner of the World).  All three books are translations.  Anderson Tepper, a Brooklyn Book Festival staple, was an excellent moderator as always, allowing each author to discuss their books in depth and give short readings.

Nowhere People is the first and only Brazilian novel about that country’s native population -- the Guarani Indians -- a subject on which Scott expressed strong feelings. Brazilians, according to Scott, avoid addressing race in a way that is detrimental (and shameful) to the society as a whole.  His novel tells the story of a young Brazilian man who is drawn into the world of an indigenous girl he sees walking along the side of the road.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Mylene Fernandez-Pintado’s A Corner of the World are so different that I’m not sure how they all ended up on the same panel. Luiselli’s book moves in time between modern New York City and 1950’s Philadelphia. Her characters are a young Mexican translator living in Harlem and the real-life poet Gilbert Owen (who the author described as “an all-right poet”). Taken directly from the back cover: “As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into a single stream, a mingling that is also a disappearing act, and an elegiac evocation of love and loss”.  Fernandez-Pintado, in contrast, has written a love story set in modern Havana, a story about a society that lacks choices and opportunities.

I’ll say it again: the Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. Particularly this year. The panels for which I harbored the highest expectations turned out to be terrible. And the one’s I felt lukewarm about turned out to be fantastic. But where else can you spend an entire day lining up to hear (mostly) obscure authors talk about books that will never make it onto the New York Times Bestseller List?

At the Brooklyn Book Festival I feel as if I’ve managed to escape the influence of Amazon’s algorithm, NPR recommendations and the Colbert bump. For one day a year I get to be on my own. Which is enough to bring me back in 2015.

4 Responses to "International Encounters at the Brooklyn Book Festival"

by Bill_Ectric on

Thanks for the report. I like your emphasis on books from other countries.

by WIREMAN on

kinda enjoyed this one....interesting insight into a lit fest....only one ive ever been to is baltimore's both as performer and spectator.....one year i saw amiri baraka there and it changed my performance life...maybe next year i'll make this one, in fact i might head up to williamsburg next weekend....i gots me a ride w/a painter friend....how bout some more responses litkickers :)

by mtmynd on

The Cinco Punto Press was there, also, from El Paso which does a lot of bi-lingual books. Bobby Bird, publisher and poet, is owner with his wife, Lee, also an author/publisher.

Nicely done, Tara, altho there did seem to be an overall tone of disappointment which may have been well deserved, but I would hope that doesn't tarnish the event but rather makes for a larger and more positive goal next year.

by tolmsted on

Thanks for the comments all! I'm glad to see interest in checking out the festival next year. Wireman - you know, I don't remember ever seeing any performers at BBF - and I think it might be great addition. I remember once seeing an acting troupe at Washington Square Park put on a performance of Ibsen - it was messy but a lot of fun. I could absolutely see something like that - or some type of musical performance, etc. - being incorporated into the festival.

And mtmynd - apologies for any negativity that crept into my post. I haven't quite put my finger on what was off this year - but I'm sure it was a fluke. It's still a fantastic event and I'm already planning for next year.

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