On Saturday, I attended the National Book Festival 2015 in downtown D.C. This is the 11th time I’ve attended, and the 2nd time it has been held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. It used to be held on the National Mall. The convention center is huge but so were the crowds. Friends who went to see authors such as Tom Brokaw or David McCullough were turned away at the door because the rooms were full.
In between attending the authors’ presentations, I was madly texting in order to rendezvous with seven friends (including one cousin) who were also at the festival. Good news: I know a lot of bookish people! Bad news: my phone’s battery ran out.
In the midst of all the madness, I enjoyed seeing five authors:
Louise Erdrich received the Library of Congress award for American fiction. I was ten minutes late to her session, so I may have missed the actual awarding, but I was able to hear the majority of her interview with Marie Arana, former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World. At one point, Arana listed off authors that Erdrich has named as literary influences: Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Flannery O’Connor. Of the last, Erdrich remarked with a smile, “that dark dark blackness in [O’Connor’s] heart is in my heart too.”
Arana and Erdrich both pushed back against the magical realism label sometimes assigned to her work. Erdrich sees the label as a way to “take care” of story elements that occur outside of reality, a way of not acknowledging that there are inexplicable things in the world.
Erdrich said that The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is one of her favorites of her own books, which just strengthened my desire to read that book. Asked by an audience member about contemporary authors that she connects to, Erdrich first mentioned fellow Festival authors Marilynne Robinson, Jane Smiley and Marlon James. Then she said she was currently reading through Joyce Carol Oates’ work, and Annie Proulx, and Elena Ferrante’s books. Erdrich also highly recommended The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabo which is about a friendship between two women and features the best dog character she’s ever read.
After lunch, I went to see Claudia Rankine. I’d seen her once before when she came to my college over ten years ago. She was a guest speaker at the poetry workshop class I was taking. I still have her book Plot from taking that class. But the book I brought with me to the Festival was her newest work, Citizen.
After taking the stage, Rankine said “this book wouldn’t have happened without my friends”. In the process of writing this book, she had asked her friends: can you tell me about a moment that was ordinary and then racism interrupted that moment? The friends’ immediate answer was no, they couldn’t specifically recall, but inevitably, after a couple of days, they would contact her, and then the stories would “pour out like water.” Some of these stories are found in the pages of Citizen.
Rankine read at least four passages from Citizen. Her reading of the “Stop-and-Frisk” was particularly powerful – especially the repeating refrain of “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”
An audience member’s question compared her work to Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I was glad of, because I had been reading both Coates’ book and Rankine’s book in the week leading up to the Festival. Rankine said she saw a similarity in that they both stayed close to home in order to go wide.
Of Black Lives Matter, Rankine called the movement a revolutionary interruption, radical in trying to change the interior space of Americans, in not allowing the anonymity of privilege while black people are being killed.
I later lined up to get my book signed by Claudia. She had a very warm presence, as she had on the stage. She signed her inscription by crossing out her printed name and writing “me, Claudia”.
An afternoon session I had planned on attending was full, so I wandered around a little bit before getting in line for the “Contemporary Life” room. I had already planned to attend a 4:25pm session in that room, and figured why not just plant myself there early. It turned out that the 3:30pm author was Hector Tobar, whose new nonfiction book Deep Down Dark tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped for 69 days after a mine collapse in 2010. They were eventually rescued, a drama I remember seeing played out on live television. Tobar said, as a journalist, it is most important to communicate that you, the journalist, are a human being and that (paraphrasing) “I am not just here to mine you for facts and you are not just a source of facts.”
Several co-workers had passed around a copy of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn‘s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which is what drove me to attend their talk. Their newest book is called A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. The talk came across as oddly disjointed – perhaps it was an unevenly edited version of a longer talk they are more used to giving. Still, I am intrigued by the topic which is “the emerging science of changing the world”, a data-driven examination of what actually works to make lives better. WuDunn emphasized early intervention, those critical first two years of a child’s life as the brain is going through so much transformation. Kristof also compared what methods would help ensure regular school attendance by children in certain developing countries. Part of the solution is de-worming children (the worms deprive children of the nutrition in their food, and the ill health that results discourages school attendance.)
The last author I saw was Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower (about Al-Qaeda) and Going Clear (about Scientology), and his newest book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. I’ve read Going Clear. Wright spent the majority of the talk on the subject of Thirteen Days in September. It’s a historical moment that I know very little about, so I was fascinated by Wright’s descriptions of Carter, Begin and Sadat and definitely want to read the book.
Afterward, five friends and I regrouped, grabbed pizza at nearby Wise Guys, and shared about the authors that we had seen. My friend Jenny was geeking out over a sign language interpreter that had seamlessly interpreted a bilingual reading. She had hit the book sales area three times – I had been with her when she excitedly realized that poet Homero Aridjis was standing in front of her just as she was reaching for one of his books on the sales table. My cousin Jason and friend Kristin swapped notes on Evan Osnos, and his book on China.
Pizza finished, some of us wandered off to get gelato and then we dispersed into the night, tired but bookishly content.