Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brooklyn Book Festival -- where to begin

Today is the day that I think I will start calling Nerd Thanksgiving (Election Day being Nerd Christmas). As with regular Thanksgiving, it's something of an all-day binge. You have to pace yourself to be able to sample everything you want to try. But at this Thanksgiving, no one watches football, or, that I noticed, even gets drunk. Today was the Brooklyn Book Festival, possibly the coolest annual event ever created. It's a full day of panel discussions and book signings, a place where people line up around the block to get tickets to see Paul Krugman or Jonathan Safran Foer, a day on which you will see more tweed and spectacles than at your average academic conference.

One of the most impressive things about this year's lineup is that it somewhat reflected the diversity of Brooklyn and of New York City. I have been to panel discussions that were comprised solely of not just white men, but middle-aged, middle-class, straight white men. I learned some things from those panels, but I probably could have learned more if more than one perspective was represented. Today not only did I see a single panel comprised only of straight white men, I didn't see one comprised only of white people at all. At the Brooklyn Book Festival, the value of diversity becomes immediately obvious, because we don't just hear the perspective of privileged white men (which I am interested in -- I love Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace and all sorts of classics written by dead white guys -- I'm just not interested in it *exclusively*). We hear about the perspectives of all different kinds of people from all over the world. There is no way an event that was centered around the Mailers and Updikes of the world (if they were still alive I mean) could have the same mind-opening potential as one at which I heard a women who lives in Cairo, two celebrated female novelists of color, and three black media critics (one is a cartoonist, but he's a media critic too I think).

The list of writers I saw:
Jodi Kantor
Ben Smith
Kevin Holohan
Tayari Jones
Justin Torres
Michael Kupperman
Keith Knight (my pick for hottest writer of the day; sorry ladies, he's married)
Kate Beaton
Jennifer Hayden
Hisham Mattar
Yasmine El Rahsidi
Lucette Lagnado
Sinan Atoon
Adam Shatz
Jhumpa Lahiri (she stood next to me for five seconds! fangirl alert!)
Liesl Schillinger
Brooke Gladstone (I met her and she signed my book! double fangirl alert!)
Patrice Evans
Jennifer Pozner
Juan Gonzalez

I think their names alone speak to the range of ideas I am still somewhat overwhelmed by. So often, white people only talk to white people about race, or Jews only talk to Jews about Israel, or academic or literary gatherings will relegate The Black Perspective to a panel or two that is specifically about race. Today I saw women disagreeing about whether reality TV is reflecting or influencing reality and the progress of feminism, Arabs and Jews arguing (in a civil way) about the Arab Spring and how optimistic we should be about the future of Egypt, and white, black and Hispanic novelists talking to each other about writing, about the creative process and where their ideas come from.

My brain is so full.

Oh! And today I also learned one piece of what I would call news: Jhumpa Lahiri's next novel will be set in Calcutta in the late 60s and early 70s, which is in part where Midnight's Children, which I'm finally almost done with, takes place. I can't wait to read a book by an author I enjoy that's about the same era, now that I know more about it, but where there will be female characters who do something besides cook and have babies. For what it's worth, what she read today was great. I could have sat in the Episcopal church for the full hour listening to that and not regretted missing her actual talk at all.

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