Thursday, October 20, 2016

Boston Book Festival '16

Nothing like the Boston Book Festival to make a gal want to blog again. Those of you who really know me understand that this is one of my favorite days of the year. I told my students it's like Nerd Christmas. Last year, I went to the ticketed kickoff event and saw the queen herself, Margaret Atwood. There's no way this year could top that, but it was still a fabulous day. J came too, but we ended up going to completely different events. It was great at the end of the day (and briefly during lunch as I scarfed down a hot dog) to chat about what we had learned. It was a fun way to share an experience but in different ways.

First, I went to the YA Keynote with Kami Garcia, one of the writers of the Beautiful Creatures books. I'd read the first one, and must admit I didn't think the writing was all that good, but I was still curious about what she had to say. Plus, since I teach young adults, I figure it's a good idea to go to at least one talk related to the kinds of books they read. When asked how she felt about the movie made out of the aforementioned book, Garcia said she liked how they brought the scenery of the world together and loved the young male actor, but had some issues with the movie. However, she was glad it brought her book a wider audience, and remarked, "Complaining about your movie is like a first world problem."

Garcia talked about how the writing process is really tough for her. She suffers from anxiety and has ADD, so she has a lot of self doubt nagging at her all the time. But she works hard to push through it, reminding herself that if you get something down on paper, no matter how bad it is, you can work on fixing it. You just have to start somewhere. She also said that though some people talk about having a muse, she does not: "There's no magical being that comes and sprinkles fairy dust on you and then you're Neil Gaiman." Sigh, if only.

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, the next session I went to, "Turning Classics Inside Out," featured a protege of his, Kat Howard, as well as Alison Case and Elizabeth Nunez. Case's book was a reworking of Wuthering Heights, meaning I will never, ever read it--WH is one of my least favorite pieces of literature of all time. Nunez's book updates and replants Shakespeare's King Lear in the Caribbean. And Howard's book Roses and Rot, which I bought and am currently in the midst of, reworks fairy tales and the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin (which I'd been unfamiliar with). It's pretty interesting so far. Case and Nunez talked about this idea that authors plant seeds of ideas in their books, then leave space for the audience to jump in and try to fill that space with their own ideas/interpretations/answers. Nunez said that Shakespeare was excellent at doing this, which is why his work has lasted. The authors also talked about how they worked to make their books accessible to people who had never read the source texts. Though Howard said she also added "Easter eggs" for people who are familiar with Tam Lin, so there's that added layer for them.

The third session was one I was really curious about: "Injustice, Incarceration, Invisibility," featuring Eddie Glaude, Jr., Elizabeth Hinton, Shaka Senghor, and Mychal Denzel Smith. They discussed the issue of mass incarceration of black men and other related issues. We obviously have a huge incarceration issue in the country, with more incarcerated people than anywhere else in the world, so  was interested in their take on this. The audience, while mixed, did have a white majority, but Glaude reminded us that he refuses to sweet talk white people about these issues. I've seen a lot of pieces lately on the kind of thing he was talking about--it doesn't matter if these issues make white people uncomfortable--they aren't the ones suffering from a racist system. Smith talked about how policing and incarceration are made to enforce systems of inequality. Hinton brought up that we need to empower people to solve the problems in their own communities and police those communities, so that we're not just going into other people's communities and doing all of that for them. Some of the issues of incarceration that they discussed are that when people are in prison, the dehumanization leads to their talents being largely ignored. There is so much untapped potential languishing away or being punished. Also, I don't remember who brought it up, but one of the authors/scholars argued that by not allowing people who've been convicted of felonies to vote, black people are further disenfranchised--and no, it's not a coincidence that very white states like Vermont DO allow them to vote. Plus, these are people who are still required to pay taxes, even though they have no say in how those taxes are spent.

One of them said that President Obama is a sign of progress that has made us think that there's been more progress that we've actually experienced. His being president is a singular achievement--it doesn't solve everything for black people. Glaude said that whenever we advance in this society, we are also held back by a reassertion of what he called "the value gap"--basically, the belief that white people matter more than others. For example, though Lincoln did so much for black people in this country, he also still believed that black people were inferior, and this kept him from being the kind of person his idea of democracy required. I think this value gap certainly applies to Obama's presidency. Yes, it's progress that he holds the highest office in the country. But America still has a huge race problem, as Black Lives Matter and other groups have been working hard to remind us. And it is no coincidence that the "birther" controversy happened with the first black president. Some people do not want to accept that he could be a real American and run our country. This is similar to why the Republican-led Congress has been more obstinate than perhaps any Congress preceding it--there are still some congresspeople who buck at the idea of answering to a black man. Thus, our progress has exposed just how far we still have to go.

A point I was very pleased about was Smith's assertion that we need intersectionality--it's not enough to just fight against one system of oppression; it's much more effective to work to end different ones at the same time. Racism intersects with patriarchy, transphobia, etc. The authors also talked about the need to let go of your privilege if that privilege means people are suffering on the other side of it.

When it came time for questions, I went up--I was very nervous, especially since we were in huge, packed Trinity Church. Basically, I said, "I'm a high school teacher, and I'm lucky to teach a diverse group of kids. Recently, when we were talking about fear, one of my students, who's a young black man, said that he's afraid of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. We address race to some extent in my classroom, but I'm curious if you have any suggestions about how I can better address that young man's concerns and issues of race in a way that will be both engaging and meaningful to both my black and white students." In response, they talked about the need to honor students' experiences and believing them (which I certainly do). They also talked about needing to be willing to make people uncomfortable--it's important to talk about the brutality and the actual realities people face. They said to face it head-on, and don't sugarcoat.

The final talk also dealt with current societal issues: "Is This Any Way to Elect a President?" While I have the names written down, I could only see a couple of the people on the stage from my spot in the very last row to the right, so I don't actually know who said what. They offered some insight into this election cycle. Some of their thoughts:

  • Part of the reason it has taken so much longer for the US to have/consider having a female leader than many other countries is our president is also Commander-in-Chief. We're used to associating women with pacifism, and many people aren't comfortable with a woman leading our armed forces.
  • Republicans have misunderstood their base: many of those people are not ideological conservatives
  • Part of what motivates Trump is wanting to prove people wrong. For example, he thought he'd get big donations from other rich people, but didn't. This added to the chip on his shoulder. So then he said he wouldn't be taking donations, and it made him popular...
  • They brought up something about President Obama similar to the previous session: said his election showed us how much racial anxiety our country still has. People have hated it when Obama spoke up about black issues (like when he talked about Trayvon Martin), and his approval ratings went down. Obama also didn't want to be a litigator on race, but at times was pushed into it. Similarly, they think that if Clinton is elected (*Editor's note: dear lord, let it be so...), it will be hard for her to engage in issues around gender because people, led by Trump, are questioning her very legitimacy as a candidate.
  • Hating the Electoral College is not a modern phenomenon--people have sought to abolish it since the end of the 18th century! But keeping it is partly motivated by race--it has given whites more power.
  • Trump becoming more unhinged (like in 2nd debate) isn't good for people's faith in the democratic process (no kidding!)
  • "We're historians--we predict the past!"
  • Trump is performing for the people he wants to sell to in the future
  • Trump was helped by media--he's good at getting attention, so he got all this free media coverage from it. Marco Rubio eventually tried to tap into that, but couldn't beat Trump at his own game.
  • The Republican Party has been a coalition of a bunch of different factions that don't go together for a long time
  • Europe is having similar negative reactions to an influx of refugees and immigrants, which people like Putin have been stoking
Hopefully this has piqued your interest enough to make you want to check out the Book Festival next year! Almost every single one of their events is free. You may even get to meet one of your favorite authors and get your book signed, or you could discover an amazing author you'd never heard of before. Happy reading!