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Monday, September 19, 2011

Brooklyn Book Festival 2011: Mark Strand, Jhumpa Lahiri, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead

On Sunday, September 18, thousands of readers flocked to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall and surrounding venues to hear some 260 writers who had come to read and discuss their work on more than one hundred panels at the sixth annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Every hour twelve free events competed for the attention of the decision-addled attendees.

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mark Strand joined Jean Valentine, Tina Chang, Justin Long-Moton, and Alice Quinn on the windy outdoor stage opposite the steps of Borough Hall to wake up the early morning crowd with recitations. Strand's brisk reading of “Dream Testicles, Vanished Vaginas” certainly did that. “I like reading this in a public place,” he chuckled.

Listen to Mark Strand read three of his poems:

Each year the festival gives its BoBi Award to “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn and has had a broad impact on the field of literature.” This year the award went to the Brooklyn resident Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri read from her second, untitled novel to a packed audience at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church and then discussed her writing with critic Liesl Schillinger. Lahiri explained that she had been working on the novel for fourteen years, even while she published two collections of stories, the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and her first novel, The Namesake (2003). Asked if she writes for a hyphenated-American audience, Lahiri responded, “I don’t know. I write to answer questions I have about my life.”

On Saturday night St. Francis College, which hosted many of the festival’s events, announced that Jonathan Dee, a festival participant, won the second annual St. Francis College Literary Award for his novel The Privileges. The $50,000 prize is “aimed at encouraging mid-career authors to continue honing their craft.” “So much of being a writer is about disappointment and discouragement,” Dee said in accepting the award. “Tonight I feel the exact opposite. I feel nothing but encouraged.”

In another session at St. Ann’s previous BoBi winner Walter Mosley joined Irish writer Eoin Colfer to discuss “Gumshoes.” After Mosley read a chapter from his new Leonid McGill novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man (coming in January), Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin asked him about the draw of crime fiction and how it works. Mosley expounded on what the genre allows him to do:
Crime fiction . . . allows you a view into worlds that you might not see otherwise. Let’s say you were going to write a story about an undocumented laborer in Central California and how he died and how he lived. If you write the story straightforward like that what you do is that you get readers who are interested in that. But if the way you got into that story was from a Chicano detective who is hired by somebody in the area to find out who indeed killed the boss of all these workers then all of a sudden you have a much larger group. You can reach much further by putting something in crime fiction because a lot of people read crime fiction and they don’t care where it happens. They don’t care who’s in it. They care about the resolution of the crime because that’s what’s important to them. But in doing that you’re able to talk about a much broader world and bring people into that.
Listen to Walter Mosley talk about crime fiction:

By most accounts the most sought after ticket was to “Apocalypse Now and Then What?” which featured Tananarive Due reading from My Soul to Take, the latest in her series of African Immortals novels; Patrick Somerville, who read “No Sun” from his story collection The Universe in Miniature in Miniature; and Colson Whitehead, reading from his highly anticipated new novel, Zone One, due out in October. Whitehead took pains to set up his reading: “Zone One is an autobiographical novel based on my time clearing out zombies from downtown Manhattan. . . Some people dream about being naked in public. For me it’s zombies. Sometimes I get bit. Sometimes I make it to the human settlement.” By writing about his dreams Whitehead hoped to exorcise them, “and I’ve been 90% successful.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes two poems by Mark Strand); Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (includes “The Third and Final Continent” from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes an excerpt from Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress) and Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes an excerpt from The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead)

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