It was a perfect day — good weather, good food, good company and literary seminars. I joined my daughter, LouAnn, for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival last Friday. With the pleasant temperature it was an easy walk from her house to a restaurant on Dumaine Street for lunch. Then on to the Hotel Monteleone for the festival that honors this wonderful playwright who had roots in Mississippi. There could be no more fitting venue than this historic, literary hotel that inspired Williams, Faulkner, Capote and Hemingway.
The first panel discussion was An Examined Life: The Mysteries of Memoir. Who among us hasn’t thought of writing our memoirs? The first sentence that describes this discussion gives us pause: Memoir writing requires the writer to stare into the abyss of a very personal past. The panelists were Blake Bailey, Ann Hood, Lila Quintero Weaver and Emily Raboteau.
Each of these authors approached memoir writing from different perspectives. For Bailey and Hood it was to heal after losing loved ones. Weaver and Raboteau tried to answer the question “who am I?” through their memoirs. Raboteau is a mixed-race child whose grandfather was lynched in Bay St. Louis many years ago. Weaver’s family emigrated from Argentina to a small town in Alabama before the current Hispanic migration. She says they were merely curiosities there during her childhood.
The second panel discussion we attended was titled Not Even Past: Southern History in Contemporary Fiction. Panelists included Bill Cheng, Kiese Laymon, Valerie Martin and Kent Wascom. Laymon was born in Jackson and reared mostly in Scott County by his grandmother. He’s a graduate of Millsaps College and is currently an associate professor in the English Department at Vassar College. His novel, Long Division, is set in Melahatchie, Miss., where his grandmother works in a chicken factory. Anyone who knows anything about central Mississippi won’t have a hard time figuring out that locale. Wascom’s The Blood of Heaven is currently receiving positive reviews and he’s done book signings at several Mississippi book stores.
I wish space would allow me to give more details. For bookworms there is nothing more uplifting than listening to writers discuss what they’ve written and the back stories of why they wrote it the way they did. I recently read that humorist and author Dave Barry said our country is becoming illiterate (and of course he lists all the usual suspects). Those of us who value the written word in all its forms must fight to keep people writing and reading. Literary festivals and book conferences are trying to do that and deserve our support.
Cocktails at the Monteleone’s beautiful Carousel Bar and dinner at The Kingfish on Chartres Street completed the day.