Dispatch from the Texas Book Festival

November 21, 2016

It’s no secret that the city of Austin is a music-festival mecca, but this November the 21st annual Texas Book Festival proved that a literary festival can equally flourish and energize this arts-and-culture oasis in central Texas. The streets around the state capitol were lined with tents full of booksellers and independent publishers, and bustling among the books in spite of the drizzly weather were readers of all ages.

The festival brought in a diverse cast of authors including many whom WLT has recently covered, like Puterbaugh Fellow Andrés Neuman, Chigozie Obioma, and Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Three-time NSK Prize finalist Lois Lowry spoke about her photographic memoir Looking Back, former NSK juror Yuyi Morales led a bilingual children’s storytime reading her book Rudas: Niños Horrendous Hermanitas, and recent Neustadt Prize juror Norma Cantú joined in a session featuring women who identify as Tejanas in both literary and visual arts. 

I particularly enjoyed Geoff Dyer and Andrés Neuman’s session on travel writing. Dyer delivered an amusing reading from his book White Sands, and Neuman read an excerpt from his newest book, How to Travel without Seeing, translated by Jeffrey Lawrence. Neuman’s reading carried like a blend of aphorism and travel-journal entry, and the two authors shared wit and insight about how we absorb and participate in our surroundings when traveling to visit new places.

Angela Flournoy, Chigozie Obioma, and Derek Palacio also joined in a particularly stimulating session where they shared stories of homecoming from their novels based on families from Detroit, Nigeria, and Cuba. Palacio talked about his book The Mortifications and how homecoming is a “fraught place for American-Cubans,” and Obioma described his novel The Fisherman and his sense of consummate nostalgia during his quest to discover “what was wrong with Nigeria.” Flournoy covered the very physical presence of a home in her book The Turner House and discussed the “frustrations and rewards” in the relationships of adult siblings. 

Though wandering the echoing halls of the capitol for sessions created a disconnect from the more energetic and easily accessible events outside, the festival as a whole felt well orchestrated and tailored to invite a multitude of audiences. With celebrity book events featuring actors like Diane Guerrero and Nick Offerman, and foodie events featuring Padma Lakshmi and Texas “taco journalists” Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece, there was something for every type of reader. 

Perhaps the most energizing part of the festival was the literary camaraderie and offbeat fun during Lit Crawl Austin. This annual event is a collaboration between the Texas Book Festival and San Francisco’s Litquake Foundation. The Literary Death Match at North Door was packed with an enthusiastic audience, and the event stayed true to its relaxed, approachable atmosphere with authors who read and then were rated and reviewed (with humor and positivity) on the spot. The playful readings took the stilted edge off what would, otherwise, simply be another group of author readings.

The Literary Match Game hosted by Deep Vellum’s Will Evans and fields magazine’s editor in chief Sean Redmond carried some of the most upbeat energy of the night. Formatted like a game of Balderdash, the audience was invited to find the truth-teller among authors Peter Cameron, Sady Doyle, Chigozie Obioma, and Claudia Salazar Jiménez, who provided answers to trivia questions about literary classics. When the turn to verify what blinded Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was volleyed to the entire audience, it was a charged moment to remark “Fire!” and share a knowing glance with fellow Brontë fans across the room. Not all literary events can boast that laughter and talking among one another are vital to the operation, and that’s what made this one feel particularly welcoming. 

Our evening ended at Weather Up, where we caught the tail end of Noir at the Bar. The copper bar and golden lighting set a Prohibition Era tone that unintentionally paired well with the crime fiction readings on the large patio. As the event came to a close and final readings carried on in the foreground, my friends and I sat outside around a table where we generously shared what books we’d recently read and what books we were excited about. As the ice clinked in our glasses and string lights dimly lit our conversations, I felt a wistful nostalgia for Lit Crawl before the night’s events had even ended. 

Jen Rickard Blair is the art and web director at World Literature Today.