Touching Down at the Brooklyn Book Festival

‘Let Me Show You My World’ Panel

By Jordyn Fischer, Contributing Writer

The Brooklyn Book Festival is any booklover’s dream, but the panels are easily the best part about it. It’s a chance to not only meet your favorite authors (and grab some amazing books), but also a chance to get the advice and courage from people who have gone through the writing, editing and publishing process.

Panels happen every hour, at multiple different locations surrounding Borough Hall, throughout the day. “Let Me Show You My World” was a personal favorite, as it touched on both how to create the world of your book and the ways in which the writing process illuminated their world.

Laurent Linn, author of the novel/comic mix “Draw My Lines” said “this work wrote me more than I wrote it,” when asked about what influenced his work. Faith Erin Hick and Ethan Young, the other two authors at the panel, also expressed how though they didn’t want their personal histories to dictate their stories, they did factor in their own personal lives when writing. Faith Hick, with her graphic novel “The Nameless City,” talked about her story’s military setting and her own military father. Ethan Young’s book “The Battles of Bridget Lee” was inspired by the Mulan folk tales that his mother told to him.

Each writer discussed that when creating their worlds and protagonists, they wanted to focus on creating “real” characters — those that were relatable enough to exist in everyday life. Which is why the protagonists of these stories are also people of minorities and marginalized groups.

“I’m not saying you can’t write a story about a cis-gendered, straight white man,” Young said. “But there are just so many of those. I wanted to write a story with a female protagonist for my sci-fi novel.”

The panel was filled with powerpoint slides of the authors’ works from their novels. The art was stunning, the dialogue inviting and the stories of all the panelists hit close to home.

History Threatens

By Amanda Quinn, Contributing Writer

As part of the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival, authors Darryl Pinckney, Sunil Yapa and Allison Amend discussed their newest books, all of which feature intriguing protagonists searching for their place in a world turned upside down by the events of history. Though all of their characters have vastly different experiences — one as a spy on the Galapagos Islands during World War II, another an African-American expat in 1980s Berlin and another a nomadic teenager caught up in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle — they all have reputations as “wanderers,” to use Amend’s words.

For Pinckney, in his novel “Black Deutschland,” protagonist Jed, a black gay man from Chicago, hopes to find a “free zone” in Berlin, still divided into East and West. From Pinckney’s reading, as Jed sits musing on the Reichstag building, the symbol of German government, with bullet holes still visible on buildings from World War II, a new kind of Europe “forms around him.” Similarly, in Amend’s “Enchanted Islands,” Franny, the independent heroine, goes on a journey to find a place where she belongs — outside spaces confined by society’s expectations of women in the early twentieth century — even if it means taking on a world war with little else other than her wits.

Yapa’s protagonist, Victor, from his novel “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” is also on a journey to find himself somewhere he feels wanted. Those taking part in the WTO protests form a kind of new family for him, a powerful reminder that home does not always have to be a place. Sometimes, it is just a person. All three of these captivating novels appeal to the basic human desire to be loved in any capacity, and, in their truthfulness present fulfilling fiction that never ceases to please.

Occupy and Resist

By Amanda Quinn, Contributing Writer

At one of the Brooklyn Book Festival’s panels, entitled “Occupy and Resist,” authors Magdalena Platzova, Imbolo Mbue and Sayed Kashua discussed their books and any political implications they may have, whether purposefully or inadvertently. The stories range far and wide geographically from the Czech Republic and Cameroon to Harlem in New York City and an upscale Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Still, through their relatable characters and emotions, they all succeed in accurately portraying, as Kashua said, “the politics of everyday life.”

In his book “Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life,” a collection of columns he wrote for a newspaper in Jerusalem translated into English from the original Hebrew, Kashua explores his experiences as an Israeli-Arab man living in a primarily Jewish neighborhood. Though this topic could easily be politically charged, Kashua explained that the “background is political, […] not the story.” Mbue agrees, when talking about her novel “Behold The Dreamers,” about Cameroonian immigrants living in Manhattan, that though its backdrop is the Great Recession, at the end of the day, “It’s a story about people.”

While Platzova agrees that the intent of her novel, “The Attempt,” was more an exploration between the relation between past and present, she can still recall Czech anarchists thanking her for her humanizing portrayal of a fellow American anarchist, when the book was first published in the Czech Republic. Despite all the positive feedback, though, all three of the authors seemed to be in agreement that the impact their stories might have on their audiences was a secondary thought as they were writing. These books were written because the authors enjoy the act of storytelling, thus making the audience’s mutual enjoyment of reading these stories only natural.

The Art of Survival in Imaginary Worlds

By Amanda Quinn, Contributing Writer

At a panel discussion on surviving in imaginary worlds, fantasy and science fiction authors Robert Jackson Bennett, Sarah Beth Durst and N.K. Jemisin began by laying out the history, societies and geography of the new fantasy worlds they have created as settings for their stories. From Durst’s magical landscapes filled with bloodthirsty nature spirits to Jemisin’s seismically active supercontinent and Bennett’s post-apocalyptic industrial metropolis, all the writers create mercurial worlds where danger lurks around every corner while still managing to hook readers with tales of hope, perseverance and powerful heroines.

Durst’s novel “The Queen of Blood,” the first in her upcoming trilogy “The Queens of Renthia,” follows the journey of a young girl trying to save her realm from the vengeful nature spirits as one of the few true queens who has the ability to control them. Jemisin’s novel “The Obelisk Gate,” second in her trilogy “The Broken Earth,” tells the story of three women with vastly different lives who all have the power to control the apocalyptic urges of their continent, ironically named “The Stillness.” Through grief and hardship the true magic of determination shines through and, in the words of Durst, a “literature of hope and empowerment” is found.

Bennett also features a strong female protagonist in his novel “City of Blades,” the second installment in his science fiction series “The Divine Cities,” who he describes as “someone you would not think is the protagonist.” This outer ordinariness, however, is exactly what makes her such an incredible spy in a quickly changing world where dissent and rebellion threaten to throw the world back into an age of chaos. These books are set in ethereal worlds and extreme environments that make apparent the thorough exploration of the realities of human nature which wouldn’t be possible in a more earthly context.

Magic and Mayhem in New York
By Jordyn Fischer, Contributing Writer

At the “Magic and Mayhem in New York” Panel at the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival, author Libba Bray opened with a welcoming smile, clever jokes to loosen up the crowd and playful banter aimed at her fellow writers. She created an inviting atmosphere that pulled in the audience setting them up for the adventure that was about to come.

To start the panel, each participating writer — Sarah Porter, Marina Budhos and Daniel Jose Older — read aloud a bit from their book, all of which focused not only on magic of life in NYC, but also gentrification, immigration and coming to terms with oneself. Their writing stunned the audience into silence: Porter wrote of a lost and lonely child with such heartbreaking care, Budhos wrote in such a way that it snuck up on you and trapped you in her story and Older crafted his teen protagonist with deft understanding of the life of a black teenage Latina.  

Their writing styles blew the audience away, but the gentrification and immigration plot and subplots were what drew the audience in. When asked how and why he incorporated the topic into his own story, Older said, “You have to put on blinders to not see [gentrification].” It plays a key part in his story, which takes place in Brooklyn, and how he decided to write it. They weren’t afraid to touch on gentrification and the racial tensions that are becoming defining characteristics within Brooklyn and Queens. The openness was a welcome bit of fresh air from the stilted and awkward avoidances of such topics.

However, magic and how it intertwined with these stories and New York City, was the real star of the show. Sitting in a signature casual slouch with a smile on his face, Older said, “We carry the magic and trauma of our ancestors, and if we don’t hold it down, that can turn into passion and fire.”

Five Debut Books You Need to Read

By Alli Pierson, Books and Theater Editor

Every year, the Brooklyn Book Festival selects five new books that they think their readers should know. Seated before a small crowd on the main stage in Columbus Park, five very different authors told five very different stories. The “Who? New” panel, moderated by “Modern Lovers” author Emma Straub, was a kaleidoscope of fiction styles. From Jessica Winter’s humorous take on fertility treatments and toxic work environments in “Break in Case of Emergency” to JJ Amaworo Wilson’s “Damnificados,” a tale of societal misfits who occupy the unfinished Tower of David in Caracas, Venezuela, these stories are original and equally brilliant. Former U.S. Army Captain Matt Gallagher’s “Youngblood” is a powerfully honest postmodern narrative about the realities of the war in Iraq. Gallagher admitted that after his return from Iraq, he was determined not to become another war writer, though news reports about the withdrawal operation inspired him to write the kind of story that demanded telling.

Natashia Deon’s “Grace” is a haunting, heart-pounding novel about a pregnant runaway slave who falls victim to murder. The fate of her baby, however, is up to the grace of God. RJ Hernandez’s “An Innocent Fashion” provides a look into the pressures of working in the fashion industry, which includes grappling with thoughts of suicide. As a former Vogue intern, Hernandez explained that his writing was a form of therapy, and his eye for design was shown clearly through his descriptions of New York architecture. Each author read passages from their latest works and talked about their sources of inspiration. It is truly remarkable and a testament to the growth of fiction as a genre that the festival was able to select five books with such diverse subject matter. The only thing attendees were left wanting was a suggestion on which book to read first.

The Role of Race in Literary Culture

Alli Pierson, Books and Theater Editor

While portraits of white male judges peered down from the walls of the Borough Hall Courtroom, a difficult, but much needed, conversation unfolded. It was about time that the role of race in fiction was discussed, and the panel, “The Racial Realities of Fiction” presented by the Times Literary Supplement, offered just the opportunity to make writers’ voices heard. TLS editor Stig Abell moderated a panel featuring authors T. Geronimo Johnson, Esmeralda Santiago and Ali Eteraz. Each writer made several insightful observations about navigating the literary landscape. The authors each described feeling at one time or another forced to legitimize their own identity based on others’ expectations. Santiago discussed how growing up Puerto Rican in a multiethnic household shaped her worldview, and though race is not the entire subject of her work, it is there and part of the story as much as anything else. Johnson explained that the capitalist system is one that thrives on fear and inequity.

“You get rid of racism,” he argued, “you get rid of all the places where you put your biggest fears and anxieties.” This point is one that is too often illustrated in current politics. However, Johnson remained optimistic about his writing as a means to facilitate change.

As Eteraz lamented, “I cannot imagine a subject more important than giving a voice to various kinds of suffering.” As a Pakistani Muslim, he often found himself shouldering a representational burden of optimism, even in instances when he has seen positive progress overturned abruptly.

As a writer, Eteraz said, “I had to overcome terrorism in a way.”

He went on to describe having a sense of positional withdrawal from society. He recalled reading a collection of American poets as a child, and realizing that all of the poets in the collection were white. Esmeralda Santiago argued that the difficulty faced by many definitions of “American” literature is that they fail to account for the true spirit of this country, one that was largely built by immigrants.

“People in a new country, who are not free, learning to read in a language that is not their own, that is American literature,” she said.

The panel highlighted the need to increase inclusivity in literary culture in a visceral and accessible way. “The Racial Realities of Fiction” was a step in the right direction.

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