The Southern Festival of Books is not a political event. But this year, organizers say they couldn’t ignore two of the country’s most pressing issues — immigration and identity.
So they placed them center stage at the 31st edition, which runs Friday through Sunday in downtown Nashville.
Specifically, as the event’s themed section. There’s one every year and previous topics include the Civil War, medicine, even storytelling itself. In 2019, it is “Borders and Belonging.”
“We’re exploring borders both geographic and cultural,” says Serenity Gerbman, director of the Southern Festival of Books. (Editor’s note: The Southern Festival of Books is a financial sponsor of WPLN.)
“Both of those things are very important. They affect how openly and freely we’re able to live our lives where we are.”
Passing back and forth across cultural borders is something Jennine Capó Crucet knows well. The novelist and Ethnic Studies professor is a first-generation Cuban-American. She’s also light-skinned, so people rarely assume she’s Latina. As a result, she says, she gets to experience race and racism from both sides of the fence.
“When we talk about immigrants we’re talking about specific people,” says Capó Crucet. “Sometimes I’m part of that group, sometimes I’m not, depending on the listener. And that’s what I found so interesting and worth examining.”
She did so in a collection of personal essays entitled My Time Among the Whites.
Meanwhile, for his new book, On a Plain of Snakes, Paul Theroux crossed a physical border. The renowned travel writer took a 15,000-mile road trip through Mexico, meeting everyone from migrant workers to the intelligentsia. He says his goal was to dispel negative stereotypes about our southern neighbors.
“I think most Americans are afraid of Mexico, afraid to travel there,” says Theroux. “Except that huge numbers of Americans retire there.”
Those who can’t afford to live in the US on their pensions, he says. That was one of the surprises of this trip. Another was that Mexicans themselves are not the majority of people crossing the border. There are Central and South Americans, says Theroux, as well as people from across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
A more visceral take on the festival’s theme comes from Saeed Jones’ memoir How We Fight For Our Lives. The gay African-American poet — known for writing frankly about physical and sexual violence — says it took a while to realize everyone feels alienated.
Jones says for a long time he believed he didn’t belong, “That I was an outsider, that I had transgressed some kind of border.” He says those beliefs made him even stop asking for help, which he writes about in his new memoir.
Overall the festival has more than 200 authors on the program, spanning all genres of literature, for adults and children alike.