Tucson Festival of Books: Happy 10th Birthday!

And a very happy one it was. Despite some unseasonal rain (what?! In Tucson?! In March?!), the 10th Tucson Festival of Books shone its usual ray of light on everything literary.

Old perennial Luis Urrea starred in his tenth Tucson Festival while launching his new novel House of Broken Angels. In cahoots with the inspiring novelist and screenwriter Tom Perrotta, Urrea came up with personal stories, shafts of wisdom, and zinging one-liners. “I come from a family of unreliable narrators, storytellers, liars,” he told us. He feels his job, as a writer, is to “represent these beautiful people who others look down on.” When asked, about his new novel, whether he was writing a love letter to his family, he said, “I’m writing a love letter to everybody.”

Luis Alberto Urrea

Perrotta was no less excellent and delightfully humble. He mentioned that satirists – he is sometimes wrongly described as one – look down from above in collusion with the reader, knowing more than their characters. But Perrotta says he doesn’t know more than his characters because he’s an almighty screw-up too.

Another highlight for me was seeing bell hooks on two panels. The great writer/educator/social justice activist critiqued everything: America, race relations, capitalism, patriarchy, but did it with a sly wit, proving the adage that humor penetrates quicker because the listener’s defenses are down. She talked about the role of “revolutionary love” in decolonizing the mind and diminishing the distances between people. She also said imagination can lead to liberation: seeing another person’s side of the story makes us more human.

bell hooks

To their credit, hooks’s co-panelists (in two separate panels), Darnell Moore and Fenton Johnson, held their own. In a panel called “How Books Change Lives,” Moore, who has a memoir coming out – No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America – described an episode from his childhood. Another kid – Obi – tried to set him on fire. Years later Moore attempted to find Obi. Moore bore no grudge; he just wanted to know Obi was alive and prospering because the “tools” that kid used in his act of violence were the same tools available to Moore. He said we can simultaneously be the oppressed and the oppressor. The first, radical step is to ask whose neck your own foot is on.

Another panel I enjoyed immensely involved three novelists, Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, and Stephanie Powell Watts. I last saw Jackie in October 2017 when in a mad scramble we dashed across Washington D.C. in a shared Uber car, attempting in vain to get to the correct venue on time (yes, we’d both gone to the wrong bookstore to do a reading). She had the right venue this time, and the panel was hilarious and touching. Sample lines:

Jackie: “What does it mean to be in a society that doesn’t recognize you? My mom was invisible to white folks her whole life. As writers, we have the power to change the narrative.”

Tayari: “When I wanted to study creative writing, my father said ‘You know what your problem is? You never had to pick cotton!'”

Jackie: “Readers need mirrors and windows. Mirrors to see themselves reflected, windows to show us worlds we may never know.”

Tayari: “Don’t just read Black writers to learn about Black history. It shouldn’t be ‘eat your spinach, do your homework, read Black writers.’ Read Black sci-fi, Black humor, Black romance. Read us with an open heart and a free spirit.”

Jacqueline Woodson

There was a very interesting panel with three debut novelists: Alisyn Camerota, Linnea Hartsuyker and AJ Finn. All were fascinating for different reasons.

Apparently, Camerota is a famous news presenter. I don’t watch TV, so I’d never heard of her, but the crowd seemed suitably star-struck. She’s written a novel about … a female news presenter. Camerota, obviously a huge success in her field, spoke with great humility about learning to be a writer.

Finn’s thriller, The Woman at the Window, has broken all kinds of records. Having sold for a seven-figure sum after a bidding war, the book hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list in its first week. And I must say, even for a non-reader-of-thrillers like me, the short passage Finn read was gripping. Finn is a pseudonym for Daniel Mallory, who is a prominent New York editor. Among the many interesting things he said is that he’s suffered from depression for 15 years. A correct diagnosis finally gave him the chance to write his book.

The germ of Hartsuyker’s novel, The Half-Drowned King, came from genealogical research: she found out she was related to King Harald, the first King of Norway. Her book – the first in a trilogy – is about Vikings, and judging by the passage she read, it’s a gem.

Two other panels I really enjoyed involved Tom Perrotta (again), Celeste Ng, and Jamie Ford talking about their new novels, and a panel on comics/graphic novels.

From the latter, John Jennings impressed me enormously with his cogent comments on race and representation in the world of comics. Comics disrupt the canon from within: they quote academics and graffiti artists, hip-hop and Plato. When asked about getting into the industry, he said, “Embrace who you are. Find allies. Be amazing: blow it out of the water. How do you become a great boxer? You take a lot of punches and you throw a lot of punches.”

John Jennings

Happy birthday, Tucson Festival of Books. Here’s to many more.




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