The 2015 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival is upon us, and as it has for the past several years offers a smorgasbord of enticing literary events. Here are Room 220’s picks for the things you don’t want to miss. (The festival runs Wednesday, March 25, through Sunday, March 29. See the full program here.)
Unless you have $100 to throw down on tickets to “Tennessee and Toussaint” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which includes a guided walk-through of an exhibition of Tennessee Williams’ paintings, dinner, and an intimate concert by Allen Toussaint (by all means if you have the $100, go), the real action starts on Thursday night.
Your very own beloved lit blog Room 220 is hosting the Official 2015 TWF Fiction and Poetry Contest Winners Event from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). This special Happy Hour Salon will feature readings by this year’s literary champions Carrie Cogan (fiction) and Emily Leithauser (poetry) as well as presentations by poetry judge and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri, novelist Zachary Lazar, and past TWF contest winner Kent Wascom and past finalist Maurice Ruffin. For more details, visit Room 220.
FRIDAY begins in earnest the marathon of panels and other literary offerings that comprise the meat of the festival. Two highlights that day stand out:
First, at 10: 30 a.m. at the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St.), author Laila Lalami will sit in conversation with TWF programming director J.R. Ramakrishnan to discuss “Deceptive Histories, Truthful Fictions.” Lalami is the author of The Moor’s Account, a retelling the story of conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez’s 1527 expedition to the “New World,” most famously chronicled by fellow Spaniard Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. For those of you who don’t know it, Cabeza de Vaca’s story is absolutely crazy (the best telling of his version of the events that we’ve come across is in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost). In The Moor’s Account Lalami imagines the story from an alternate perspective: that of Estebanico, one of the Spaniards’ African slaves. In addition to the vivid effects of her beautiful and compelling prose, in resurrecting this story from its erasure in official historical accounts, Lalami challenges the popular narrative of the construction of the New World that omits the work and role of Africans, Arabs, and Muslims. At this presentation, Lalami will discuss history as narrative force, her re-creation of the multilingual voices of the past, and the points at which facts turn into fiction.
Second, on the lighter side, a couple of Baltimore kids will get together and chuckle it up as author Laura Lippman interviews Renaissance Man John Waters at 4 p.m. in the Queen Anne Ballroom of the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.). John Waters loves New Orleans and New Orleans loves John Waters, so we imagine this one will be standing-room only. Lippman, a Baltimore native best known for her detective fiction, will talk to the Pope of Trash (or whatever they’re calling him these days) about his most recent book, Carsick, which chronicles Waters’ voyage hitchhiking across America, and whatever else they fancy.
Folks who have a couple hours to kill before the Waters event can get a taste of the confluence of high-mindedness and low culture at 2:30 p.m. at the HNOC’s Williams Research Center (410 Chartres St.) as the TWF Scholars Conference presents a panel titled “Southern Literature and the White Trash Aesthetic.”
SATURDAY is the day when you can basically just head down to the French Quarter and spend the late morning and afternoon basking in the erudite insights offered during a great series of panels. At 10 a.m. at Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant (801 Chartres St.), poets Saeed Jones and Vijay Seshadri will discuss themes related to “Migrating Words: How Poets Influence and Adapt to Language.” Jones is a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and editor of BuzzFeed LGBT, while Seshadri recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. They will read from their innovative work and talk about how poetry shapes language.
At 11:30 a.m. at the Monteleone’s Queen Anne Ballroom, authors Molly Crabapple, Phil Klay, and Laila Lalami are “The Transnationalists: American Writers on Border Crossings.” Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, is informed by his experiences as a Marine in the Iraq War. It won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. Crabapple, an artist and writer, was shortlisted for a 2013 Frontline Print Journalism Award for her reportage on Guantanamo Bay. Lalami is author of The Moor’s Account. This panel, moderated by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, will explore point of view, writing from within (and about) the U.S. borders, and looking inward from abroad.
New Orleans has never been short on happenings—good, bad, or otherwise—so perhaps it’s not surprising that our hometown literary festival could put together a panel highlighting recent work specifically on historical kidnappings in the city. Last year, University of Maryland history professor Michael A. Ross turned heads with the publication of The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era (Oxford University Press). Just last month, Georgetown University history professor Adam Rothman put out Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard University Press). Both tell wild tales of kidnappings in New Orleans that shed light on the broader issues of the times in which they occurred. Jessica Marie Johnson, a history professor and expert in African Diaspora studies and digital humanities, will join Ross and Rothman for a panel at 1 p.m., “Sensational New Orleans Kidnapping Cases,” moderated by Kim Marie-Vaz, in the Monteleone’s Queen Anne Ballroom.
Rounding out Saturday afternoon will be a conversation between two Room 220 favorites: post-Katrina hero, author, and all-around badass Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré and author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jed Horne. Their conversation—during which Horne will ask the general about his military career, his mission to promote a “culture of preparedness,” and much more—is certain to be a stimulating, informative, and entertaining meeting of the minds (and strong personalities), whatever they talk about. These two dudes could talk about soup and it would be great. The event takes place at 4 p.m. in the Queen Anne Ballroom.
On Saturday night, the festival continues into the wee hours with a Literary Late Night starting at 8 p.m. at Tasseology (1228 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.) celebrating the recent release of Mixed Company, a collection of short fiction and art written and edited by women of color in New Orleans. The multi-media event will feature film, music, art, and readings by Mixed Company contributors Addie Citchens, Jeri Hilt, Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy, Ambata Kazi-Nance, J.R. Ramakrishnan, and Kristina K. Robinson.
SUNDAY slows down a bit but still offers two promising panels. At 11:30 a.m. in the Monteleone’s Royal Ballroom, bigwig women in publishing Pamela Paul, Brigid Hughes, and Lauren Cerand will present a panel “A Byline of One’s Own: Women in Literary Life,” moderated by J.R. Ramakrishnan. Much has been written in recent years about the dearth of women in “serious literary publishing,” highlighted most prominently by VIDA reports that track such demographics. Paul, the New York Times Book Review editor; Hughes, editor of A Public Space; and Cerand, a superstar independent book publicist, will talk about what women’s lives are like within this man’s world of words and print. Men are invited to attend, listen, and keep their mouths shut during the Q&A.
A panel at 1 p.m. in the Monteleone’s Royal Ballroom focuses on the wonderful literary journal A Public Space. “Building Stories: A Panel with A Public Space” will feature APS editor Brigid Hughes as she leads a discussion with two contributors, Yiyun Li and Vanessa Hutchinson, on shaping experiences into compelling stories, but also on the role of mentorship in writing. APS has consistently focused on providing space for new writers—Tulane professor and National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward published her first story with them—and in 2014 launched its “Emerging Writers Fellows” program, which partners fellows in mentorship relationships with established APS contributors. Hutchinson is one of the program’s inaugural fellows, and she’s working with Li as her mentor.
Once again, the full program of events for the 2015 Tennessee Williams Festival is here. Enjoy yourself, literati.