Every two years, Festival America brings “les littératures américaines dans tous leurs états” to France.
That is America in the largest sense, including the play on words that it’s literature in all its states.
For Festival America wasn’t just celebrating literature from the United States this past weekend; 70 writers from countries both North and South participated in a jam-packed extravaganza of panels and debates, discussing everything from the big questions of society to family relationships in fiction.
Perhaps it would be the same anywhere, but it seemed fitting that the focus of so many panels in this famed city of love was…love. “L’amour, un folie?” (Love, a madness?) was the very first panel after the opening event.
But how about that opening event? Which honored the festival’s special honored guest? TONI MORRISON, people! Noble Prize winner, lady of letters extraordinaire Toni Morrison reigned over this 10-year anniversary edition of Festival America.
(This recording is the entire opening event. All questions and discussion are in French, but Ms. Morrison of course speaks in English!)
Toni Morrison was not the only big name in the festival. In fact, I thought I had died and gone to fangirl heaven as it seemed all of my favorite contemporary American authors were there: Jennifer Egan (Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad) and Nicole Krauss (author of A History of Love, which I adore). There were other dear awesome ones: Chris Adrian, Russell Banks, Dinaw Mengestu.
Throughout the weekend I fell in love with Karen Russell (who said she recognized me from my laugh in the audience when she signed my book!) and Teju Cole. Gary Shteyngart could be relied upon to provide the comic relief.
What heartened me as much as hearing all of these inspiring writers was the popularity of the event. Wow, all of these people want to talk about literature and books! As we all gathered in Vincennes, the suburb just east of Paris hosting the event, I marveled: there’s still an eager, committed reading public! It exists!
“It seems so French,” a writer named Linda said to me as we were exiting a discussion. All this serious talk, the very manner of it. I had to agree. God love them! I adore that literature is given such a central role here, understood to be vital. The actual discussion was at times a bit staid, however.
A few reasons jump to mind. One, it can be difficult to have much back and forth when everything needs to be translated. Two, the French really do like to hear themselves talk – sometimes the moderators would speak more than the writers just in asking their questions!
I found the translation aspect of the event fascinating. They did a great job with simultaneously translating the questions for the authors so no time was lost that way. On a panel focused on writing about the city, author Adam Ross quipped that while New York was great, Paris was pretty cool: he arrives, gets put on a stage, and then a young woman whispers into his ear the whole time!
On a personal note, I was pleased to see how well I really do operate in both these languages. The translators have a terrifically difficult job – translating under pressure some of the most eloquent people of our day. Still, I found myself many times taking issue with the translation. Well that’s not really what they said! (One particularly egregious example: Louis Erdrich said “speak truth to power” and it was translated as “speak truth to pow-wow.” Um, wow! Just because she’s Native American does *not* mean she’s going to mention a pow-wow! We all heard it, though, and it was quickly corrected).
One of my favorite panels was called “Looking North, Looking South” about the fascination of North and South American writers with each other. Besides my heavy faves Nicole Krauss and Karen Russell, I discovered Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra.
For laughs, nothing could really beat “Writing about Sex” with Jennifer Egan and Gary Shteyngart. This event was pitted against the hommage to Toni Morrison, but it’s no surprise that the sex talk drew an enthusiastic crowd.
I am completely beat and picked up a little cold after 3 full days of events. It was all worth it, though. I am feeling grateful, inspired and motivated. I’ll just have to wait another two years for the next one!
Who would your dream panel of authors include?
*UPDATE! A version of this post was picked up for publication by Untapped Cities. You can see it here!*