Festival America: A Fantastically Awesome Literary Extravaganza

Festival America 2012 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.

Teju Cole and Gary Shteyngart at Festival America 2012

Teju Cole and Gary Shteyngart hamming it up at Festival America 2012

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!

Festival America, Hotel de Ville

Crowd awaiting Toni Morrison in the Vincennes Hotel de Ville

“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!

Festival America panel discussion

Some overflow audience members invited onto the stage of a panel so everyone got a seat!

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!

Adam Ross with his translator. On either side writers Jonathan Dee and Teju Cole.

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).

Photo exhibit of the North American Indian at Festival America

A photo exhibition of “The North American Indian” was also featured at Festival America

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.

Red carpet at Festival America

There was a red carpet at Festival America, bien sur!

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!

Shakespeare & Co selling at the Salon du Livres, Festival America

Shakespeare & Co selling at the Salon du Livres, Festival America

Clowns at Festival America 2012

Um…? (They may have US flags on their hats, but I’m pretty sure this was a French idea) 😉

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!*

14 Responses to “Festival America: A Fantastically Awesome Literary Extravaganza”

  1. 1 Anne September 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for your report Sion and for sharing the YouTube videos.


  2. 3 Amy Kortuem September 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Sounds like an amazing event. So glad you got to immerse yourself in that atmosphere with those incredible people!

    I’d have been one that would have given up Toni Morrison for the Writing About Sex seminar. Because I’m just that freaked out about writing about sex when I’m writing my memoir. I need all the help I can get!


    • 4 paris (im)perfect September 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      It was such a great event; I soaked up every minute (and am still completely exhausted! So worth it, though!)

      Don’t be freaked out about writing sex! It’s a part of the human experience and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to capture on the page, right? Jennifer Egan had a good point. She said she includes less and less sex in her books because it has to live up to what ANY scene has to: there has to be a reason for it to be in the story. What purpose does it serve?

      Perhaps approaching it that way – what does this reveal about the character? what will readers learn about them by showing them in this intimate act? – rather than worrying about writing the specific details of sex itself could help. You can reveal a character’s vulnerability or insecurity or something funny and unexpected. Good luck!

      By the way, the decision about which event to go to was sort of made for me as I was tortured by which to attend. I tried to get into the talk BEFORE Toni Morrison’s talk and there was already a line out the door of people trying to go early to save a space. So, sex it was! Can’t say I was too disappointed 🙂


      • 5 Amy Kortuem September 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm

        Oh wow. Thanks for this advice, Sion. It’s great. I’m printing this out for when I finally (drink enough wine and) write “those” parts.

        And it does have to be in there. It absolutely does. Those are the parts that show the change in the story – symbolic of other changes.

        MAN, I wish we were neighbors! It would be so fun to just talk with you! (over wine…)


  3. 6 Adam September 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I found it strange that the official website of a festival about American literature and writers should be in French only, but not especially surprising. The big 10 ans on the poster is quite odd too. It’s not a very big boast for a biennial event!

    Still it does sound like a great festival.


    • 7 paris (im)perfect September 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      Adam, that was my first thought, too! I thought it strange that the website wasn’t also in English. Then again, it was geared toward the French public, not us Americans living here 😉

      Also, it really was America in the larger sense, so it would also have had to have been translated into Spanish, too.

      Still, any quibbles I might have had are meaningless – I’m just glad they got all those amazing people together for one weekend! (How does that happen with so many busy schedules!)


  4. 8 Franck September 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Why in France? Only in France? Is it the best buyer of american books among countries in the world?
    John Kennedy Toole would be in my panel, (don’t kill yourself Johnny), Scott Fitzgerald (for the romanticism-trauma-of his oeuvre) and John Dos Passos (guz a guy who began at the left of the left to finish to the right of the right in politics can’t be that bad), John Steinbeck (for his hate of French people), and Sinclair Lewis because he was the greatest. Chester Himes for his sticky Harlem and Raymond Chandler (for his night and his train, comprenne qui pourra) and William Faulkner (for his fearless way to construct and destruct a narration)
    How wide is your set?


  5. 10 Karin P September 27, 2012 at 4:38 am

    Wow. I had seen a couple of Tweets/FB posts about your experience as it was unfolding, but to see the summary of the entire events here, well, when you ask this: “Who would your dream panel of authors include?” it’s pretty much the folks you mention — well, those and a lot of dead authors, too, ha, but you know — what an amazing line-up! I can’t really think of a more incredible group of writers than who showed up for this event. I’m so happy you went so that I can read about it here! What an amazing experience!

    So interesting about how the interpreting was handled. Sounds like quite the job.

    And this? “(They may have US flags on their hats, but I’m pretty sure this was a French idea)”

    Haha!! I’d say those clown noses give things away; I’m pretty sure, right with you. 😉

    Thank you, Sion!


  6. 12 thefrancofly September 27, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    I tried to pop by to see Toni Morrison, but it was ‘complet’ one hour in advance. Thanks for posting what I missed!


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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