On September 14, if the weather is good, the novelist John Wray (The Right Hand of Sleep and the forthcoming Lowboy) will pilot his shiny new BMX bike (“you know, like the kids have”) north from his Prospect Park home, across the avenues of Park Slope, and straight downhill toward Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. “I don’t know what kind of entrance any of the other authors are planning, but for me, the whole thing feels like a big, international block party,” he laughs. “And I want to do it right.”
Like a sizable chunk of the native population, Wray has his sights set on Sunday’s Brooklyn Book Festival, that annual celebration of local literary life, now coasting into its third and biggest year. “I know the Brooklyn pride thing is a little played out,” says Wray, who’s slated to discuss graphic novels with his friend, the Brooklyn artist and writer Adrian Tomine. “But the festival has outgrown that concept in a lot of ways. It’s no longer so provincial.”
Three years in, the Brooklyn Book Festival is still a rigorously local event. Big names like Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead dot the 140-plus author lineup; there are discussions like “Brooklyn’s Place in History” and “Close-Up Brooklyn.” But organizers say that the success of the first two festivals has given them an opportunity to expand the scope of the third—to make it, in the words of Carolyn Greer of the borough president’s office, a “destination” event.
“In 2006, we wanted to crystallize and catalyze this burgeoning literary scene,” says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books and chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, which helps organize the festival. The first year featured a short list of local literati, including Whitehead and Lethem, and roughly 100 exhibitors, like indie publishers Soft Skull and Seven Stories, most of them based in the New York area.
This year, Temple says, the organizers have looked further afield, bringing in authors and publishers from all corners of the globe and across a spectrum of genres. Among the names on this year’s roster: Marina Temkina, a Russian poet and activist; the Angolan journalist José Eduardo Agualusa; Binyavanga Wainaina, a short-story writer from Kenya; journalist and essayist Pico Iyer of England; novelist Patrice Nganang of Cameroon; and Linn Ullmann, a Norwegian journalist and writer.
Of course, for many Brooklynites, the international aura is already omnipresent. “I’ve spent a lot of my life in the Bay Area,” says Tomine, author of the graphic novel Shortcomings and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, “and Brooklyn still feels like the most diverse place I’ve ever lived.” Adds Wray: “Brooklyn always had an international aspect to it—think about Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and the picture it paints of immigrant life in Brooklyn. These days, yeah, that international quality has more pull, more glamour.”
Ironically, Temple says, he’s had trouble convincing friends that the festival can actually go wide-angle, so deeply entrenched is the concept of Brooklyn as the domain of Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer. “People have a hard time disengaging from [it],” he says, “which is a little frustrating for us, because we should be able to have a strong Brooklyn flavor without people thinking that everything has to be Brooklyn-focused. When I explain it, it feels very straightforward, but every day someone says: ‘I see so-and-so on your list. I thought it was just Brooklyn authors.’ Really? You want me to e-mail you the 75 non-Brooklyn authors on the list?”
Brigid Hughes, editor of the Brooklyn literary magazine A Public Space, says the festival’s focus on international authors is welcome, especially at a time when many borough publishers—like Archipelago, which focuses mostly on translations—have begun to embrace a more diverse array of authors.
“And yet it still has this sense of community—all these great local organizations exhibiting,” Hughes adds, pointing to Akashic and Soft Skull. “I remember going to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and seeing a Jiffy Lube tent. There was a sense that the festival had grown so fast that the books had been lost in the mix. At the Brooklyn Book Festival, books—no matter where they’re from—are still center-stage.”
Indie Presses, Indie Rockers
Johnny Temple—chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, bassist for the indie outfit Girls Against Boys, and full-time independent publisher—helped organize this year’s festival, which encompasses a dizzying array of discussions and readings. We asked him to pick three of his favorite events:
“Darkness Abroad” is a discussion between Mexican novelist Paco I. Taibo II and Bolivian writer Juan de Recacoechea; the topic is crime in literature. “Taibo is one of the smartest, most outlandish authors I’ve ever read,” says Temple. “He writes not just books that I love, but that have inspired me as a publisher.”
Manhattan novelist Amanda Stern hosts a Brooklyn-version of her long-running “Happy Ending Music and Reading Series,” with three international voices: Porochista Khakpour (Sons and Other Flammable Objects), Said Sayrafiezadeh (When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood), and Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu). “The appeal,” laughs Temple, “is that, by definition, anything can happen.”
Musicians Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth, and Ian MacKaye, of Fugazi and Minor Threat—”both icons,” says Temple—will have a discussion at the St. Francis College Auditorium. Temple sees the event as part of the increasing reach of the festival: “These guys are figureheads in creating what independent music has become. And there’s no reason why books can’t gain that same sort of vitality. I think publishing has a lot to learn from the world of independent music.”
All events are free of charge; check brooklynbookfestival.org for complete schedule