Highlights from the Miami Book Fair

Inflatable brains and hurricane poetry. Dyan Cannon’s philosophies on love.  Lesbian feminist working class writer Dorothy Allison on the Occupy Movement.

That was my experience of Miami Book Fair.

The 28th edition of Miami Book Fair International took place at Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus during November 13-20.

This year, I started my visit to the Book Fair on Thursday, Nov. 17, with the “Evening with Dorothy Allison” event.  Allison is the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, a novel which marks its 20th anniversary of publication this March.  Her other works include Cavedweller, and the upcoming novel She Who.

When interviewed about the current challenges for LGBT writers, Allison reflected there are “the same challenges [as always]… it’s still damn hard to make a living… and it’s damn hard to be taken seriously.”  She added that “as a group, we have to convince ourselves of the right to tell our stories.”

Allison also shared her thoughts on the Occupy Movement:  “It’s like a shot of oxygen.”  She recalled teaching at Columbia College Chicago in 2006—how “it was like pulling teeth to get [students] to participate” in political actions.  But Allison noted that at a recent demonstration with Occupy Little Rock, truck drivers participated as well as college students:  “This is not a liberal bastion.”  She concluded that “it makes me hopeful...[this Movement] can’t wait… [because] we are in deep deep trouble.  All of us on the edges have been living with this recession for a long time.”

When Allison appeared onstage, she spoke about the saving power of books:  “I was a girl who went out each day to a world so mean, the only way to survive was with a paperback under my arm.”

Throughout the evening, Allison explored literature as a comfort:  “Sometimes fiction takes you out of the place you are… it’s like eating lots and lots of chocolate.”  And as a path to political awareness and action:  “[story] make[s] justice happen… [it makes] sense of what does not make sense... [and] changes the world.”

“If there is depth in my soul,” she shared. “I have taken it from literature.”

On Saturday, Nov. 19, I visited the Fair again for two very different events.

The first was Erin McHugh, authorof The L Life: Extraordinary Lesbians Making a Difference, a collection of interviews and photographs with twenty-six women.

I asked a woman in the audience, Amanda Treadwell, 29, of Perrine, about why she came to the reading:  “It’s pretty cool that our city supports this kind of event... I’m in favor of any kind of gay issue brought to the forefront.”

McHugh read several interviews from The L Life, and discussed the “sisterhood” of interviewees who often guided her to the next person to include in the book.  She also talked about the possibility of The L Life 2.

The next event was in the Chapman Conference Center—almost full to capacity with Chuck Palahniuk groupies.  Palahniuk told an anecdote about a Barnes & Noble reading in Skokie, Illinois, where a man, dressed in a three piece suit and speaking in a Scottish accent, posed the question:  “So Mr. Palahniuk, do you masturbate to Brad Pitt’s picture?”

As Palahniuk observed, “[this] is a question Maya Angelou doesn’t have to field.”

But when was the last time you went to a literary reading that should have warning labels?

May cause shortness of breath. Palahniuk handed out inflatable brains to the audience who competed to be the first to “blow [their] brains out.”

May cause bruising. Candy bars were thrown into the audience.  Sometimes Palahniuk had bad aim.  Or good aim?  “There’s something so poetic about hitting someone in the groin with candy.”

May cause light-headedness.  As Palahniuk read from his short story, “Guts,” there was a disturbance at the back of the room—someone fainted or almost fainted after listening to a section of the reading.  “At this point, I usually ask for permission to keep going,” said Palahniuk.  A few people took this as their cue to leave.  But most of us stayed.

“…When you write a story… it has to wreck something,” stated Palahniuk. “I can’t be the same person when I leave the stage.”

I started the last day of the Fair, Sunday, Nov. 20, with acclaimed new author Justin Torres.

Torres’ novel, We The Animals, has been widely praised by critics, and explores issues of race, class and sexuality through the perspective of the youngest of three brothers.  It’s a story that also connects with those who have survived abusive childhoods.  I spoke with Torres about audience responses to his book:  “People with bitterness, resentment towards their family…it hits home… there are tearful responses.”

Torres was also asked about his view on politics and the arts.

“Being mixed race, bicultural, growing up with teen parents, being queer… it all informs what I do…the working class experience is central to my understanding of the world…I couldn’t divorce [writing and politics]… if I tried.  People who think they’re not making these choices…writing in a supposedly neutral, middle-class, white voice…they’re making a choice just as much as anyone else.”

The next event on my schedule—actress/ author Dyan Cannon (Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant).  I expected something campy.  Instead, Cannon was less camp, more Zen.  She talked about Cary Grant being the love of her life, her work with children’s charities and how the internet has “taken away a lot of the mystery” of Hollywood.

Later, I attended The Art of Memoir featuring Jill Bialosky (History of a Suicide), Kelle Groom (I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl) and Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man).  Suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction are some of the issues in these books. Clegg commented on the writing process:  “[Writers should] lean into moments that are most shameful, embarrassing… If I felt uncomfortable [as I was writing], I leaned into it.”

Then there was poetry.  Emma Trelles read from her award-winning collection Tropicalia, followed by Maureen Seaton and Neil de la Flor who read from their collaborative work, Sinead O’Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds.  Ms. Seaton and Mr. de la Flor began writing these poems during Hurricane Francis.  Pop culture references abounded in their work from Sally Field to Seinfeld to Sinead.

We make our own experiences at the Miami Book Fair.  That’s why we go—whether we browse the exhibitors’ booths or visit a cookbook author or listen to a concert or view an art show or eat an arepa.  The Book Fair is not about one experience—it’s about staying open to experience.

Miami Book Fair International

November 13-20, 2011

Street Fair, November 18-20, 2011

Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College in Downtown Miami

For more information, visit http://www.miamibookfair.com

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