4 books at Greensboro Bound
When Brian Lampkin and Steve Mitchell, co-owners of Scuppernong Books, first considered a friend’s suggestion that “Greensboro needs a book festival,” they may not have expected it to become as big as it is in its second year.
“We’re a little stunned when we sit back and look at the line-up,” Lampkin told me recently. “How did we manage to bring all these great writers together?”
Greensboro Bound 2019 begins Thursday, May 16 at 5:30 p.m. and concludes Sunday, May 19, with Rhiannon Giddens talking to singer, musician, poet, songwriter, and activist Ani DiFranco at 3 p.m. in Harrison Auditorium at North Carolina A&T State University. Over 90 writers will appear, see the schedule for details.
While it’s a free festival, British novelist Zadie Smith’s appearance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Elliot Center on Saturday night and DiFranco’s conversation with Giddens required advance ticket registration online. Both were already booked to capacity by May 1.
This article features five acclaimed authors whose new books have impressed me, but whose events don’t require tickets (as the festival gets nearer, please check the schedule to make sure that’s still the case).
Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor is the follow-up to her 2018 documentary What Is Democracy? Taylor will present her film and talk about her book on at 6:30 p.m. on May 16 at Weatherspoon Art Museum as the first keynote event of the festival.
Taylor’s work includes the documentaries Examined Life and Zizek! and the American Book Award-winner The People’s Platform. A co-founder of The Debt Collective, she is a former Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and a former touring member of Neutral Milk Hotel.
“While there’s never been a perfect democracy,” she wrote in an email about the paradox of her new book’s title, “progress has been made, often against great odds, but many hard-won victories are being rolled back.”
While those roll-backs are the work of those already in political office, she said they’re supported by conservative college students distrustful of democracy.
“When I spoke to some after Trump won the election, they were contemptuous of democracy, because they knew it means sharing power. They called democracy a ‘buzzword,’ understanding it has to be suppressed in order for them to retain their affluence and influence.”
Taylor believes democracy isn’t something Americans experience very much.
“Our government is not truly participatory. Even voting is far more difficult here than in other industrialized nations. But beyond elections, our workplaces are more akin to dictatorships, with the boss having total power over employees. Self-government is simply not part of the fabric of our day-to-day experience.”
Taylor said that “capitalism” and “democracy” are increasingly seen as diametric opposites by both ends of the political spectrum.
“The young conservatives I met, ever wary of sharing their privilege, are rooting for capitalism without democracy. Meanwhile, many more young people are turning toward democratic socialism, on the grounds that we need a different economic system to create conditions where democracy can be more fully realized.”
Taylor believes capitalism is inherently anti-democratic.
“Some of its boosters will say that markets are, with everyone free to buy and sell, barter and trade. In reality, a couple dozen billionaires have more wealth than the vast majority of their fellow citizens. And if a handful of big donors have the power to essentially buy elections or purchase politicians while other people are struggling to find the money to buy the basic necessities of life, that’s hardly democratic.”
Taylor said writing her book has given her “a better grasp of what democracy means to me and why the democratic ideal is worthy and, simultaneously, maddening and difficult to implement. It’s the idea that the people rule. We keep coming back to it because the alternatives, whether rule by tyrants or markets or technocrats are worse. We have to figure out how to share power. Indeed, our lives depend on it.”
Rum is an expat from the Brooklyn Palestinian-American community in which she was born. “I had an arranged marriage when I was 19 and moved here, where I went on to pursue undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English literature at NC State, followed by a Master’s in American and British lit,” she wrote in an email. She then taught for five years at the community college level before becoming a full-time writer.
Rum’s novel is about the Palestine-born and Brooklyn-raised Isra, whose family arranges her marriage to Adam, the abusive and eventually alcoholic manager of a Manhattan deli. And their eldest daughter Deya, raised by her aunt Fareeda after Isra and Adam die in a purported accident. Feeling caged in her aunt’s Brooklyn home and at an all-girls Islamic school, Deya gets her first taste of defiance from a smuggled-in Eminem CD. Finding unexpected help from Fareeda’s daughter Sarah, she learns her mother’s true story.
Impressed by the nuances of her beautifully-written book, I commended Rum for not turning either Adam or Fareeda into one-dimensional villains.
She told me she wanted to portray “the universal feelings and struggles of being human that can lead us to do bad things—estrangement, isolation, depression, otherness—as opposed to only focusing on the social-political identity of these people.”
“The oppressive, patriarchal culture this family adheres to has nothing to do with Islam,” Rum said. “Instead, there is a clash of culture and religion, and I hope that clarifies the very distinct line between being Arab and being Muslim, especially in today’s Islamaphobic world.”
It’s received both kudos and criticism from the Arab-American community.
“I’ve gotten so many positive responses from women who are so happy I broke the code of silence and revealed the injustices that some women still face today. But I’ve also received criticism about the dark aspects of the culture I bring to light, and how this story will be used as a representation of Arabs everywhere, which is simply an unfair burden of all minority writers. I have to constantly remind them this is a story of one family and not a representation of all Arab families.”
I asked Rum when she first became aware of wanting something more than the traditional role she’d been raised to expect.
“During my time teaching. I realized I had so many stories about what it means to not belong, especially considering that Arab-American stories are underrepresented in literature. I wanted to change that. A Woman Is No Man is the first thing I’ve ever written, but I hope it will be used to mark our place in literature.”
There’s been a price.
“I went from doing or saying only what I was supposed to do or say, to doing what I wanted and thought was right. But this meant losing my family, community, and acceptance. I have been able to build a new community for myself, but I still feel those pangs of isolation, and I often get sad when I think about my family. I’d be lying to say it isn’t hard starting over.”
Etaf Rum is on two panels at Greensboro Bound, both on Saturday, May 18 in the Greensboro History Museum auditorium: “Writing the First Novel” at 11:15 a.m. with Mesha Maren and Xhenet Aliu, and “The Novel Has Many Characters” at 12:30 p.m. with Laurel Davis Huber and Soniah Kamal.
It’s no superficial riff on Jane Austen. Like her inspiration, Kamal has written a smarter, darker and deeper book than the witty romance some will read it as, although both romance and wit abound.
It’s very different from Kamal’s debut novel, 2014’s An Isolated Incident. In an email, she called Unmarriageable an easier book to write than its predecessor, which “addressed territorial disputes, gang rape, and idealistic notions of saving the world when you’ve grown up on Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and Terminator.” But, she noted, Unmarriageable also “delves into heavier areas,” with a scene set at the contested Pakistan/India border and a subplot involving abortion.
Her “fun” book, she explained, was also intimidating to write, calling it “downright scary” to attempt a parallel retelling of a beloved classic, “all the while updating it in a contemporary world as well as addressing postcolonial issues.”
Kamal noted that, while films based on Pride and Prejudice focus on the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, that’s not what Austen was most interested in.
“She wrote to reveal social hypocrisies that arise in keeping-up-appearances culture, which is why her work resonates with me so deeply and why I so dearly wanted to write a parallel retelling. In Pakistan, running away and returning home unmarried would be bad enough, and doing so pregnant would be catastrophic. While abortion is permitted in Islam until the fourth month, when it is believed that the soul enters the body, an out of wedlock pregnancy in and of itself would be a crime. In some cultures, phrases like ‘out-of-wedlock’ are archaic, but in others remain all too relevant.”
Along with the previously mentioned panel with Rum, Kamal is on “Contemporary Muslim Writing” with Huda al-Marashi and moderator Deonna Kelly Sayed. It is at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, in the UpStage Cabaret at Triad Stage.
The South Carolina-born siblings, James Beard Award-winning food writers and T.V. hosts will be giving a presentation in the Van Dyke Performance Space at the Greensboro Cultural Center on Saturday, May 18.
In an email, Matt Lee told me that he was humbled by the comparison to the book that made the late Anthony Bourdain famous. “May Tony rest in peace and power; we got a chance to work with him on an episode of No Reservations and saw first-hand his generosity of spirit, and the transformative ability he had to get people to appreciate cultures outside of their own.”
“But we’re quick to point out that Tony lived the life of a chef; though we were embedded for a time, we were just travelers in the culture of catering. A more apt comparison to our book might be Bill Buford’s Heat, in which he wrote about his stints in the kitchen at Babbo and as the apprentice to an artisan butcher in Italy.”
I asked each brother to tell me one thing they’d been surprised to discover about the world of high-end catering. “That virtually all hot food for a special event is par-cooked in the prep kitchen, and then at the venue rewarmed over Sterno in transport cabinets was a total surprise,” Ted Lee said. “And the methods that go with that par-cooking—like searing 24 beef tenderloins at a time in a deep-fat fryer—were a revelation. That’s the kind of thing you just don’t know if your frame of reference is home cooking.”
Matt said what really stuck in his head was the first big party he worked. “I asked the executive-chef who the host was, and he had no idea. Because the person who mattered was the client—the party-planner, but as someone who tells stories for a living, I couldn’t believe he wasn’t at least curious was spending tens of thousand dollars on food for a ‘cookout’ for 120 people. There are other surprising dissociations. In the prep kitchen, you never know where the results of your labor are going. We came to realize that a sense of closure—seeing people you know eating your food, is a luxury.”
I asked why their book’s subtitle calls catering “the Food World’s Riskiest Business.”
“Because there’s always so much at stake,” Ted said. “Special events are by definition the most momentous moments of people’s lives: weddings, anniversaries, charity galas, movie premieres. And they’re also likely to have many, many guests, and when plated dinners carry with them the imperative of simultaneous service—every guest needs to be served that same perfect plate of warm food within the space of no more than 15 minutes—the catering chef is working with the deck stacked hugely against him or her.”
A complete list of all authors appearing at Greensboro Bound 2019 is impractical, but includes Riley Cash in a keynote event with singer Laurelyn Dossett (Cash’s The Last Ballad tells the story of textile strike leader and singer Ella May Wiggins, Dossett’s grandmother), Fred Chappell, Ricardo Nazario y Colón, Ross Gay, Lamar Giles , Robert Gipe, James Tate Hill, Bill Konigsberg, Robert W. Lee (whose A Sin by Any Other Name grapples with the legacy of his great-great-great-great-uncle Robert E. Lee), Rebecca Makkai, Jill McCorkle, Michael Parker, Baptiste Paul, Miranda Paul and Lee Smith.
“It’s good to remember that so much of the Festival is possible because of the generosity of the writers themselves,” said Scuppernong co-owner and Greensboro Bound committee member Brian Lampkin, whose own book The Tarboro Three: Rape, Race, and Secrecy was published this month.
“Obviously a 90-writer festival includes a community-wide effort of hundreds of people, and we thank all the sponsors and venues and volunteers who made it real. But let’s single out Steve Mitchell for his relentless, slogging work, but also for his insistent vision of a meaningful Festival.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.