The first Memphis Literary Arts Festival on June 15 and 16 will draw fiction and food writers, poets, and essayists from New York to New Orleans, Columbus to Atlanta, along with authors and artists from the host city and region.
The literary headliner for the opening night of the festival is Kiese Laymon, whose 2013 debut novel Long Division—a time-traveling story set in Mississippi—won the Saroyan Prize for International Writing. Laymon’s 2013 essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, drew this reaction from writer Roxanne Gay: “I was jealous—straight up, green-eyed, how can someone write this damn well, jealous. That passed quickly, though, because Laymon’s writing was too important and too necessary for me to be trifling.”
The year-old Center for Southern Literary Arts in Memphis organized the free-ranging June festival, defiantly not a roundup of the usual subjects. “Our line-up isn’t solely devoted to authors whose books were published this calendar year, like traditional book festivals, but highlights audience and artist experience overall,” Molly Rose Quinn, a co-founder of the CSLA, said by email. It “showcases literary writers alongside reporters, musicians, muralists, and deejays who will be discussing literature, politics, education, food justice, pop culture, gender, sexuality, region, and class.”
The festival’s guest artists benefit along with the audience, she said. “Writers like Mychal Denzel Smith and Doreen St. Félix … are coming to Memphis not just for a gig but to see what’s going on down here. They’re coming to meet y’all, too, not just the other way around.” Smith, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, was on The Root‘s list of 100 Most Influential African-Americans. St. Félix writes for The New Yorker. Both are based in New York.
Also featured at the opening benefit dinner June 15 will be the documentary photographer Andrea Morales, whose work appears in The New York Times and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism; Nashville blues musician Adia Victoria; and Memphis Chef Desmond Robinson.
On June 16, the festival will offer free talks, readings, and performances from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at sites in The Edge, a niche neighborhood near downtown Memphis, followed by an after-party that offers “first 100 drinks on us.”
Among fiction writers who will appear are Daniel José Older of Brooklyn, winner of an International Latino Book Award for his YA fantasy novel Shadowshaper; Maurice Carlos Ruffin of New Orleans, winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Fiction Award; and Ravi Howard, author of the novel Like Trees, Walking, a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Poets who will speak include Hanif Abdurraqib of Columbus, Ohio, also an essayist and cultural critic; and Sam Sax, whose collection Madness won the 2016 National Poetry Series. (Watch Abdurraqib recite his poem “All of the Ways I’ve Kept Myself Alive” here. Sax performs “Written to be Yelled at Trump Tower During a Vigil for the NEA” here.)
Memphis writers on the festival schedule include Alice Bolin, a creative-nonfiction teacher at the University of Memphis, whose Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession will be published in June by HarperCollins; and Arthur Flowers, author of Another Good Loving Blues and the memoir Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman.
A panel on food writing hosted by the Southern Foodways Alliance will focus, unpredictably, on Beyonce’s Coachella performance and Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta. Speakers are Osayi Endolyn, a deputy editor of Gravy, which won a James Beard Award for publication of the year; and Ashanté M. Reese, who teaches in the Food Studies Program at Spelman College and is writing a book called Between a Corner Store and a Safeway: Race, Resilience, and Our Failing Food System.
A conversation about “Power & Privilege in YA” will feature S. Jae-Jones, author of Wintersong; Sarah Nicole Lemon, author of Valley Girls; and Kaitlyn Sage Patterson, author of The Diminished. Other talks are titled “Solid Gold Soul Writing” and “New Media Journalism in a Changing Memphis,” the latter featuring journalists from MLK50, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and High Ground News.
The Literary Arts Festival replaces the Mid-South Book Festival held by Literacy Mid-South from 2014 to 2016. Literacy Mid-South will organize a street fair for vendors during this year’s event.
The guest list is drawn from a broad geographic range, but “what distinguishes this festival from others is Memphis,” Quinn said. “The South is complicated—we’d like to see what it looks like when that complexity is truly celebrated.”
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.