The past year has been a lively one in Atlanta’s literary community. From literary leaders sparring on stage to a visiting author so high in demand that the Carter Center was forced to add 50 additional seats to its auditorium, the city hosted such a variety of events and happenings that it proved difficult for us to whittle them down to our favorites. This year, rather than offer up a book list, we thought we’d revisit some of Atlanta’s key literary moments. The books contributors weighing in include Sarah Sacha Dollacker, Gail O’Neill and Laura Relyea.
Roxane Gay and Erica Jong’s Discussion at the Decatur Book Festival
No one who entered the Decatur Book Festival’s auditorium to see Erica Jong and Roxane Gay could have anticipated what unfolded on stage. The two feminist icons started out with the best of intentions, but what resulted was a case study of feminism, race and ageism.
“The book-talk-turned-‘Jongsplaining’ not only crystallized live, onstage just how far feminism has come since Jong’s whitewashed second-wave heyday, but how far it still has to go before achieving sustainable, intersectional equality,” says Cristen Conger of Stuff Mom Never Told You, who was in attendance. “While Jong’s tone-deafness and befuddlement over feminism’s race problem indicated generational and arguably socioeconomic blind spots, her repeated interruption of Roxane Gay exemplified white feminism’s ongoing tendency to talk over instead of listen to women of color. She even attempted to contextualize Beyoncé to a lauded black culture critic for crying out loud!”
The provocative conversation brought another angle of feminism to light: “The fact that such a moment happened in Atlanta is also significant: Feminism in the South has been historically overlooked despite its documented legacy of activism and general rabble rousing,” Conger adds. Read more of her take on the Decatur Book Festival conflict at Refinery29. –Laura Relyea
Patti Smith’s Discussion of M Train at the Variety Playhouse
It’s not every day that a rock ‘n’ roll icon takes the stage of Little 5 Points’ Variety Playhouse to… talk about a book. But when Patti Smith rolled into town, that’s exactly what she did. The living legend graced Atlanta thanks to A Cappella Books to discuss M Train.
“Seeing Patti Smith at the Variety felt like an important moment for Atlanta,” says Kyle Tibbs Jones of The Bitter Southerner, who was in attendance that evening. “I remember looking around and seeing so many friends from all phases of my life. The venue was packed with musicians and literary figures and journalists of every ilk and generation. Bona fide musicians payed homage alongside everyday enthusiasts. All in all, everyone felt lucky to be there. And everyone was reminded, once again, how much Frank Reiss has done for this city.”
Those who anticipated gritty tales of life on the road that night were in for a surprise. “Patti was gracious and real. I loved hearing the stories about her husband and kids and also her more famous life with Mapplethorpe, Lou Reed and John Cale. She told her honest experience candidly and unabashedly, with her New Jersey accent and all,” Jones says.
The takeaway of the evening? Sometimes our idols are really just people like us. “Her story made us feel that real art, beautiful art comes from people just like us. She never ever expected to be a rocker. There we sat, Atlanta’s crazy creative class, capable of unexpected greatness too.” –LR
When Paul Theroux came to the Margaret Mitchell House to discuss his latest travel memoir, Deep South, with Chuck Reece, editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, in October, the bonhomie between the two was palpable. But by the time an audience member chastised Reese (who’d taken exception to several of Theroux’s observations) for prefacing a question with, “Do you want to know what really made me mad at you?” things got tense.
“We don’t care what you think,” drawled the guest. “We came to hear what Mr. Theroux thinks.”
Erin Dowdy, a native Atlantan, found the crowd hostile and empathized with Reece. Bill Dunn, a fifth-generation Southerner, acknowledges that while Theroux, “can come across as arrogant, dismissive and judgmental in conversation, he deserved more deferential treatment as Chuck’s guest in Atlanta.”
While Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center and host that evening, remained neutral. “Things happen at live events,” he offers. “Unlike theater, it’s not staged… that’s why we go.” –Gail O’Neill
The February 2010 issue of Vanity Fair certainly sparked controversy when it was first released: within it was a provocative spread featuring nine of the South’s female literary talents on the lawn of the Swan House, outfitted as Southern Belles. The image included regional scribes including Joshilyn Jackson, Natasha Trethewey, and Emily Giffin and Jessica Handler. The image evoked a version of the South long since passed, a reputation the region can’t seem to shake.
In the November 2015 issue of Atlanta Magazine, Handler criticized the image. “We had arrived as ourselves, but before the camera we reinforced the image that so many of our books intended to break,” she said. “But it was only as I was sinking into the mud in five-inch heels that I realized I’d agreed to betray the contemporary South I’d worked so hard to portray.”
Despite the fact that it came five years after the fact, Handler’s censure is important. By taking command of the conversation, she and other Southern artists can in turn take command of how it is depicted. As she said, “My South is full of change.” –LR
Back for its third iteration, the Letters Festival continued its custom of rallying independent publishers, authors and poets in Atlanta. “It was such a highlight of my year to take part in the Letters Festival. They did so much to include a range of voices, I discovered more writers new to me that week than I have on the rest of my tour this year,” says Amelia Gray, author of Gutshot and Museum of the Weird. “I also had a heartening afternoon speaking and meeting with students at Georgia Perimeter College, who both engaged with my work and had a broad and fascinating range of projects of their own. It was an inspiring week, it really was.” –LR
Though busy looking forward, Atlanta Contemporary took a major step this year to help us all look back. It found a home for its archives in Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). The move will preserve the legacy of the organization, founded by Atlanta photographers as the Nexus Art Collective in 1976. The collection also includes the archives of the now defunct Nexus Press, the much-lauded publisher of artist’s and photography books.
“This organization bolstered the contemporary arts movement in Atlanta and in the South, giving voice to nontraditional artists and providing a home for a new form of art” stated MARBL’s director, Rosemary McGee. “We’re eager to see what paths of research students, faculty, historians and others are able to draw from this collection.” –LR
“I’ve learned that if you are able to show up with an open mind and some empty bags rather than a shopping list, you can respond to what is available.” This simple philosophy inspired Steven Satterfield to write Root to Leaf (HarperWave, 496 pp), a beautifully illustrated guide on how to shop for, store and prepare locally grown, seasonal vegetables which recently got a tip of the hat from Epicurious.
Executive chef at Atlanta’s Miller Union, Satterfield cautions against buying produce at supermarkets, where “unlimited options clutter our minds and stifle our imaginations” and mute shoppers’ awareness of seasonality. Though breaking up with your favorite grocery chain can be hard to do, converts say benefits include enhanced flavor, heightened nutrition and the shocking revelation that they actually love brussels sprouts. –GO
“We have hosted a lot of book lectures since 2004,” said the Carter Center’s Public Affairs director Tony Clark, “but never before have so many people tried calling in favors to ask, ‘How can I get in?’ as they did when Ta-Nehisi Coates came to talk about Between the World and Me.”
Fifty seats were added to an auditorium which typically accommodates 450 guests, but even the surplus supply could not satisfy the demand of fans wanting to hear about the book Toni Morrison calls “required reading.”
Arguably an even more gifted speaker than writer, Coates’ facility for engaging listeners intellectually and emotionally helped open minds and hearts to the harsh reality that “our nation has accepted violence against African-American bodies as normal.” –GO
As he stood behind the lectern at the Decatur Library on a chilly late-winter evening, Jonathan Odell’s lyrical Southern drawl ornamented his engaging stories from his youth, stories that buttress the plot of his second novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. Born and raised in Mississippi during segregation, Odell refused to ignore the vital role African-Americans played in his growing up. He also refused to allow white people to believe they are not entwined with the experiences of black people.
Speaking with humor and insight, he stated: “everyone knows white privilege is wonderful. We don’t need to deny that. We just need to share it.” An exhale flowed through the room as hands went up. Odell’s candor uncorked a dam.
Audience members — both black and white — shared their experiences with racism, with discrimination, with the frustration of their own thwarted efforts to change a seemingly ingrained system. The book event became a conversation, providing a model for how sensitive topics can be discussed in a fruitful way. –Sarah Sacha Dollacker
Despite epic enthusiasm approaching the July 14 publishing date of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, a companion to her classic To Kill Mockingbird, readers’ reactions to her new novel ran the gamut from lukewarm to acidic. The central rub? Atticus Finch, the hero of Mockingbird and a literary figure who expanded beyond the confines of his novel to become a cultural icon, was outed in Watchman as a racist. Although Watchman’s depiction of Mr. Finch is perhaps more historically accurate than Mockingbird’s, the diminishment of this moral hero prompted disillusionment. As Bryan Sorohan, social activist and professor at Brenau University, told ArtsATL: “there are no true heroes and this book may be the catalyst for confronting that fact.” Ultimately, this may be the most important role of the book: enabling the understanding that even the most perfect can be flawed. –SSD
Daniel Torday discussed his debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, at the Decatur Book Festival’s Rising Literary Voices panel. Described by the New York Times as “a writer deserving of attention,” Torday has garnered critical acclaim for his lyrical prose and deft, humorous handling of one family’s struggle to make sense of loss, revenge and life after war. Including Torday in the festival introduced this rising star to Atlanta readers and fulfilled one of the festival’s core missions. As Pam Morton, festival director, said, “we not only highlight well-known and high-profile authors, but we also bring to the forefront those writers who will ultimately shape our literary future. Daniel Torday is a gifted storyteller and certainly one to watch.” –SSD
Lauren Groff’s discussion of Fates and Furies at the Decatur Library
If a National Book Award nomination is not enough to entice a reading of Lauren Groff’s artful novel about marriage, the fact that it is also Barack Obama’s favorite book of 2015 might speed the decision. Speaking to a rapt audience at the Decatur Library in September, Groff, “gave an insightful reading, but spent much of the time speaking about her writing process,” says ArtsATL critic Anjali Enjeti. Groff described herself as a “reclusive hermit” in order to write. She writes all day and only leaves the house to pick up her sons from school. The third-time novelist said she wrote the first draft of Fates and Furies in three to four months, then threw it away and began again. Another helpful pearl of insight: For Groff, working on short stories is like best friendship, but the work on a novel is like marriage. –SSD
Thomas Lake, included in ArtsATL’ s Makers Dozen in 2015, is becoming a master of long-form narrative. Sports Illustrated agrees. (Lake is a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated and is currently an enterprise writer for CNN Politics, focusing on the 2016 presidential election.) In January, Sports Illustrated commemorated its 60-year anniversary with an edition that featured the 60 best articles the magazine had ever published. Thomas Lake’s “The Boy They Couldn’t Kill: How Rae Carruth’s son survived and thrives” was included next to articles by iconic sports writers Frank Deford and Gary Smith. According to Lake, “it felt wonderful to be on the same list with several of my writing heroes, in a magazine I’d been reading since I was 9 years old, for a story about hope and forgiveness.” –SSD
Paul Hemphill, whom Newsweek described as “bearing comparison to Faulkner in his lighter moods,” was posthumously recognized for a lifetime of literary and journalistic contributions by the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. (He died in 2009.) Named the “backwoods bard,” Hemphill explored the gritty South, the people and problems that roil below a genteel exterior, in his journalism, nonfiction and novels. His writing was intense and complex, his subjects from the parts of the South that made some uncomfortable. As Candice Dyer, an ArtsATL critic observes, with this accolade, “the literary establishment is learning what to make of him.” –SSD