Notes from the Brooklyn Book Festival

By David Varno

After an hour-long Subway ride due to weekend delays, I emerged from the steps at Borough Hall station in Brooklyn to the plaza, where I was pleasantly transported from the dark inertia to the middle of a free, public, outdoor literary celebration. The annual Festival is one of New York's greatest features, and its success has inspired other cities to launch their own. The first annual Boston Book Festival will take place next month, and features Orhan Pamuk along with many others.

Polish Cultural Institute

The first table I saw was the Polish Cultural Institute's, and Bill Martin, director of literature programming, handed me a mini-reader on the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, with tributes from Adam Zagajewski, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, and Seamus Heaney, and over a dozen poems, sketches, and essay abstracts. There was a special emphasis on Poland this past weekend, with a feature in the Times Travel section on Warsaw and the novels of Alan Furst, as well as a round-up of Polish restaurants in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. The Herbert book was published by Poland's Department of Promotion, and the PCI table had no shortage of materials to give away, including a hardcover photo-timeline of Poland from the 20th to the 21st Century, and a full-color glossy program of the coming year's events. An encouraging reflection of what New York Rep. Charles Schumer would point out later in the day, that the arts are one of the only mainstays of our economy right now.

Words Without Borders will be partnering on at least two events with PCI, including a major two-day symposium on reportage at NYU, October 6th and 7th, to follow up on a previous panel that took place this past May (see our podcast. Also, on November 10th, they will co-present a book launch for WWB anthology The Wall in My Head, on November 10 at Idlewild Books.

Ugly Duckling and New Directions

Next I stopped at the Ugly Duckling Presse table, and picked up a copy of a St. Petersburg poet Aleksander Skidan's Red Shifting, which came out in early 2008. I stumbled into a reading back then at Pravda bar in lower Manhattan, where he read in Russian with descriptions in English. Skidan's presence was arresting, and his take on the recent history of literary movements in Russia was memorable. Bleak, but with guarded hope that a new generation of poets, perhaps with the St. Petersburg Review as their venue, will challenge the complacency of the politically and aesthetically right-wing poetry scene. For a trivial reason, I neglected to buy a copy of the book. Fortunately, UDP founding editor Matvei Yankelevich was able to point me to it, and I've been reading Skidan's poems obsessively since. Considering the subjects I recalled him speaking on, I'm delighted to discover the poet's intimate sense of the sublime, in the transformation from the familiar to the truly imaginary. I thought of the personal moments in Mayakovsky, which resonate so deeply in juxtaposition to his political engagement. In addition to editing Red Shifting, Yankelevich translated one of the great Mayakovksy poems, "A Cloud in Pants," for Michael Almereyda's Night Wraps the Sky (FSG, 2008).

As usual, New Directions, Archipelago, and PEN America had great tables for the festival as well, and at ND I got to see proofs of their forthcoming facsimile edition of legendary Swiss novelist Robert Walser's handwritten work, which will include corresponding translations. As editor Michael Barron shared with me, Walser would literally borrow paper while in the Waldau asylum, then return it, covered in notes, to his doctors.

International Stage

Unfortunately, I was only able to catch two panels on the International Stage. But they were both great, and tied together nicely. The participants of the first, The Naked City: Urban Realism and the Global City in Fiction and Non-Fiction, moved beyond the subject implied in the title to discuss the overlap and duality of fiction and nonfiction, and the factors that make one strategy more appropriate than the other. Hirsh Sawhney and Meera Nair discussed the possibility of invoking real-life, Calvino-esqe "invisible cities" that exist outside of everyday experience. Nair, who edited Delhi Noir (Akashic, 2009), claimed that in fiction you can enter people's minds even if you don't know them. This is certainly possible in creative nonfiction as well, but at times it may be more difficult that way to reach the truth of one's personal impressions. Novelist David Lida, whose subject often includes Mexico City, explained why he chose to fictionalize an experience of being kidnapped and robbed: it was the only way to understand the perspective of his assailants.

Next, WWB co-founder Dedi Felman moderated a panel on Secrets and Lies. Felman touched on the participating authors' play between autobiography and fiction, and the way that encoding devices structure the plots of their novels. Rivka Galchen explained that in her novel Atmospheric Disturbances, she found that fiction can be "truer than true," and that in her work, narrative secrets are merely MacGuffins that occupy the reader on the path toward a story's secret-secret. Both Galchen and fellow panelist Siri Hustvedt discussed the allure and the process of crossing boundaries, particularly in gender, though they also discussed their experience of growing up with another language before English. Hustvedt explained her motivation: "we live in a world of becoming the other."


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