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The Mississippi Book Festival wasted no time illustrating its range of books and authors — from fierce social reality to fiction cleverly crafted for kids.
Kate DiCamillo, the author of Because of Winn-Dixie and other children’s and young adult fiction, kicked off the festival Saturday — the first of 150 authors to appear in and around the Capitol in Jackson — and charmed her readers by immediately asking for questions from the audience in Galloway United Methodist Church Sanctuary.
In response, children and adults hurled questions on craft and character, and DiCamillo answered in characteristic dryness.
About her book Flora & Ulysses, she responded, “The story is about a squirrel that gets sucked up in a vacuum cleaner and comes out with super powers and writes poetry.”
“It’s based on a true story.”
Carlie Jones, self-described as DiCamillo’s biggest fan, convinced her mother to drive from Trophy Club, Texas, to see DiCamillo speak.
“The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane changed my life!,” Jones, 11, said. “Her writing — I just really think she is incredible.”
The symbolism of the Capitol
At the Mississippi State Capitol, Jesmyn Ward moderated a panel featuring contributors to The Fire This Time, a new collection she edited which examines race in contemporary America. It was one of 32 author panels presented by the festival throughout the day.
Ward, who grew up and lives in DeLisle, Miss., and poet Kima Jones, who wrote the opening of the book, talked about how recent confrontations are reshaping the United States.
While she realizes the psychological damage of watching hour after hour of protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore unfold on social media, Jones said, she wanted to be a witness to the historic events.
However, those images tend to remain with people even after they’ve logged off.
“Even after we close our browsers and our laptops we still have to go out in the world and navigate it,” she said.
Kiese Laymon, a Jackson native and professor at the University of Mississippi, said it was important to talk about the book and its themes in the Mississippi Capitol and in the former state Supreme Court chamber, next to the Mississippi state flag.
The flag has long been controversial because it bears a Confederate emblem on its canton. The killings of African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, renewed criticism of confederate iconography, including the Mississippi flag.
“Being a black artist who was born in Jackson, the easiest thing to do is talk about how messed up that flag is,” Laymon said.
Perplexing presidential politics
“Everything I thought I knew about politics has been thrown out the window this year,” said former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, garnering laughter from the audience.
Lott shared the panel on “The Presidential Year” with Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and executive editor at Random House, who wrote a biography of former President George H.W. Bush. Stuart Stevens, a Jackson native and political consultant who was a top aide for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, served as moderator. (Meacham is a member of the Mississippi Today Advisory Board.)
That much political star power attracted a large crowd. About 20 minutes before the session, a line of attendees snaked under the Capitol rotunda, and dozens of people were unable to squeeze into the Old Supreme Court Room.
The panelists discussed the perceived problems of the current presidential campaign and widespread lack of public trust toward nominees Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Meacham contrasted Trump’s campaign with George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign and time in office. He told a story about Bush walking into a leukemia ward at a Polish children’s hospital and becoming emotional. Instead of turning and letting the press capture that emotion, he composed himself before turning to face the unsuspecting press.
“There are few American politicians who wouldn’t have turned around in that moment,” Meachem said.
Lott, touching on his own career experience, rhetorically asked: “What in the hell are we really for anymore, either Republicans or Democrats? Do we even know anymore?”
Obviously frustrated with this presidential cycle, Lott offered a solution.
“To change this, it doesn’t take but one thing: one person that’s willing to be a leader and step up,” Lott said. “Whether it’s a congressman, like Paul Ryan, who I have a lot of faith in, or a president. I worked all the time with Bill Clinton, who I have a lot of respect for. … We talked all the time, and we worked through all kinds of things. Did we agree? No. A lot of times, we pressed each other. But we worked together.”
A Southern ‘cultural mafia’
In the standing-room-only Foundry at Galloway, novelists delved into the state of contemporary Southern literature.
“The real storyteller, that I am, was formed … in Mississippi,” Southern fiction author Paulette Boudreaux said. “There is a way that we experience reality here in the South in a way that is remarkably different.”
Author Ed Tarkington said novels labeled as Southern literature often gain a following and support in the South.
“There is this cultural mafia built up around Southern literature,” Tarkenton said.
‘There was always irony’
One author who had a great following and support in the South was Mississippi native Willie Morris, whose seminal book was North Toward Home.
Panelists at Galloway United Methodist Church — including friends and family members — laughed at shared memories of the renowned writer, who was a notorious prankster.
“He always wrote about contemporary politics, he somehow always found a way to write about sports, and there was always a dog,” said JoAnne Prichard Morris, his widow. “He wrote about his own comprehension of Mississippi and its people. It was all based on extensive research. He was a journalist, and he did many, many interviews. And there was always irony.”
Teresa Nicholas, who recently published a Willie Morris biography, Willie: The Life of Willie Morris, and Jack Bales, who wrote Willie Morris: An Exhaustive Annotated Bibliography and a Biography, discussed what they learned of the author during their research.
“I really think Willie has been much under appreciated for his essays,” Bales said. “Some of his best writing came in essays.”
The ‘Mississippi Burning’ trope
Authors sought to examine nuance in the state’s racial history while reconciling that history with modern events during the first of two afternoon sessions on Mississippi civil-rights history.
Moderator W. Ralph Eubanks prompted authors to discuss what he calls the “Mississippi Burning” trope, that resistance to civil rights progress only came from shadowy Klansmen in white robes burning crosses.
Crystal Sanders, author of A Chance for Change: Head Start & Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle, said resistance came not only from hard-line conservative politicians like U.S. senators Theodore Bilbo and James Eastland, but also from people such as U.S. Sen John Stennis, who was considered more moderate than his contemporaries.
Sanders, whose criticism of Stennis elicited murmurs of disapproval, said that although the late senator didn’t use race-charged language, he quietly fought against programs such as Head Start, a pre-kindergarten program for low-income children.
Jason Morgan Ward, whose book Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century, explores the history of lynching in Mississippi, said the killings of black teenagers Trayvon Martin in Florida and Tamir Rice in Ohio were echoes of white mobs who lynched black boys in Mississippi and throughout the South.
“Violence was always on the table,” Ward said of the 20th century civil-rights era, adding of the current climate: “We’re in another civil rights century and violence is still on the table.”
All about ‘me’
“I started mining personal material — using the ‘I’ word — and it became a useful way for exploring,” Richard Grant, writer of the best-selling Dispatches from Pluto, said during the session on memoirs.
Grant said he turned to memoir because he had a lot of material but couldn’t find a way to use it.
Exploring the personal was what led Barry Moser, an acclaimed illustrator, to turn to prose when writing his memoir, We Were Brothers. Moser felt the book’s meditation on racism helped him better understand his own development as an artist.
One question asked of the panelists was how people around them reacted to being written about: “The most important thing is to write with love,:” said Harrison Scott Key, author of The World’s Largest Man. “I tell my students that the first draft should be written fiercely. The next gracefully. But in the end (when writing memoir), you just have to figure out as you go. Do you want to see that person around the table at Thanksgiving? I ask myself that question, and often I write it anyway.”
‘The Mississippi story’
Why write about the South? That is the question panelists at the closing session of the Mississippi Book Festival grappled with.
For many of them, the answer is the Mississippi story.
Richard Grant, a Brit who wrote a book about living in Holmes County, said stories and experiences are steeped in a kind of Mississippiness.
“I’m in the story business and I’ve never heard stories quite like these stories and they never stop coming,” Grant said.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson, author of The Dogs Buried Under the Bridge, recalled her experiences as a journalist and appreciating growing up in the storytelling region of the South.
“We don’t get in a hurry, whether it’s buying tires or telling a story,” she said.
The first Mississippi Book Festival last year drew more than 3,500 people; With 150 authors and 32 panel discussions, organizers hoped to reach 5,000 this year.
In addition to the panels and author interviews, Saturday’s festival included exhibits from the Library of Congress, Center for the Book and Talking Books, Smithsonian Learning Lab, 3-D Printer Experience and Mississippi Digital Library. “Authors Alley” included dozens of writers greeting readers and selling their books — though an afternoon thunderstorm sent many packing early.
Contributing: R.L. Nave, Zachary Oren Smith and Adam Ganucheau