For Gov. Phil Bryant, learning to love reading was a difficult journey. Growing up in the Delta town of Moorhead, he said, he knew about Mississippi’s rich literary tradition and he grew up in a culture of great storytellers. But he was dyslexic, and when it came to sitting down with a book, he said, “It was a struggle.”
That changed at age 12 when his father gave him a copy of The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
“At first reading, it was a challenge,” Bryant said. But eventually “those pages were grayed and dogeared.”
Bryant speech kicked off the third-annual Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, a daylong gathering of more than 220 authors at the Mississippi State Capitol. Bryant introduced keynote speaker, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden, who is the first woman and first African American to hold the title.
See videos and photos from the festival here.
A native of Florida, Hayden said you don’t have to be from Mississippi to appreciate the unique role the state has played in literature.
“Mississippi is truly a literary lovers haven,” Hayden said.
“When you look at the range of authors, there’s something about the natural storytelling as Gov. Bryant said. You have the time to sit and reflect. And there’s something about this weather. You have characters, and it’s just rich and it’s ripe and that’s why so many great stories come out of Mississippi,” Hayden said after her talk.
The Book Festival has arguably become Mississippi’s biggest literary event. But Georgia-based author Daren Wang said book festivals have the potential to be more than a celebration of great writers.
“I think it really helps the writing community cohere in ways that it wouldn’t otherwise. It really elevates writing as an art form,” Wang said.
Wang is one of the founders of the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia, now in its 12th year, and he said he has watched a community grow up around that festival.
“I can name half a dozen New York Times best-selling authors who have’ moved to the Decatur area because of the book festival. If it works well, it creates an author community. Of course, you can’t make something out of nothing, but a festival can show off what you have going on.” — Larrison Campbell
‘Conversation with Greg Iles, Stanley Nelson and Jerry Mitchell’
The specter of the white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend hung over the mid-afternoon panel featuring three writers who made their careers exploring once-cold cases from the Civil Rights era.
Novelist Greg Iles, whose Natchez Burning trilogy fictionalized the investigative work of fellow panelist Stanley Nelson, was joined on stage by Nelson and The Clarion-Ledger‘s award-winning investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, whose work helped convict four noted Klansmen for decades-old murders.
The three men were ostensibly there to talk about 1950s and 1960s Mississippi and Louisiana, a time and a place that has influenced all of their work. But as Iles said, “I don’t want us to come here and talk about 50-year-old murders as if we’re ignorant that we’re living in the midst of an existential crisis.”
Iles admitted the violent protests last week in Charlottesville caught him off-guard, despite the fact that he has spent much of the last decade writing about race.
“The things that we write about, these Klan murders, we’re talking in a historical context. I look back with just tragic humor almost on the idea that when I stated to write Natchez Burning, President Obama had just been elected and everyone was talking about America being a post-racial society,” Iles said. “That seems almost comical now.”
Talking about his own work, Iles said that people frequently come up to him and ask, “why you wanna drag all that old stuff up?”
“But isn’t it ironic that the people telling us you can’t drag up that history are the same ones saying ‘you can’t erase my history!’” Iles said, referring to the people who have protested the removal of civil rights statues, as the protesters did in Charlottesville last weekend.
Although Iles, Nelson and Mitchell did discuss their work, the panelists couldn’t shake present day issues around race. At the end, Iles talked about his own history, as the descendant of two Confederate soldiers. And he said it was time for Mississippi to get rid of not just its monuments, but also its state flag.
“Imagine for a minute you’re a black Mississippi National Guard soldier, and you’re being asked to train and serve under the battle flag of an army that served to keep your ancestors in slavery for all time. That is immoral, that is obscene, that is not acceptable on a human level,” he said.
“It’s never going to be 1950 again. And it’s never going to be 1850 again. It’s over and everyone’s going to have to adjust to it in their own way. But as a white Mississippian speaking to white Mississippians, let’s don’t be the last ones clinging to the flag. Mississippi’s been last and we’ve been the last ones for so long I don’t even know. And if we don’t deal with this now, we’re going to be the last ones for another 75 years.” — Larrison Campbell
‘Conversation with Richard Ford’
Award-winning author and Jackson native Richard Ford said he wrote the memoir of his parents Between Them: Remembering My Parents because “I miss them so much.”
The memoir was “an attempt to get at what they were and how they affected me” he told Millsaps President Dr. Robert Pearigen, who conducted an interview with Ford that he noted he had spent two years preparing for. Ford was forced to cancel an appearance last year at the last minute because of travel issues.
Ford agreed with Pearigen that the memoir lacked some of his trademark humor, nothing that in writing about his parents, “I probably got weighed down a little bit with the gravity of their lives.” He noted that one fact driving that was “they died long before they should have.”
Asked by Pearigen to describe the difference between writing fiction and a memoir, Ford responded, “When you are writing fiction you use words differently than when you are writing non-fiction.”
In fiction, Ford said, often “you find a word that is different than you were looking for” and once you find a word and use it the word may alter the meaning of a sentence or a thought.
In writing a memoir, he noted, “When you choose a word … And if it’s about your mother, for instance … When you find the word you have to say to yourself, ‘is that actually true?'”
And Ford related the difference between fiction and non-fiction to current events: “In our political climate now with the president that we have … non-fiction depends on something very important — it depends on the fact that things actually do happen.”
— Fred Anklam Jr.
‘Things Like the Truth’
“You’ve got to write what you know. It’s just that simple, author Ellen Gilchrist said during one of Saturday’s first sessions.
“That’s why it’s ‘things like the truth.’ It is the truth, but it’s your version of the truth,” Gilchrist said. “Everybody could write a different version of this morning, and you wouldn’t recognize them all.”
The panel took its name from the title of a book of the same name by Gilchrist, a Mississippi native who lives in Arkansas.
Marshall Ramsey, also a panelist who is The Clarion-Ledger‘s editorial cartoonist, said he hasn’t had a shortage of material in the two decades since coming to Mississippi.
“If cartoons don’t have that little ring of truth, then they’re just going to fall flat,” Ramsey said. — R.L. Nave
‘The Heritage of Mississippi Series’
Fitting with the festival’s theme of Mississippi history and heritage, some authors touched on events, cultures and ideas that have shaped the state. Three who have written books that are being published by he Mississippi Department of Archives and History led a discussion Saturday morning in the Old Supreme Court Room to complement the Heritage of Mississippi Series. Once completed, 17 volumes celebrating the state’s bicentennial will be published by the Archives and History, the Mississippi Historical Society and the University Press of Mississippi.
James Barnett Jr., author of Mississippi’s American Indians, described how some of the first-known tribes living in Mississippi had to fight to preserve their history and culture once European settlers entered the picture. One of the most prominent changes to their lives was the slave trade.
Smaller tribes such as the Grigra and Tiou were “prime targets for slave traders unless they were attached to larger group,” Barnett said.
Natchez and Chickasaw tribes became involved in the slave trade as a form of “protection.”
“If you didn’t want to be hit by slave catchers, you became slave catchers yourselves,” Barnett said.
Moving to a later era, Timothy B. Smith, author of Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front, emphasized how important it is to understand the complexity of the war as an issue in Mississippi before and during the conflict and how that complexity shapes perspectives today.
“On the home front, there are so many different nuances, and dedication to the Confederacy and to the Union,” Smith said. “It was a complex society at the time that defied any attempt to put it all into a black and white area. (It’s) hard of us to imagine a war fought among us.”
Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and moderator of the discussion, spoke on how the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which will open Dec. 9, will play an important role in preserving important experiences of Mississippians.
“When the museums open, that’s just the beginning of the conversation,” Blount said. “We will continue to tell these stories and think about these issues, particularly ones that we think are hard.” — Kendra Ablaza
Mark Bowden, author of Hue, 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam spoke on two panels Saturday. The journalist and author of several books, notably Black Hawk Down about U.S. Army soldiers under attack in Somalia, had two veterans of the battle for Hue with him.
Bowden said that in writing about historical events such as Vietnam or Somalia, he prefers to build a story from the ground up and to find a story about an event that helps someone to understand the larger conflict
In researching the book, Bowden acknowledged, he was dismayed to learn in detail how U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland was so wedded to his view of the battlefield in Vietnam and the U.S. tactics that he failed to grasp the sophistication and skill of his Vietnamese opponents.
Overall, Bowden noted, America at the time of the Vietnam War was so obsessed with the spread of communism that it failed to realistically grasp all of the issues driving the North Vietnamese and therefore blinded U.S. leaders in their approach to the war.
Bringing that observation to current times, Bowden noted that similarly today many area experts are leaving the State Department, many jobs in the State Department remain unfilled, that “anti-intellectualism” seems to be in vogue in Washington and “what we are doing I think is deliberately dumbing ourselves down” about the rest of the world.
He said the United States instead should be approaching the world with humility and seeking to understand issues driving international events, “and if we do that then I think we will send this terrific military that we have on fewer feeble missions.”
At a later panel moderated by Rep. Trent Kelly, the conversation included discussion of the differing experiences of veterans returning from Vietnam compared to those returning from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kelly, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, called Vietnam Veterans “forgotten heroes who were not treated with the love and respect that they deserved.”
Former Marine and Battle of Hue veteran Richard Hill recalled how an airline wouldn’t sell him a plane ticket to Los Angeles when he returned “because I was coming home from Vietnam.” He said he later found employers wouldn’t give veterans jobs because “if you were a Marine they figured we were baby killers.”
Another Marine veteran of Hue, A.B. Grantham noted that “a lot of us made it a point not to talk about the war. We would hide the fact that we we were Vietnam vets …. because we didn’t want them to have a preconceived notion about who we were and what we were before we even had a chance to say something. So we just kind of hid.”
“I think the country learned from that .. we honor our veterans now,” Hill said.
Grantham and Hill are pictured in one of the iconic photographs of the war showing wounded Marines being evacuated from Hue on a tank (the image appears on page 472 of Bowden’s book).
The two only met in the last year after seeing the image on social media and noting that they were on the tank. — Fred Anklam Jr.
Alvin S. Felzenberg, Walter Stahr and Curtis Wilkie discussed the little-known stories of American presidents and the influential people around them that are revealed in the three authors’ recently published books.
Felzenberg wrote A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley, an iconic conservative author, commentator and founder of the National Review magazine, hosted the public affairs show Firing Line for 33 years. Felzenberg describes Buckley as a maker and breaker of U.S. presidents, notably laying the groundwork for Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Stahr is the author of Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary. Edwin Stanton was the U.S. Secretary of War in the Lincoln administration. Stahr describes him as having a complex personality, alternately vindictive and caring
Wilkie, co-author with Tom Oliphant of The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign. says that like any other politician, former president John F. Kennedy had a level of deceit, but experiences during his presidency made him change positively in some areas.
The authors say that this level of duplicity makes public figures interesting to study, and as writers it is their goal to reveal the truth — positive and negative. — Intisar Seraaj
‘Celebrating our Roots: A Tribute to Mississippi’s Musical Heritage’
Mississippi’s influence on American music is substantial, as is the task of preserving it.
Six Mississippi music experts and influencers gathered during the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday to review how the authors, in each of their own ways, are keeping Mississippi’s blues music heritage alive.
Roger Stolle, author of Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, is an avid organizer and promoter of blues music based in Clarksdale.
“My thing is I want to do something that gets them to come right now,” Stolle said of the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale and other festivals and events he organizes. “It’s literally like walking into a history book, like having an Alan Lomax moment for yourself.” (Lomax was an American ethnomusicologist, best known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century.)
Jimmi Mayes, a drummer and Jackson native who has played alongside legends including Jimi Hendrix, told stories of what it was like to be a recording musician mainly in the 1960s and how he got his start in Mississippi juke joints.
Mary Lindsay Dickinson, wife of Jim Dickinson, a piano player and producer who helped shape the Memphis sound in his long-spanning career, shared with the audience personal stories of what she called her “wonderful, close knit family bound around music.”
“My husband told the boys, ‘The connection that music has made between the races has come to symbolize the universal brotherhood of man and freedom around the world,” she said. — Kendra Ablaza
‘A Year in Mississippi’
Individuals define the state through their own experiences, and panelists Christine McCord, JoAnne Prichard Morris, Sid Salter, Diane Williams and Seetha Srinivasan, who contributed to essays to the book A Year in Mississippi shared theirs on Saturday.
Williams, a New Jersey native, explained her essay about the people in Poplarville becoming her family, despite a friend warning her that the town had a racist history. Srinivasan described celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, for the first time in America. Salter wrote about the Neshoba County Fair, likening it to “a vacation without crossing state lines.” — Alex Rozier
‘Write for Mississippi’
Several panels focused on young people. “Write for Mississippi” grew out of a series of writing workshops conducted by Mississippi authors in schools around the state.
Ralph Eubanks, an author and visiting professor at the University of Mississippi, said he often reads poetry before sitting down to write to draw inspiration on language.
Asked about the relationship between writing and activism, Eubanks, former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, said after last week’s clashes in Charlottesville he needed to write something about it.
“For me, that was an act of activism,” Eubanks said, adding that the lesson for students and young writers is what you put on the page can have an impact on someone, provoke thought or make connections between events. — R.L. Nave
“Kerplunk!” storyteller Doris Jones yelled as she slapped her hands together in a grand fashion.
She was simultaneously reading and acting out the children’s book Anansi the Spider and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric A. Kimmel while encouraging audience participation, from the youngest to the oldest.
“We’re all children, some of us just come in older or wrinkly packages,” Jones said.
She and Jerry Jenkins, a storyteller and drummer, led the “Family Storytelling” session Saturday morning. Jenkins told the story of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by memory as he let the audience act some out characters’ parts.
This program travels across the state of Mississippi year round, somewhat setting it apart from the other workshops and panels at the book festival. The program, provided by the Mississippi Humanities Council, partners with churches, community housing projects, libraries and other entities to target literacy-deprived areas and to encourage families to read together.
Writing about your home region or having your stories set in that area takes skill. The panelists of the panel “Stories of the South” consisted of Mississippian and Alabamian authors. They agreed in order to bring truth to their stories of the South, they had to have a complex balance of their love and disdain for where they grew up and the people who influenced their lives. — Intisar Seraaj
‘Stories from the South’
Writing about your home region or setting stories there is a complex undertaking. Authors from Mississippi and Alabama agreed that bringing truth to their stories of the South required a complex balance of their love and disdain for where they grew up and the people who influenced their lives.
On the panel, led by author David Crews, were Helen Ellis, Michael Knight, Odie Lindsey and Mary Miller. All have recently published books, many of them collections of short stories.
Although not all of the panelists still reside in the South, they still are drawn to revisit the region in person and in their writing. Knight, whose recent work is Eveningland, says his best writing stems from personal experiences. He and Lindsey agree that when they leave the South they’re able to write in more profound detail about the home they miss. — Intisar Seraaj