Tennessee Williams Festival is a Literary Party for Everyone

J.R. Ramakrishnan¬†brings her London flare to the Tennessee Williams Festival. BrassyBrown.com chatted with her about this year’s upcoming events and books she thinks are worth reading.

Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis

1) Can you talk a little about your role at TWF and the importance of having diverse speakers and programming?

I shape the Festival’s literary programs with program chair, Susan Larson, and our committee. We read lots of books and piece together the program. I spend a lot of time thinking about what diversity means in a city as demarcated and contested (and contesting) as New Orleans. I’m curious to hear what you and your readers think. As someone who was born and raised in multi ethnic/racial/lingual spaces without ever having the authenticity of indigeneity in any of these places, my empathies are likely more diverse than most. Its importance to me is without question. This year’s program, my second, will be certainly be more diverse than in recent years. Still, I’m interested in the books yet to come from local writers–a novel by a Vietnamese New Orleanian writer meditating on refuge, for example. While some say there’s been enough Katrina books, I suspect from the stories I’ve heard, the Great New Orleans Katrina novel, especially of Black New Orleans, has yet to be written. I’m awaiting a big, messy, and sharp novel about the storm, perhaps a New Orleans version of The Bonfire of Vanities.

2) I find it fascinating that despite the low literacy rates in New Orleans, The TWF was named one of the top ten literary festivals in the nation by USA Today. How do you think the TWF has or can play a role in improving literacy in NOLA?

TWFest-2014-cover2Those facts lined up tell a rather sad story of a depressing problem. The Festival supports the work of literacy educators through its writeNOW high school outreach field trips. I try to invite young-ish authors, especially writers of color, to whom the students might relate, but also ones that can offer them insights into different worlds, to teach these workshops. This year are teachers are Kiese Laymon, a native of Jackson, Miss., and author of the experimental novel of Black Southern youth, Long Division
; Bill Cheng, a Chinese-American from Queens whose book takes on the 1927 flood of the Mississippi and Alicia Anstead, who edits The Writer magazine and has reported from Iraq and elsewhere. The Festival also gives scholarship passes to New Orleans-area readers who might otherwise not be able to attend for financial reasons. Through its main program, the Festival encourages life-long reading by offering readers opportunities to come hear authors speak about their works in person.

3) Talk a little about some of the women of color participating in this year’s festival.

One of the two African-American judges of the #TWF14 Fiction Contest was Emily Raboteau, whose latest work, Searching for Zion, is a dazzling road trip across the world in pursuit of promised land ideas of both Black and Jewish cultures. Roxane Gay is a Haitian-American writer, editor and critic with a cult following among writers. When her two new books, Bad Feminist and An Untamed State, come out later this year, everyone will be talking about her. I recommend the essay panel she will be on with New Yorker critic Hilton Als, Kiese Laymon, Dani Shapiro and John Freeman, the former editor of Granta magazine. Lila Quintero Weaver’s graphic novel, Dark Room, is a memoir of growing up Latina and witnessing the civil rights struggles in rural Alabama. Other Southern ladies of color on the program include journalist Gwen Thompkins (who’ll be talking lyric and literature with Treme’s David Simon), Shirley Thompson (a historian who’ll speak at the Unfathomable City salon), and Kristina K. Robinson (a New Orleans poet and fiction writer who’ll be moderating a panel on “Writing America”). To stretch further (Global) South, there’s also a Malaysian writer, myself! I’ll be interviewing Justin Torres about how he crafted his short, sleek debut novel, We the Animals. A full list of our speakers can be found here, and our program is here. Not specifically WoC but I hope everyone will come out to our Literary Dance Party featuring a Surprise Interrogation of Victor LaValle, a mystery interrogator and a reading by Douglas “Doogie” Fontaine.

4) I am excited about the local and national roster of invited authors. How has technology impacted the TWF, publishing industry and writers?

Technology has been the best for literary festivals. I get to follow what everyone else is doing, especially in places off the radar such as the Bali or Jaipur literary festivals on Twitter. It’s thrilling that technology offers all sorts of discoveries wherever you are. The price for all that access seems to be a sadly flitting and shallow engagement in more things. Books exact a commitment that the Internet discourages. Speaking only for myself, I think the Internet is the worst for writing and thinking.

5) Why is New Orleans is a great city for writing?

As a somewhat ambiguous-looking brown girl, I feel that New Orleans perceives me quite differently than your average transplant. I’m often mistaken endearingly for being from one or two 7th Ward families. Of course, when they hear my London accent, it becomes a source of amusement and a point of opening. Such moments in New Orleans have made me appreciate how my gaze refracts through many lenses. I’m acutely aware of how I see, and I think this seeing has made me hear my voice in person and on the page in ways I hadn’t before. I’ve also met a couple of people who’ve changed my life/mind here. So yes, the city has worked for my writing, but not because I was inspired by the fog over the Mississippi or anything like that. I’m more interested in New Orleans’ stealth charms, the ones that she doesn’t give up without putting you through the wringer first. We’re over that stage, I think, so we’re good now.

Follow J.R. Ramakrishnan at twitter.com/jrramakrishnan