Opinion
 

Tennessee Williams Festival’s streetcar opens doors to less stodgy, more inclusive literary crowd

The graphic style of the program cover from 2010 (left) has given way to a an updated look for this year that is in stride with more inclusive speakers and panels.

Tennessee Williams Festival

The graphic style of the festival's program cover from 2010 (left) has given way to a an updated look for this year that is in stride with a more with-it roster of speakers and panels.

I first heard about the Tennessee Williams Festival a mere few days after arriving in New Orleans, in February 2010.

A literary festival! What a treat for a bookish fellow like me!

I attended a panel featuring scriptwriters and directors of the “Treme” TV series, which was about to premiere its first season, and it was fine. But the feel inside of the Royal Sonesta Hotel was stodgy, old, a bit awkward, and very white—even for a literary event. I looked through the rest of the festival program. “Who are these people?” I thought. My attention soon drifted elsewhere.

In January 2011, I started Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News and began online publication of interviews, reviews, and updates related to local writerly endeavors. As the 2011 Tennessee Williams Festival approached, I thought I might give it some coverage. But as I scanned the docket of authors and the schedule of events, I grew discouraged. Everything seemed corny and the participants second-rate. With nothing that seemed worth hyping, I tapped out a small note for Room 220 that simply said: “You won’t see me at the Tennessee Williams Festival.”

This year, that’s not the case. I’m going to give the Tennessee Williams Festival another shot, and I encourage you to, as well. With several new key staff members on board, an increasingly searching eye on the national literary landscape, and a diversification of events and authors, the festival appears to be undergoing a sharp upgrade.

It is also making efforts to include more authors of color. This is a welcome move for obvious reasons, but it also better serves taxpayers—who help support the festival through agencies like the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Arts Council of New Orleans—by spending their money on an event that’s not quite so lily white.

Susan Larson has had a lot to do with the improvements. The former books editor of the Times-Picayune has been a longtime supporter of the fest, but until recently her role was limited by her obligations to the newspaper. She is now in her second year as vice president for literary programming, and festival administrators largely credit her deep knowledge of the regional literary community and her reach as a national figure—she was on the committee to select the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in literature—for this year’s strong lineup of panels and master classes.

J.R. Ramakrishnan is another welcome addition to the festival’s workforce. Ramakrishnan came to New Orleans in 2010 by way of New York, London, and Malaysia. The former journalist began volunteering with the festival as a University of New Orleans graduate assistant three years ago. This year, in her first year as associate director of programs, Ramakrishnan has already made her global perspective apparent. She is responsible for tapping folks such as Vivek Bald, a filmmaker and author whose book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, illustrates the ways in which Bengali Muslims integrated into some of America’s most iconic neighborhoods of color, including the Tremé. Frank Cha is another writer Ramakrishnan prompted the festival to approach. Cha’s work focuses on Asian-American cultural politics and the construction of place in the 20th and 21st century South. Both Bald and Cha will appear on a panel titled “The South: Literature of Exile, Refuge, and Return” along with wunderkind essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan and recent Oprah darling Ayana Mathis.

Panel topics like this and the broader range of perspectives from the likes of Bald and Cha are ways in which the festival is attempting to transcend what’s been my foremost criticism—that the event, with offerings like the annual Stella Yella competition, traffics in the same clichés as the rest of the French Quarter Tourist Industrial Complex, catering to those who are satisfied by a very banal and predictable presentation of the city and its culture.

“We’re trying to look at the literature of the South outside of the usual suspects, like Faulkner and Eudora Welty—who, by the way, we’re also doing an event about this year—and Tennessee Williams himself,” Ramakrishnan told me. “We’re trying to broaden the scope in that regard.”

Broadening the scope also means making the festival’s lineup more representative of the city’s ethnic makeup. A quick review of author photos and bios in the four most recent festival programs—admittedly a crude calculation—suggests that the rate of non-white participation hovered between five and six percent from 2009 – 2012. This year, the number jumped to 14 percent, even without factoring in nighttime satellite programming such as the MelaNated Writers event on Friday, March 22. This is still pretty feeble in a majority-Black city with a rich history of immigrant communities, but it’s an improvement.

A panel this year about the “exoticization” of New Orleans is a bit of a twist on the meta-topic: the ways in which authors present the city in their work. Thomas Beller and Nathaniel Rich have been criticized for what some allege are naïve or obtuse depictions of New Orleans and its residents in national publications such as the New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. Beller and Rich will sit on a panel titled “Writing New Orleans: The Most ‘Exotic’ Place in America.” They’ll be joined by Xavier dean Kim Marie Vaz, whose most recent book explores the “Baby Dolls” subculture and other issues of race and gender associated with Carnival, and Richard Campanella, Tulane geography professor and prolific author of books about New Orleans ethnography. The panel, moderated by Louisiana Cultural Vistas and KnowLA.com executive editor David Johnson, will parse what this year’s festival program describes as the “American Orientalist fantasy” that frequently infects writerly depictions of New Orleans. Among questions the panelists will attempt to answer: How do you portray the city’s textured soul and the “local color” of traditions such as Mardi Gras without filling the page with maudlin stereotypes? Of all this year’s literary events, I pick this as the one not to miss.

Of course, even Larson’s and Ramakrishnan’s best efforts won’t quickly turn the 27-year-old festival on its head.  With nearly 100 participants for its panels, master classes, readings, theater performances, and lagniappe events, the ship is too big for a fantail turn. And the fact that the festival has become such a big deal over the years—it began with 500 attendees and now fills nearly 10,000 audience seats annually—suggests that it does quite a bit right. But to be a truly excellent addition to the city’s literary culture, which I’m cheering for it to become, the festival will need to amplify its recent efforts. In short and in sum, it needs to consistently feature the best of our local literary talent, a strong and diverse docket of writers from elsewhere, and programming that offers an array of fresh perspectives on New Orleans, the South, and the region’s literature. It’s not quite my dream festival for the city just yet, but it’s looking better.

I’m convinced to check it out this year. I hope to see you there.

My (highly subjective) picks for this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival

What: New Orleans in the 1920s: Bohemians, Baby Dolls, and Storyville (panel)
When: 11:30 a.m., Friday, March 22
Where: Hotel Monteleone Queen Anne Ballroom (214 Royal St.)
Who: Panelists Alecia Long, John Shelton Reed, and Kim Marie Vaz, with moderator John Magill
Why I’m going: Long and Vaz both came out with books this year—“Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s” and “The Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition,” respectively—that received strong positive reviews from people I respect. I haven’t read either of them, so I want to hear about them!

What: Literary Late Night: MelaNated Writers Collective (reading)
When: 8 p.m., Friday, March 22
Where: M. Francis Gallery (604 Julia St.)
Who: Maurice Ruffin, Kelly Harris, Gian Smith, Mary Webb, and Geryll  ”Gee Love” Robinson
Why I’m going: The MelaNated collective’s Literary Jook Joints are some of the most spirited presentations of quality writing in the city. I never miss a MelaNated event if I can help it.

What: Courage in Journalism (panel)
When: 1 p.m., Saturday, March 23
Where: Hotel Monteleone Queen Anne Ballroom (214 Royal St.)
Who: Panelists Douglas Brinkley, Dwight Garner, and Leonard Pitts, with moderator Michael Sartisky
Why I’m going: As the media landscape becomes more fragmented and hype-driven, I’m increasingly interested in hearing lions from the Old Guard cut through the social media bullshit and remind us what it means to be a real journalist.

 

What: Writing New Orleans: The Most “Exotic” Place in America (panel)
When: 2:30 p.m., Saturday, March 23
Where: Hotel Monteleone Queen Anne Ballroom (214 Royal St.)
Who: Panelists Thomas Beller, Richard Campanella, Nathaniel Rich, and Kim Marie Vaz, with moderator David Johnson
Why I’m going: Beller and Rich—both of whom I respect as writers and count as friends—might find themselves defending characterizations of the city they’ve crafted in some of the best publications in the country. I foresee a lively and intelligent discussion.

 

What: The South: Literature of Exile, Refuge, and Return (panel)
When: 4 p.m., Saturday, March 23
Where: Hotel Monteleone Queen Anne Ballroom (214 Royal St.)
Who: Panelists Vivek Bald, Frank Cha, Ayana Mathis, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, with moderator Elizabeth Steeby
Why I’m going: This panel promises an updated take on the South as a region of immigrants. In a city that historically and culturally has sometimes embraced one immigrant group while shunning another, such a discussion might be illuminating or depressing (I’m guessing it will be both).

 

What: Telling the Truth, but Better: The Art of Creative Non-Fiction (panel)
When: 11:30 a.m., Sunday, March 24
Where: Hotel Monteleone Royal Ballroom (214 Royal St.)
Who: Panelists Thomas Beller, Dwight Garner, Elena Passarello, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, with moderator Daniel Brook
Why I’m going: Sullivan is one of our best writers of creative non-fiction, and he is joined by strong panelists. This will almost certainly be an exceptional experience for anyone interested in the form.

Nathan C. Martin is the editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News and a copywriter at Loyola University New Orleans. His work has appeared recently in McSweeney’sNext American City, and Pelican Bomb.

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  • Color Me Unimpressed

    Interesting piece, but the festival is only a step better than it’s been in the past. Despite a thriving indie/grassroots lit and theatre scene, you’d have no idea of it in the programming, because it’s not represented at this festival (or Words & Music either). How come such an exciting literary city has such boring literary festivals?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1015409930 Terry Scott

    Color Me Unimpressed or rather color me stupid, opinion based on what, name some better programming

  • Color Me Unimpressed

    Actually reading the initial piece and the comment you responded to would help a great deal before you post. Your question has already been answered.

  • Guest

    I’ve had more to do with the festival that I care to reveal so i again, suggest some better programming. The write acknowledges it, maybe you should think through your own comments before posting. What’s not represented that would befit your criticism…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1015409930 Terry Scott

    I’ve had more to do with the festival that I care to reveal so again, suggest some better programming. The writer identifies some, maybe you should think through your own comments before posting. What’s not represented that would befit your criticism…