Los Angeles Times Festival of Books 2023
Author: C.S.R. Calloway
On April 22, 2023, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books made its grand appearance at the University of Southern California, promising two days filled with captivating panels, showcases, and bustling vendor booths. As the first day dawned with scorching temperatures, passionate book lovers eagerly queued up, determined not to miss the literary treasures in store at the festival. For this writer, it was an exciting inaugural experience at the event. I looked forward to the panels with eager anticipation, promising a day of stimulating and thought-provoking conversations.
A Climate of Change: Fiction Panel Insights
At Taper Hall, Lorraine Berry skillfully moderated the panel “Fiction: Sagas of a Changing Climate.” The panelists, all accomplished authors of recent novels on climate change, passionately emphasized the importance of collective will, collective action, and radical adjustments to tackle the urgent issue. Stephen Markley, the delightfully witty mind behind the climate change thriller The Deluge, put forth the thought-provoking idea that “Climate change is the keyhole in which we create a more equitable world.” Jess Row, acclaimed author of the globe-spanning epic The New Earth, highlighted the power of anger in driving meaningful protest, reminding the audience that it is crucial to ignite emotions for change. “Making people angry is an important part of the protest,” Row said.
Markley further delved into the concept of our consumerist society, asserting that we must see ourselves not merely as consumers but as citizens capable of influencing demand-side changes to foster the transformation we seek. The panel stressed that climate change is not a passive event but is being done to us, often exploited for marketing and political gain within a “liberal virtue cycle.” The panel delved into the complexities of attempted communal utopias, resource conflicts, and the expanding demand for land ownership due to growing families.
In a profound reflection, the pandemic’s impact was acknowledged as a series of cascading emergencies, magnifying the urgency to explore and address potential solutions. Fiction, as one powerful medium, was lauded for its ability to illuminate the array of options available for humanity to confront these challenges.
Erin Swan, the third panelist, and visionary behind the dystopian novel Walk the Vanished Earth, eloquently linked the climate crisis to racial and economic justice issues. When asked, the all-white panelists recommended readings from authors of color, demonstrating their commitment to amplifying diverse voices. The works suggested were How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue and Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury. Additional works from trailblazers like Octavia Butler and Palestinian writers Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani. This gesture exemplified a united front in the literary world to embrace and celebrate diverse perspectives on the pressing issue of climate change.
Insights from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Jane Smiley
After the engaging first panel, I walked across the campus to the Ray Stark Family Theatre, where Times journalist Steve Padilla skillfully moderated “Arts and Culture: The First Rule of Writers Club is…” Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley, the author of The Questions That Matter Most: Reading, Writing, and the Exercise of Freedom, shared an endearing insight into her childhood as a writer, revealing that curiosity was the driving force behind her writing journey, inspired in part by her fascination with David Copperfield. As she listened to her “gossipy” family members, she yearned for more information, prompting Padilla to quip, “You should have been a journalist.”
Writing with Empathy
Pico Iyer, author of the philosophical bestseller The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, described writing as “the best nightmare on earth,” expressing how it offers a sense of sanity and clarity in an increasingly divided world. Amy Wallen, the author of the wonderfully-titled How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies: Sweet and Savory Tips for the Writing Life, revealed that her writing journey was fueled by discovery and curiosity, leading her to pen her first two books. For her third book, she channeled empathy for her subject while writing about the writing life.
The most engaging moments of the panel emerged during the Q&A session with the audience, where the authors generously shared writing tips and best practices. They offered valuable encouragement, reminding aspiring writers that their first drafts can be considered perfect because “it never existed before.” However, they also emphasized the necessity to accept that no draft can be perfect, as no book is. Iyer highlighted that the true essence of the story often reveals itself two-thirds of the way through, challenging authors to decide if they have the courage to return to the beginning armed with this newfound clarity. Smiley introduced the concept of writing “pebbles and seeds,” which Iyer further elaborated on by advising to “Write [pebbles and seeds] and then take all the pebbles out.” The essence of this metaphor lies in removing unnecessary elements to enhance the resonance of what remains.
Smiley urged against self-criticism and encouraged embracing what was already on the page. “You’ve read more books than you’ve written. Your reader’s brain is more knowledgeable than your writer’s brain,” she wisely added. Similarly, Iyer warned against over-editing, noting that one can always find new ways to make the work imperfect. The panelists agreed that stepping away from the writing desk and venturing into the world can lead to breakthrough solutions for the manuscript.
It was a joyful and enriching panel, leaving the audience with valuable insights and inspiration for their writing journeys.
Inspirational Backstory: The Auntie Sewing Squad’s Mission
My final panel of the day, “Laughing Matters: The History and Power of Comedy,” moderated by Zachary Steel, professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, and featuring comedy historian Wayne Federman (author of The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle), USC Associate Professor Lanita Jacobs (author of To Be Real: Truth and Racial Authenticity in African American Standup Comedy), and performance artist Kristina Wong (promoting her collaborative book The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice—more on that later), took place at the Wallis Annenberg Hall. While the panel touched on comedy’s history and potential to invoke change, the discussion remained superficial, lacking true engagement among the panelists, who often resorted to dropping quips or nonsequiturs. The remote presence of Jacobs via video conferencing further hindered the flow of the conversation, as her responses were delayed, and her fellow panelists often riffed jokes in person. Despite the raising of significant topics—the fallout over Chris Rock and Will Smith’s Oscar altercation, Mo’Nique’s Netflix resolution, and the Dave Chappelle of it all—the moderation didn’t allow for truly thought-provoking discussions. However, Jacobs and Federman occasionally provided unique insights, and Wong’s inspirational backstory behind her book deserved a more focused panel. Each author could have benefited from a more purposefully moderated discussion.
The backstory behind Wong’s book is incredibly inspirational, making it deserving of a more focused panel. Amid the US government’s failure to provide personal protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Auntie Sewing Squad, led by Wong, emerged as a mutual-aid network of mostly Asian American women who sewed thousands of face masks with a bold social justice mission to protect vulnerable and neglected communities, including asylum seekers, Indigenous groups, incarcerated individuals, and farmworkers, while also supporting Black Lives Matter protesters and organizations serving Black communities during a moment of social upheaval marked by hate crimes against Asian Americans and nationwide protests against police violence. The book of this powerful story is written and edited by the Aunties themselves. Surely this compelling narrative was certainly worth further engagement and exploration. I guess I’ll just have to read the book.
Celebrating Diversity and Collective Action at the Festival
The Festival of Books was an unforgettable literary extravaganza, filling two days with captivating panels, inspiring showcases, and bustling vendor booths. As a first-time attendee, I was thrilled to engage in stimulating and thought-provoking conversations with accomplished authors and experts in various fields. The panels on climate change, the art of writing, and the power of comedy left a lasting impact, igniting a sense of urgency and empowerment to confront the pressing issues of our time. The remarkable efforts of Wong’s Auntie Sewing Squad stood out as a shining example of the transformative power of literature in times of crisis. The festival celebrated the written word, diversity, and collective action—a true testament to the enduring significance of books in shaping our world. I left the event with a newfound appreciation for the wealth of ideas, perspectives, and experiences that literature offers and eagerly anticipated the next gathering of literary minds.