Writing the complete American story

Distinguished authors share perspectives at Virginia Festival of the Book

Margot_Lee_Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly was one of three authors to speak at "Writing the American Story," the closing event of the 2018 Festival of the Book.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“I was going to start with a big and grand and complicated question, but I’m going to do something else instead,” moderator Rita Dove said at the beginning of “Writing the American Story’s” Q&A session. She began with a seemingly simple query — what made the panelists hopeful?   

Hope in the future was a commanding theme at Sunday’s program, titled “Writing the American Story: Diverse Voices in Distinguished Books.” The event — which took place at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and was the concluding event of the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book — featured a panel of celebrated authors of poetry, fiction and nonfiction in a discussion concerning race, culture and representative writing. 

Moderated by Commonwealth English Prof. Rita Dove,  former poet laureate of the United States from 1993-1995, the panel also featured three of the five authors recognized at last year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which recognizes books that confront racism and celebrate diversity. Poet Tyehimba Jess, novelist Peter Ho Davies and nonfiction author Margot Lee Shetterly joined Dove to share readings from their award-winning books as well as their thoughts on how literature can expand the American story. 

After introducing the guests, Dove began the program by reading her poem “The Bellringer,” which she noted she also read at the recent University Bicentennial Celebration. Jess then selected a poem from his book “Olio” about the burning of black churches throughout the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Movement eras. Both Jess and Dove’s powerful delivery and rich language elevated an already compelling and emotional history — one filled with important characters, symbolism and themes long overlooked. 

This refrain remained in the air throughout the event as the panelists continued their readings.  Davies chose a selection from his novel “The Fortunes” about Asian-American early Hollywood film star Anna May Wong and her dreams of becoming an actress. Shetterly shared a passage from her book “Hidden Figures” which highlighted the painful reality of segregation and “massive resistance” in Virginia while black female mathematicians helped put a man on the moon. 

Before beginning her reading, Shetterly remarked that she found herself attracted to the story because it “collapsed my experience with that of my parents and my grandparents,” helping her to understand the importance of telling a complete history. All of the panelists returned to this sentiment at one point during the discussion, placing emphasis on using history and literature in conjunction to, as Davies said, “[create] more empathy in the world.”

The discussion commenced with 30 minutes of questions initiated by Dove, followed by another half hour of questions solicited from the crowd. Topics spanned from the representation in literature and social justice to the writing process and each author’s approach to finding new stories. 

Around midway through the audience Q&A period, a woman from the crowd inquired how to best introduce topics of inequality and diversity to children. All three authors agreed in educating youth through a number of institutions — family, school and church — and also literature itself. Shetterly emphasized this point, articulating the value of “having books speak to [a child] as an intelligent being,” because books assume an understanding in the reader that “perhaps we don’t always give [kids] credit for.” 

Throughout the program, the panelists emphasized the use of history in creating hope for the future. They also discussed what drives them, as individuals, towards the creation of literary art. Dove described the feeling of hunger and exhilaration that comes with discovering and telling new stories, while Davies offered that he remains “drawn to inconsistencies” and wants to “find a deeper logic” in half-told stories, or those forgotten almost entirely. Shetterly highlighted her goal of being able to think of history “as one thing that includes everybody” instead of a vehicle for categorical exclusion, and Jess shared his sense of urgency that propels him to write poetry. 

To conclude the event, the panelists endeavored to describe how they wound up making truly great art. Their final comments also illustrated a critical message to future artists and creators — to claim time for their art, to look where previous history has cast a shadow and to understand why the story should be told in the first place. 

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