Stories about stories: Three authors share their work and speak about their craft

Virginia Festival of the Book hosts Mitchell S. Jackson, Sarah Smarsh and José Olivarez

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The Virginia Festival of the Book hosted three panelists on the topic of the future.

Courtesy Jinwook Hwang

Wrapping up the Virginia Festival of the Book on its fourth night, “Future Tense: Writers You’ll be Reading for the Next 25 Years” hosted three writers at The Paramount Theater. From fiction to memoir to poetry, the writers on the stage brought different genres, voices and perspectives to the discussion. Mitchell S. Jackson, a published novelist whose memoir “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family” was published March 5 this year, sat closest to the panel moderator, Carlos Lozada, a nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post. 

To his left was Sarah Smarsh, author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” Smarsh has written extensively as a journalist on the white rural working class and her memoir published in 2018 became a New York Times bestseller. José Olivarez, author of “Citizen Illegal,” sat at the end of the panel of writers on the stage. His poetry has also appeared in The New York Times, and The Paris Review, among other publications.

Jane Kulow of Virginia Humanities introduced the event and invited Carlos Lozada onto the stage. The panel consisted of several questions prompted by Lozada and concluded with questions from the audience. Lozada’s first question to the authors was why they chose to write these books and invited them to share excerpts from their work. Both Jackson and Smarsh commented on the complexity of the memoir genre, as their own include elements of essay, social commentary, cultural analysis and history. Olivarez read two poems from his book, which was dedicated to his three younger brothers. In his work, he made an effort to not just write about the traumas of immigration and undocumentation but rather the “funny, lovely, tough, and tender.” 

Each writer grappled with writing about family and trauma, histories and truths. When writing “Survival Math,’ Jackson was wary about re-traumatizing his mother and joked later in the night that he is going to take a break from writing about family, to give his mother a break. Smarsh told the audience that she found that when writing about her own family, she had to approach them through what mattered most to them — hard work. 

At the crux of the conversation that carried into the night was the authors’ craft — and its relationship to their own stories. Their memoirs, stories and poems were grounded in the personal, the private and the public all the same. Sarah Smarsh described the separation of the public and private to be “one big soup,” in her experience. 

“There couldn’t be any Mexicans dying without them being able to come back to life,” José Olivarez said about his process of writing about the Mexican lives which live in the lines of his poems. 

Carlos Lozada concluded the panel with the question, “What’s next?” The three writers all joked at the question, each burnt out from their intensive careers and craving a moment to breathe, to appreciate the present. All three of the authors, however, will continue to write and produce new works, whether in new form or in a few years.  

Questions from the audience addressed the process of publication, societal impacts of their work and what they would like their readers to take away from their books. 

In response to an audience member question about the impact of their work, Mitchell S. Jackson explained that “300 years after the first Africans embarked on this state.… The very act of me writing at all is an act of resistance. To be sitting here on this stage, in this room, in this state — is not lost on me.”

After the event ended, the authors sold and signed books for the audience in the lobby of the theater. After about an hour of conversation, the audience warmly applauded the authors who shared excerpts from their lives as well as their work. In both their presence at the Virginia Festival of the Book event and in the essence of their work, exists a vulnerability that underscores a new pulse in contemporary literature. 

“There is an honesty, and as Sarah [Smarsh] mentioned in her remarks on stage, there is a way with words that all of them inhabit and embrace,” said Sarah Lawson, assistant director of the Virginia Center for the Book. “They are each clearly fantastic writers but also individuals who feel driven to tell stories that are not being told by other people and stories that are truly their own that they cannot help but tell,” 

“We want the people who are speaking at the festival to represent as many different walks of life, stories and ways of telling stories as possible,” Lawson said, about planning the “Future Tense” event.

“Fundamentally, what Virginia Humanities does, which Jane mentioned at the beginning, is that we connect people and ideas to explore the human experience and deepen our mutual understanding of one another through the written and spoken word,” said Matthew Gibson, the executive director of Virginia Humanities.

While the three authors take a break from publishing for the moment, their words and their stories shake readers and will continue to inspire both readers and writers for the next 25 years. 

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