I didn’t hear about this year’s North Carolina Book Festival until Hanif Abdurraqib posted his tour dates for his new book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest on Instagram. I didn’t even know North Carolina still had a book festival, though, if asked, I might have summoned a vague memory of hearing Junot Diaz at the 2014 festival, back when it was briefly known as the North Carolina Literary Festival. Before that, the festival hadn’t taken place since 2009, when it was the North Carolina Festival of the Book. That iteration, founded in 1998, rotated between the libraries of North Carolina State, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The 2019 North Carolina Book Festival
by: Meghan Florian
These might seem like unnecessary details, but as a North Carolina writer and reader I’m interested in what festivals like this bring to our community, and what the struggle to keep one happening in the Triangle means. I began here by noting that I heard about the festival almost by accident, but if the festival lacked publicity it didn’t seem to matter: the free tickets for headliners like Sandra Cisneros and William T. Vollmann were already “sold out” by the time I found the festival schedule. I snagged tickets to Abdurraqib’s reading just in time, as several friends who tried in the following days were out of luck.
This year’s festival had a different feel from one hosted solely on a college campus. Events took place at venues around Raleigh, including King’s, Neptune’s, HQ Raleigh, CAM Raleigh, Crank Arm Brewing, So & So Books, and elsewhere. This, on top of the festival being free and open to the public, made the festival feel more like a community event than it might otherwise. With the inclusion of favorite North Carolina writers like Jill McCorkle, and our Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, and the festival became a real celebration of local literary culture.
Hanif Abdurraqib comes from Ohio, and one of the things I most admire about Abdurraqib is his commitment to and gratitude for his own literary community in Columbus and beyond. The man literally went around Columbus indie bookshops once, buying copies of his own book, leaving them behind the counter, and tweeting to his followers that they could go get them. That’s the action of a writer wants people to be able to read books, who wants local bookstores to thrive. He also collaborated with Columbus ice cream company Jeni’s to do readings in their stores. Even if his writing style wasn’t my thing, I’d love him for the local literary passion, but the truth is, the man can write about anything and I will read it.
Abdurraquib’s writing sings. It makes sense, then, that in addition to a poet and a writer of nonfiction, he is a music critic. In this way, in his work, I see both the limits and possibilities of genre—different types of writing that are not as neatly separated as we might imagine. Hanif Abdurraqib’s prose is poetic, his criticism is personal, and so whether you’re familiar with his topic or not he will show you a way in by showing you why it matters to him. In this sense he is an essayist in my favorite way, writing work that is “about” one thing (A Tribe Called Quest, in the case of the new book), when in reality it is also about so much more.
Moreover, when he reads you experience something unrepeatable, bound by the time and space in which the performance happens. Not all writers can pull this off; not all writers aspire to, either. For myself, however, there is nothing quite like the gift of hearing a writer’s work in their own voice. For his North Carolina Book Festival reading at King’s, Abdurraqib read from multiple works, rather than sticking to his newest release – poems, book excerpts, and an as of yet unpublished nonfiction work in progress. The latter was a special a treat, a window into the process, a chance to hear something that the rest of the world will have to wait an entire year, maybe two, to hold in their hands and enjoy, a shared experienced between animate audience and author, literature living beyond the page.
Experiences like this are why literary festivals matter. Despite the quaint idea that reading and writing are solo activities, the domain of introverts, the fact remains that artists crave the community of other artists. We want the chance to applaud one another. We want to be inspired, fed for our own work. We want to celebrate. And, ultimately, we simply want to spend time with other writers. In a world where writing is replaced by “content,” where it can feel like clicks matter more than quality, a local literary festival reminds us people still crave the depth and breadth that only come from carefully crafted, lovingly edited, freezing cold takes.
Novelist Jami Attenberg recently wrote for Curbed about the benefits of living in a smaller city as a writer. “Smaller” as a writer meaning pretty much anywhere besides New York City, I suppose, and in her case, New Orleans. The North Carolina Book Festival brought back the question I had when I read her essay initially, which is that living and writing in Durham has enabled a kind of creative life I doubt I could sustain in New York City. But also that I long for the kind of literary culture for which that city is known. What would it mean, then—what does it take—to cultivate such community in smaller cities all over the United States, and particularly here, in the South, where we have such a rich literary tradition from which to grow? The standing room only crowds in Raleigh for this year’s North Carolina Book Festival reminded me that literature continues to play an important role in our communities. My hope is that the resurrected festival not only survives, but grows, that it births other new events and circles and readings and classes, and that it remains free and open to all.
Meghan Florian is the author of The Middle of Things: Essays, available now from Cascade Books. Her work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, Lunch Ticket, Religion Dispatches, Religion News Service, The Other Journal, and elsewhere. She earned an MTS from Duke Divinity School and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches writing at William Peace University. She lives and writes in Durham, North Carolina.