Arts event review

A day in Boston’s book oasis

‘Writing Beyond Binaries’ talk at the Boston Book Festival 2019

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Attendees of the Boston Book Festival sit on the steps of Copley Square.
COURTESY OF Jackie Gigantes Mccabe

The Boston Book Festival
Copley Square, Boston
Dudley Square, Roxbury
Oct. 19–20

The Boston Book Festival (BBF) is an annual celebration of authors, readers, and the brilliant community that comes from books. The event took place this year on Oct. 19–20, centered around Copley Square on Saturday, while on Sunday, it took place in Roxbury. Through workshops for writers, fascinating speakers, and interactive events for everyone from children to adults, this weekend is a buzz of heartwarming enthusiasm for literature and learning. With NPR as the festival’s presenting partner, many well-known speakers such as Meghna Chakrabarti, host of NPR’s On Point, and Marie Lu, author of YA series Legend, participated in events.

Checking their website in advance, I found that each day had an astonishing number of events — over 100 on Saturday! From workshops for aspiring/current writers to discussions about climate change or the criminal justice system to storytimes for children, this festival touched upon every possible slightly book-related interest. Although a little overwhelmed, I was amazed to see how many people were involved enough in this writing community to host and speak at these events.

On Saturday, when I got to explore the festival, I was even more fascinated by how many people flocked to Copley. The area was filled with banners and volunteers wearing red shirts. Copley Square was a palooza of advertiser booths, book tents, and activities. Bookstores like the Brattle Book Shop had carts with books at discounted prices, independent publishers displayed their works under their tents, and organizations like the Boston Public Library and Boston Cultural Council had people you could speak to about the role of arts and humanities in the Boston community. Bustling, sunny, and teeming with stimuli, Copley Square on this day was a book lover’s paradise. 

I attended one talk in the “BBF Unbound” category called “Writing Beyond Binaries,” located in a venue on Boylston Street. The conversation focused around transgender and nonbinary representation in books and amongst authors, a relevant topic that I hardly hear discussed. Accomplished writers from across all genres, including mystery, poetry, and the graphic novel offered their insights into the publishing process as well as their own personal growth as nonbinary people, including Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (The Fact of a Body), Gabe Cole Novoa (writing as Ava Jae; Beyond the Red Trilogy), Cameron Awkward-Rich (Transit, Sympathetic Little Monster), Alex Myers (Revolutionary, Continental Divide), Lisa Bunker (Zenobia July, Felix Yz), L. Nichols (Flocks), and Kay Ulanday Barrett (When the Chant Comes).

The authors spoke to an audience of around sixty people and among themselves in a very down-to-earth way, often sharing laughs and building upon what the others had said. Although the mood always remained cheery, the authors shared their struggles, not only related to their sexual/gender identity, but in the case of Kay Ulanday Barrett and Gabe Cole Novoa, with chronic pain, or as Cameron Awkward-Rich brought up, with people less willing to discuss “the craft” of writing as opposed to social justice implications. Through the conversation it became clear that each writer had to think about the balance between spotlighting advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community through writing and focusing on the technical skill and caliber of their “craft.” What is seen as bold splashes of representation by the diversity-dry mainstream landscape is really how the authors already perceive the world to be and expect their work to uphold. 

Inevitably, publishers tried to censor the content of the authors who included more sexually explicit stories and “rainbow characters,” as worded by Lisa Bunker. Even with a great publishing team full of nice people, the process of creating unique narratives is met with endless editing, marketing, and personal trials. However, the writers retained an inspiring degree of positivity. Alex Marzano Lesnevich described their experience promoting their novel in a village in France, where the people had no idea about gender binaries, but a hundred people showed up to learn about the topic. Many authors shared the same sentiment, especially finding it amazing to be sitting at this event next to other currently prominent nonbinary authors. Their creativity and interest in the genres and stories of the other authors really spoke to their passion for writing and created a real, intelligent conversation. I only wish that there were more natural inclusion of the audience in terms of questions and interactions. However, even as a pure observer of the authors’ conversation, I found the event enjoyable and informative. Moderated fluidly by writer and teacher Milo Todd and very well-organized, this “BBF Unbound” discussion created the space needed to highlight a crucial narrative and wonderful talent.