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From Emmett Till to Jay-Z: Austin's African American Book Festival

From Emmett Till to Jay-Z: Austin's African American Book Festival

Austin Photo Set: News_Joshunda_Bernice mcfadden_book festival_june 2012_2
Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden
Austin Photo Set: News_Joshunda_Bernice mcfadden_book festival_june 2012_1
Bernice McFadden
Austin Photo Set: News_Joshunda_Bernice mcfadden_book festival_june 2012_2
Austin Photo Set: News_Joshunda_Bernice mcfadden_book festival_june 2012_1

The African American Book Festival, now in its sixth year, will feature panel discussions about black life in literature this Saturday that will include Jay-Z’s memoir, Decoded, Steve Harvey’s relationship book, Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Annually, festival organizers Peggy Terry and Rosalind Oliphant, have featured the work of local and nationally regarded writers at the one-day festival. Children’s book author and illustrator Don Tate, who just published, It Jes’ Happened, has appeared in previous festivals, as have Pulitzer Prize winners, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello.

The work of Elizabeth Nunez, who just published a book about a Caribbean immigrant navigating the segregated world of contemporary book publishing called, Boundaries, and that of Brooklyn-based writer Bernice McFadden were this year’s highlights because those authors “stretch our thinking through the depth of their work,” Oliphant said.

McFadden’s latest, Gathering of Waters, is indeed quite deep. Replete with wanton, hedonistic ghosts, the narrative centers on retelling the story of a world that would kill young Emmett Till, a summer vistor to Money, Mississippi, who in August 1955 was shot in the head, then tossed into a river with the metal fan of a cotton gin attached to his neck with barbed wire. He was killed because witnesses outside of a town store said they heard Till, a black man, whistle at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman.

“For a long time publishing companies put writers of color in a box. E-books have changed the whole game... Now, from the safety and privacy of their own homes, they can explore all of these books the publishing industry told them they didn’t want to read.”

The New York Times called McFadden’s sultry and richly imagined novel a “beautiful and evocative” tale. It also resists easy categorization, as much as she might aim for readers of all races to read it. That makes sense; she has had something of a nontraditional writing career.

Though she knew by the time she was eight that she wanted to be a writer, she grew up in the 60s and 70s without living role models until she read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in 1983. That novel inspired her to find the work of Toni Morrison, Marita Golden and many other African American women.

In 1989, McFadden began writing stories and submitting them to agents. In the vein of the late Ray Bradbury, she said she got so many rejection letters she could have papered the walls of her Brooklyn home. After a decade of trying, she wrote her first book, Sugar, found an agent and was launched.  

As publishing has moved away from pigeonholing African American fiction, McFadden says she has found a broader audience for her 10 novels, which have been praised by Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan, among others.

“It seems to me that things are getting better (for African American writers,” she said. “For a long time publishing companies put writers of color in a box. E-books have changed the whole game. You have readers who not previously have gone into the black section of the bookstore. Now, from the safety and privacy of their own homes, they can explore all of these books the publishing industry told them they didn’t want to read.”

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Austin’s African American Book Festival will be held on Saturday, June 23 at the Carver Branch of the Austin Public Library (1161 Angelina Street) with panels and talks at the Carver Museum & Cultural Center (1165 Angelina Street) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.aabookfest.com