Inspiration and Lessons Learned at the Brooklyn Book Festival

Brooklyn Book Festival/Photo via Facebook
Brooklyn Book Festival/Photo via Facebook

This weekend’s Brooklyn Book Festival was a sunny day of literary celebration and discussion. The crowds at the booths, run by publishers, magazines, and literary organizations, testified to the borough’s current preeminent place in the city’s -- and the country’s -- literary culture. Writers both local and far-flung took to thirteen different stages to debate issues ranging from digital culture to comic-book art, and from poetry to politics. For fans of the rich variety of writing from life, there was plenty to explore.

On the “Kitchens, Kith, and Kin” panel, Anya von Bremzen and Lucy Knisley discussed their innovative food memoirs; von Bremzen’s recent book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is as much about “longing” as savoring. The author described a childhood spent accessing food through the descriptions and language of writers like Hemingway and Proust, trying to conjure the taste of a madeleine. She was able to transcend through her imagination the reality of a communal apartment building with a shared kitchen -- which operated, she said, much like a black-comic farce, with neighbors stealing food, fighting, and hiding unpleasant surprises (like a snake) in each others’ pots and pans. Now, as a contributor to Travel and Leisure magazine, von Bremzen has the opportunity to sample some of the best food in the world -- a far cry, as she recalled, from growing up not knowing what an avocado was.

Lucy Knisley had a very different upbringing, “underfoot in professional kitchens.” She recalled a bohemian, artistic New York childhood, in which her mother cooked and taught by example. To write her illustrated memoir Relish, Knisley recalled taking extreme measures to access her memories and reevaluate her connection to food, undergoing the notorious lemon-juice-and-cayenne-pepper “master cleanse” -- an experience that, she said, only made painfully clear the connection between food and well being.

Both writers include recipes in their memoirs, sharing with readers the process of creating as well as the experience of eating. Knisley’s graphic recipes are intended for “visual learners” like the author, who might be intimidated by the blocks of text in standard recipe books. Von Bremzen spoke of the difficulty of finding a way to balance the recipes with the weight of history in her book, which moves chronologically through the decades of the Soviet century. For much of that history, it was a story of deprivation and starvation, and inserting recipes between chapters seemed to make light of that “epic history.” At some points, only silence seemed appropriate: In place of one missing recipe, there’s a ration card from the siege of Leningrad, entitling the bearer to a minuscule, but possibly life-saving portion of bread.

If food doesn’t move us, music might: Rob Sheffield’s memoir of karaoke, Turn Around Bright Eyes, is a story of battling through grief with the help of Bonnie Tyler, Bowie, and Beyoncé. In conversation with Ed Park, Sheffield and New York Times “Ethicist” and pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman discussed the power of memoir to connect with readers, and the challenge of surpassing its inevitably limited perspective. Klosterman noted that his new book about cultural villainy, I Wear the Black Hat, ended up “like all my books, mostly about myself.” Like Sheffield, he said he was drawn to first-person writing for the way it resonated and connected more deeply with readers -- but spoke too about the way that memoir is disrespected by other writers, especially journalists, who resent its partiality. This raises the appropriately ethical question: who are you writing for? The two writers are deep admirers of each other’s work. Sheffield told a story of being kicked out of a coffee shop for laughing too hard at one of Klosterman’s books -- but he also revealed that he has not yet been able to entice Klosterman to do karaoke with him.

The line between real people and imagined characters was the focus of a fascinating panel bringing together three writers whose work draws on the techniques of biography. Colum McCann’s recent novel, Transatlantic,tells a series of stories about the relationship between Ireland and the United States, from Frederick Douglass’s journey to Ireland in 1845 to Senator George Mitchell’s work in the 1990s on the Irish peace process. McCann read from a section of his novel that imagined Mitchell’s emotional reaction to that work, which the historical record into a powerful new imaginative shape. McCann himself has found his relationship to history changing; he recalled an interview several years ago in which he’d argued that writing about real people was an “absolute failure of the imagination.” Since then, however, he’s found plenty to imagine about real people, both long-dead and still living.

The Caribbean writer Montague Kobbé’s first novel, The Night of the Rambler, is based on the short-lived and farcical revolution on the small island of Anguilla in 1967. The novel playfully explodes the very notion of fact and fiction -- as Kobbé asks, can a story be history if nobody knows whether or not it’s true? Kobbé spoke about the imbalance of what counted as history in the Caribbean, where children often learn about events in Europe or the U.S. rather than their own local culture. Fiction that draws on history, then, he suggested, might become a kind of mythmaking, holding the power to make the historical narratives larger, stronger, and more meaningful.

Amy Brill described her novel The Movement of Stars as an exercise in historical happenstance: On a chance visit to Nantucket -- a place with which she had no connection -- the author found a tourist brochure advertising the home of a “famous girl astronomer” and was determined to find out more. That “girl astronomer” became the basis for Brill’s fictional protagonist, a young woman in a small Quaker community in the 1840s, who watches the skies at night searching for a comet -- a sighting that would earn her admittance to a privileged intellectual community. In an endnote to the novel, Brill made clear where she had drawn the lines between her real-life inspiration, Maria Mitchell, and her character, explaining that she needed to do so in order to honor the historical legacy and avoid unfairly appropriating her story.

In closing, Colum McCann offered an intriguing take on the rival claims of history and fiction; describing how Joyce’s Ulysses, taking place in Dublin in 1904, might have presented a day in the life of McCann’s own great-grandfather, who walked its streets, ate and drank in its bars, and no doubt reflected on his world in a similar way to Leopold Bloom. Joyce’s fiction, McCann suggested, allowed him to “know” his great-grandfather in a way that no historical record ever could, by drawing on a uniquely powerful merging of history and imagination.