This Seems Like the Perfect Time to Report on the 2019 National Book Festival!

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts and my reading and my images into a coherent “coronavirus blog post.” But my mind is too incoherent right now for any such thing. There will probably be MANY coronavirus blog posts. I’m going to live-blog the heck out of this plague. The result will hopefully be, at the very least, more coherent than my eight thousand disjointed Facebook posts and shares every day, a social distancing habit I have developed of late.

It’s been hard for me to focus in this reality, whether on work, or all the life management I should theoretically be taking care of with all this extra time at home, or even the post I’d written on social media about whatever aspect of the pandemic was distracting me two hours ago. People are responding, but by two hours later, I’ve moved on to some other horrific news story. I can’t carry on my half of a conversation. To everyone to whom I owe replies: I am sorry! I do not mean to be ignoring you. My mind is so scattered right now that I just keep starting new threads without coming back to older ones. Maybe blogging will help?

The focus of my blog has always been museums, parks, and other cultural offerings and informal education sites. With that lens in mind, I’ve been planning to write about what museums are doing right now in the midst of coronavirus. They are doing a LOT. In places all over the country and world, their buildings have closed (even many outdoor sites and parks are discouraging heavy visitation or are closing outright), but they are active online, providing lighthearted tweets, detailed educational resources for children who are suddenly home for the rest of the school year, podcasts, photos of highlights from the collection, story time videos, and other remote learning opportunities that I’ll be exploring more in the weeks to come.

For now, before even delving into the overwhelming number of recent posts from museums that I’ve saved on Facebook to peruse later, I want to write about the most recent National Book Festival, which took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, in Washington, DC, in August 2019. While I’ve written up my thoughts on several past National Book Festivals, I never did a blog post about 2019’s iteration of the event. Now, I’m looking over the notebook I carried with me that day, in which a couple of unintended themes emerge: parallels between historical eras, and individual and collective trauma. (*Please note, in the quotes that follow from the National Book Festival, I was rapidly scribbling what I found to be the most interesting or poignant remarks the authors made, so they might not be exact quotes.)

On the Fiction stage, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden interviewed Barbara Kingsolver about her novel Unsheltered. Kingsolver explained: “These truths we hold to be self-evident just aren’t true anymore: civil governance, a pension at the end of a job, a job at the end of a college education, icecaps not melting, fish in the ocean….I thought it would be interesting to find another WTF era”* to write about. (The “WTF era” she found was the 1880s, when people were still in the early stages of coming to terms with Charles Darwin’s discoveries upending humans’ understanding of their role in relation to the so-called natural world.) Where we are now, seven months after Kingsolver’s talk, is definitely the most WTF era of my own lifetime.

Poet Natasha Trethewey spoke at the festival about the “two existential wounds that hurt me into poetry…the need to make art of out trauma, both national and personal…and the need to talk back, to articulate a calling.”* Here, the inspiration for writing is described not as a muse, but as a hurt. Whatever great art and writing comes out of our current crisis will owe itself not just to the newfound time for indoor, solitary hobbies, but also to the pain and loss and anxiety and rage we are experiencing.

(And there will also be art and writing that is not considered great. As poet Sheila Black pointed out at the festival, “When really terrible things happen in our lives, we don’t speak like Shakespeare.”*)

The “national and personal” nature of trauma referenced by Trethewey speaks to the intersection of the personal and the political (which happens to be one of my favorite subjects). Author Julia Alvarez mused on the festival’s Poetry and Prose stage, “What is interesting to me is what politicizes people…What is the last straw?”* Separately, and specifically in reference to the time before the disability rights movement coalesced, Black stated, “We’d been sealed in our private drama and we didn’t see ourselves as a collective and as being a political minority.”*

Today, the fight for disability rights is much more recognized in the public consciousness, but that is not to say that it’s a fight that’s been won. In a recent article, Emily Ladau, a disabled writer and disability rights activist, described the prevailing guidelines on triaging coronavirus patients as terrifying but not surprising: “this pandemic is bringing into sharp focus the fact that millions of disabled people on this planet have always lived in the position of being one crisis away from those with power determining their lives are not worth saving.”

As we look back with bewilderment on the last few months, and who (myself included) knew what when, and predicted what and took what seriously at what time, I keep thinking, Rebecca Makkai called it. In her talk at the National Book Festival on The Great Believers, her novel about the height of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath, she said, “There are going to be plenty of opportunities for greedy people to cling to power by disenfranchising the already disenfranchised…there will be more epidemics.”*

Rebecca Makkai at the 2019 National Book Festival: "There will be more epidemics." Rebecca Makkai on the Fiction Stage, and on the jumbo screen

Rebecca Makkai at the 2019 National Book Festival: “There will be more epidemics.”

In addition to the article linked above about disability, we don’t have to look far to find examples of how already vulnerable people are put further at risk. Many of us white-collar workers are working from home these days (in my case, I’m teleworking four days and going into the office one day each week). Meanwhile, essential workers – often poorly paid and without paid sick leave – are at risk of contracting coronavirus; for non-essential work in the service industry, jobs are disappearing left and right. Further, the dystopian idea that the elderly should be willing to die in order to save the economy is not relegated to the poorly trafficked fringe corner of the web where it should be. Nor is the phrase “Chinese virus” or otherwise using the coronavirus as a pretext for anti-Asian racism limited to Stormfront (or whatever that website is called), but instead has been deliberately used by Donald Trump in his often science-spurning speeches.

Trump doesn’t need to “speak like Shakespeare,” to borrow Sheila Black’s phrasing, right now. None of us do. But this WTF era is calling us to be informed and humane, now more than ever.


*Please note, in the quotes above from the National Book Festival, I was rapidly scribbling what I found to be the most interesting or poignant remarks the authors made, so they might not be exact quotes.



About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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