IN PRAISE OF THE BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL

Posted on by ralph

A week ago I attended the Brooklyn Book Fair, a one day event in the area around  Borough Hall that I had been completely unaware of until a fortuitous tweet pointed me in the right direction. And it was, in a word, magnificent – the most intellectually and culturally stimulating day I’ve spent in years. Coming out of a session by Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalists on the inexhaustibly revolting activities and impunity of Wall St I was, ironically, filled with a rush of joy, a genuine peak experience. I was drenched in delight with the intelligence, honesty, and decency of the writers we were hearing, and the good-hearted attentiveness of the audiences. This was New York at its finest, and for once I was thrilled to be here.

Amitav Ghosh at Brooklyn Book Festival

But for me the highlight was the session with the novelists Amitav Ghosh and Nuruddin Farah. I sat blinking with joy at these two deeply gifted men as they spoke humorously, unpretentiously and very entertainingly about their art. I felt privileged to be in the presence of two of the finest writers on the planet.  A friend of mine whose wife is Indian had turned me on to Ghosh’s novel, Sea of Poppies, this summer. It’s a multi-leveled tale of the 19th Century opium trade developed by the British East India Company, They grew poppies along the banks of the Ganges, cooked it into opium in vast factories, and shipped it at great profit to the Chinese, all the while motivated by an absurd conviction that they were bringing the glories of Free Trade and Evangelical Christianity to the heathens. It’s an absorbing tale of imperial hypocrisy, but also of the lives of the Bengali villagers in the poppy fields, the Lascar seamen, Indian aristocrats, and a young, black American sailor who stumbles into this riveting world.

Apart from the inventiveness and relevance of the story, what impresses is Ghosh’s multicultural sophistication – the way he is able to enter the psyches of characters from so many different cultures. Writers like Ghosh and Farah are truly artists of the 21st Century with a deep knowledge of so many languages, countries and cultures in a way far beyond any writer I know exclusively based in the English speaking world. Farah first read Dostoyevsky in Arabic, and speaks nine languages. Ghosh reads in multiple Indian languages, studied in Egypt, picked up a Ph.D. at Oxford, and now divides his time between Brooklyn and Goa. Their capacity for imaginative empathy is inspiring and necessary.

Nuruddin Farah at Brooklyn Book Festival

Both of them also possess warmth, openness and humor, and worldviews enriched by deep familiarity with phenomena like African shamanism and Indian spirituality. It’s a long way from the thin, dark worldviews of so many contemporary British writers, and the anxiety filled musings of American counterparts. It was a tribute to the multicultural ambience of Brooklyn itself that writers like this, plus helpful and expansive panels on topics like The New India and The Arab Spring, were featured along side sessions with American writers like the redoubtable and prolific Larry McMurtry (who I was surprised and happy to see in the new film Magic Bus about Ken Kesey and the psychedelic Merry Pranksters. He said in response to a question of mine that he was a lifelong friend of Kesey whom he had known since they were classmates at Stanford).

So I strongly encourage anyone in New York next September to go this festival – www.brooklynbookfestival.org. It was founded by Johnny Temple, a former punk rocker and publisher of Akashic Books, and has been going now for six years. Only one of my Manhattan friends had even heard of it, even though it has become one of the largest book festivals in America and is gunning to be the coolest, hippest and most exciting of them all. Brooklyn has, surprisingly, turned into the literary capital of America without many people noticing. Its literary roots extend as far back as Walt Whitman and now, with the unrivalled cultural and ethnic diversity that characterize Brooklyn and Queens, it’s poised to change the shape, intensity and relevance of book fairs of the future. Highly recommended.

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