A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Iowa City Book Festival

Last weekend I attended the Iowa City Book Festival.  Despite an apparently incompetent and corrupt organizing committee, I managed to have a good time. I acquired a copy of a book on writing for my collection, got to see A having a good time with customers visiting the Haunted Book Shop stand, and attended a couple panels.

The first panel was Really Early in the morning (10:30) and consisted of Camille T. Dungy and Ibtisam Barakat talking about the art of teaching creative writing.  It was better attended than I expected.  I didn't know either of panelists, but that didn't stop me from being impressed with them.  Some bullet points that I liked:
  • Teaching and writing can be mutually beneficial crafts.
  • Teaching is a way of cultivating empathy, a quality necessary for writing.
  • Teaching and the desire to share are and ought to be generous and enthusiastic acts.
I was particularly intrigued by Barakat's enthusiasm for writing and teaching and her basic philosophy behind them.  Writing, as she describes it, is a Lonely Art and teaching is kind of Salvation.  Barakat is a Palistinian immigrant and so she often writes about exile.  "Most human beings are in exile," she said, meaning that we're all individuals struggling to make human connections with one another.

This is particularly intriguing since there is a socio-political angle to her humanitarian philosophy.  As a Palestinian woman, she grew up in a conservative society where she was not allowed to express herself.  Furthrmore, during the occupation, she was told by authorities that she and her people essentially didn't exist and should be quiet.  Writing, therefore, is an act of rebellion.  Saying Something is as important as the content of her writing.

Barakat also went on to describe, at great length, why education as a institution was so vitally important to women in particular.  She believes it is her, and every educator's duty, to encourage female students in particular.  Education has traditionally been a white male privilege and if we're really all dedicated to a humanitarian, egalitarian endeavor then we must ensure that women have equal access.

Things went downhill when the audience was allowed to speak and ask questions.  Most of the people in the room were educators, I gathered.  One man said (paraphrasing), "You said that one third of people on earth are denied an education.  But don't you think that in their own societies and cultures they are getting just as valuable an education from those around them rather than being brought into the patriarchal institution?  That's not my question, but I want you to think about that.  My real question is..." and I don't remember what it was.  Needless to say, the panelists were not interested in his Real Question either.

What I find interesting about his comment is that it's a pretty old criticism and was Supposed to be on the side of the two panelists.  About thirty years ago (I'm ball parking him), somebody needed to point out that the Institution was patriarchal and doctrinal.  In this context, though, it seemed like an antiquated and arrogant point of view.  Barakat and Dungy's response was essentially that institutional education can and must always be improved, but it's really our best hope.

Anyway, I could go on, but I'd like to gloss over the second panel and this post is already too long.

The second panel was "Young Writers Talk about Writing" and included five kids, four of them 18 and the last was 13.  Barakat moderated and I have to say that as enamored as I was with her earlier that morning, she can't interview kids worth a damn.  Barakat has a very rigid opinion of what a writer is and does, which is primarily social advocacy.  The Writer does a great service to society and must approach the craft with an appropriate gravity.  That seemed to be true of two of the writers.  One Kid, though, was having none of this.

At one point, Barakat asked how the panelists found their Voice, commenting, "I often feel like when I'm looking for my voice have to fight with so many other voices.  I'm holding them down with one hand and writing with the other... I'm lost in the wilderness."  The One Kid replied, "I'd say stay lost."  Later on the One Kid said, "Writing is my favorite toy," which didn't seem to jive with the others' view that writing is a solitary and painful act.

Anyway, that was Saturday.  It was hot and god awful and this post is beginning to resemble a mutant baby.  I think I'm going to go read Dances with Dragons now.

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