Themes of empathy define the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book

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Themes of empathy define the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book

What makes literature distinct from other art forms is the opportunity it allows us to inhabit the space in someone else’s mind, to experience a life other than our own. This act of temporarily shedding our perspectives and concerns teaches us empathy and compassion. After a year in which Charlottesville suffered the effects of intolerance, this practice of coming to understand how another person lives in the world is more imperative than ever. The organizers behind the Virginia Festival of the Book—the newly branded Virginia Humanities and its Virginia Center for the Book—continue to offer exceptional programming that covers a massive breadth of subject matter and interests for readers young and old.

Leland Martin. Publicity photo

Leland Melvin

Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances

March 21, 11:45am at the Omni Hotel

Growing up in Lynchburg, Leland Melvin never imagined he would become an astronaut. The chemist, engineer and former NFL wide receiver writes in his memoir, Chasing Space, “While I had a passion for doing many things, my goals hadn’t included exploring the cosmos,” says Melvin. “The universe pulled me there.” Before he was contacted by a NASA recruiter, he never imagined space travel. “Just hearing the words that I would make a good astronaut changed me,” he says. But on day one of spacewalk training, Melvin suffered devastating hearing loss. In his memoir he details how he persevered—with the love and support of many people—regained partial hearing and eventually became a mission specialist on the space shuttle Atlantis. Melvin will appear at the festival’s kickoff luncheon, as well as St. Anne’s-Belfield with students from multiple schools in attendance.

Jason Reynolds. Publicity photo

Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down

March 21, 6pm at UVA Ruth Caplin Theatre

This young adult novel by award-winning author Jason Reynolds uses verse to tell the story of Will Holloman, whose brother, Shawn, is shot and killed two days before the story begins. No stranger to poetry, Reynolds says, “I understand the urgency of poetry, and with a story as intense and as fast-paced as this, verse seemed to be the only viable option.”

Will, bound by the rules his brother taught him—don’t cry, don’t snitch and If someone you love is killed, get revenge—enters an elevator with his brother’s gun, intent on shooting his brother’s killer. Will says of the rules, “They weren’t meant to be broken. / They were meant for the broken / to follow.” But on his descent, Will meets the ghosts of long-gone friends, family members and half-strangers who offer their wisdom as those who have killed and been killed in the cycle of violence perpetuated by the rules.

Lisa Ko. Publicity photo

Lisa Ko

The Leavers

March 21, 4pm at UVA Harrison Institute and March 22, 4pm at New Dominion Bookshop

The festival’s inaugural Carol Troxell Reader, Lisa Ko, will give a solo reading at New Dominion Bookshop during an event established in honor of the shop’s late owner—a voracious reader and supporter of the festival. The Leavers tells the story of Deming, the son of a Chinese immigrant, whose mother vanishes one night in New York City. The narrative follows Deming through the foster care system to the home of a white couple in upstate New York who rename him Daniel and attempt to redirect his love of music toward more academic pursuits. As he grows into adulthood and struggles with his identity, a childhood friend reconnects with him and gives him information about his mother’s whereabouts. Deming/Daniel must decide whether he can face the truth and prepare himself for how it will impact his sense of identity and his place in the world.

Monica Hesse. Publicity photo

Monica Hesse

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

March 24, 4pm at Central Library

Written by Washington Post feature writer Monica Hesse, American Fire is a true story of arson in Accomack County, Virginia. In it, Hesse examines the lives of Tonya Bundick and Charlie Smith and the damage that their frustrations and trauma inflicted on an entire community as they lit 67 fires in empty or abandoned buildings over the course of five months in 2012. “To me it never was a whodunit, it was a whydunit from the beginning,” says Hesse. “It’s a mystery about how two normal, regular people can end up burning down half a county.” Her book details the cumulative effect of economic, work and family stressors, and the explosive result that occurs when mixed with the chemistry of this particular couple.

Nic Stone. Publicity photo

Nic Stone

Dear Martin

March 21, 4pm at UVA Harrison Institute and 6pm at UVA Ruth Caplin Theatre

Nic Stone’s debut young adult novel centers on protagonist Justyce McAllister, a black man in his senior year of prep school in Atlanta. One very early morning, Justyce is trying to help his inebriated girlfriend into her car when a police officer slams him to the ground and puts him in handcuffs. That day, Justyce begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recording his observations and experiences and attempting to live according to King’s ideals. As Justyce reads reports of police brutality against unarmed black men all across the U.S., he encounters racism in his school and his city, and grapples with varying expectations of himself as a young black man.

His mother wants him to finish his education and stay away from the gang in his old neighborhood. His best friend, Manny, wants him to stop rocking the boat in calling out the racist behavior. By the end of the novel, “I think [Justyce] finally comes to the realization that who he is and who he becomes are both very much up to him,” says Stone. “The beauty of the relationships that shape us lies not in the relationships themselves, but what we take from them. What we learn about ourselves and how we interact with people. How we grow as a result. Justyce had to get to that place of collision between contradicting expectations of him, and only in that tension was he forced to decide the best thing for him.”

The story comes to a head when Justyce and Manny have a deadly encounter with a police officer in plain clothes while they’re driving and listening to loud music. Writing the violent scenes in which her characters suffer was difficult for Stone. “Honestly, writing this whole book was pretty terrible,” she says. “I spent 29 years distinctly not looking too closely at the history of people who look like me in this country I call home. I knew it was painful and ugly, so I avoided it.” But, as she writes in her note to the reader, she couldn’t let these ideas go. “Then this book sold on proposal…and I had to look because I had to write it. The worst part was the sense of helplessness I often felt as I both researched and wrote.”

Her advice for those who are in despair right now? “Find something that makes you smile and consume it,” Stone says. “A couple of those things for me are Samira Wiley’s and Lauren Morelli’s Instagram pages. Their story is a reminder to me that there’s hope. That there is love and beauty in the world and that there are things worth fighting for.” She says she does have hope that we’re moving toward a more just future. “I say that just from looking at the past and seeing how far we’ve come. Because we’ve come far, y’all. Is there ‘a ways to go,’ as my granny used to say? Yeah. But progress is progress. That we would continue to press on. Otherwise, what’s the point, you know?”

In addition to her public speaking engagements, Stone will speak to students and staff at Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools.

Tayari Jones. Publicity photo

Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

March 24, 2pm at Central Library and 4pm at Omni Hotel

A woman and man meet in college, fall in love years later and marry. After 18 months of marriage, the man is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. This is the premise of Tayari Jones’ fourth novel, An American Marriage.

The idea began to take shape when Jones was awarded a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship to study the collateral effects of mass incarceration at Harvard. “I read texts, watched documentaries,” says Jones. “I was outraged, but I wasn’t inspired.” A breakthrough came when she was shopping with her mother in Atlanta and overheared a couple in conversation. “I could tell they were in love and they were in trouble,” Jones says. “I heard her distinctly say, ‘Roy, I know you wouldn’t have waited on me for five years.’ And he said, ‘This never would have happened to you in the first place.’ For me, I know I have the raw material for a novel when both characters have a point. So I took the story and ran with it.”

The book addresses racism in the criminal justice system, class tensions, familial strife, intimacy, jealousy, possession and the internal tension of an independent yet married woman. The title, An American Marriage, is perfect for the story Jones tells. But initially she suggested it to her editor as a joke, explaining, “Anytime you call something American it sounds important.” Her editor loved it; Jones wasn’t sure. She told him it sounded “like a book about white people in Connecticut getting a divorce.” He asked her, “Why do you feel like a story that takes place in Connecticut is more American than one set in Atlanta?” She thought about it and realized she’d been called African-American but had never been called American. She sought counsel from her mentor, writer Pearl Cleage, who told her, “If you don’t think it fits, fine, but don’t walk away from it because you think you don’t have a right to it.” And so she ultimately agreed to the title.

Jones left the male protagonist’s name unchanged from the conversation she overheard and named his wife Celestial, an artist who makes elaborate beaded dolls. The idea was inspired by her artist friend who crafts dolls. “Dollmaking is such a perfect metaphor for the challenges of a woman artist,” says Jones. Often when people learn she’s a writer, they assume she writes romances. And when they learn her friend makes dolls, they assume they are baby dolls. As a woman artist, she says, you have to “fight to be taken seriously.” But dollmaking works well as a metaphor in the book, too, Jones says, as Celestial makes dolls for herself and her aspirations while continuing to delay starting a family with Roy, who is ready to be a father.

After Roy is imprisoned, intimate letters written over the course of five years reveal the relationship’s unraveling, damaged by the sorrow and pain of the unjust separation. Celestial’s career takes off, and she finds companionship with her childhood friend, Andre. When Roy’s case is finally overturned and he’s released from prison, Jones brings the three characters together in an unflinching dramatic climax. “I like to have the same sense of breathless anticipation that I have as a reader,” says Jones. “So I let it unfold. My heart was pounding.” She resolves it beautifully, with each of the characters “able to take a new step on a new road that could lead them to the life they want to have.”

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