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A Literary Celebration

BY ISAAC HAMLET | OCTOBER 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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Iowa City has a long reputation as a literary center, not only in Iowa, but the entire country, if not the world.

It's in celebration of this reputation that the streets of downtown will be flooded with countless events, all devoted to books. Book vendors will line the sidewalks, and there will be nary a nook or cranny in which an author cannot be found. Which is rather normal for Iowa City.

The Iowa City Book Festival is an annual event entering its fifth year. In past years, it has attracted thousands of people. This year, with the festival moved from summer to fall, the number is expected to be even higher. Now, students who might have otherwise been home for the summer have a chance to experience the festival in its full three days, running today through Oct. 13.

"Given the scope of events — more than 70 events featuring more than 80 authors — there should be something appealing to almost everyone," said John Kenyon, the executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. "It is a great opportunity to celebrate literature in the City of Literature."

These 70-plus events include everything from readings to film screenings to author panels.

"Each day of the festival has its own distinct programming," Kenyon said. "We'll have nearly 30 events that also include dance, music, and demonstrations."

Still, we live in a digital age, a time in which billions of dollars are poured into and reaped from movies and video games. A time in which the Internet offers an infinite source of entertainment, and portable phones and tablets mean that we never need to be without it. So what still makes books so relevant?

"Literature is important because it encourages us to use our imaginations to create worlds that we bring with us through our lives," said Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

"It teaches us to imagine the joy and suffering of other people, instilling within us the compassion that is essential if we are to reach outside of ourselves. It's that act of imagining — the creation that takes place in our mind when we read words on a page — that makes literature unique and indispensable."

Chang will moderate a panel at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., Friday in an event called "Writing in the City of Literature." Appearing on the panel will be three other authors affiliated with the Workshop: Curtis Sittenfeld, Alexander Maksik, and Susanna Daniel.

"There's a reason this town has helped to nurture so many great writers," Chang said. "I hope that our panel will offer insight, humor, entertainment, and a big thanks to those in town who have made it such a great place for writing. I hope that everyone who comes will leave with a renewed understanding of how much Iowa City means to the writers who live here."

Daniel is one such author. Formerly a member of the Writers' Workshop, she returns to the city for the "Writing in the City of Literature Panel." She will also appear on a panel called "A Sense of Place II" at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., on Saturday, in which she discuss the significance of setting in a book.

"I hope to get a sense of how the town has evolved since I moved away and reconnect with what I loved about the place when I was living [here]," Daniel said. "A good book festival is nourishing to the writers and readers who participate in it, an opportunity for the community to gather around a shared passion. I see it as a way for authors who have been supported by the city to give something back."

Just as the festival brings in authors with vibrant histories in the city, it also gathers those who might be less familiar.

Kwame Dawes, a Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet and a professor of English at the University of Nebraska, has had dozens of publications and has been decorated with a number of awards, including the Forward Prize for Poetry, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for best first novel, and an Emmy.

On Saturday, he'll be able to add the Paul Engle Prize, an award given by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature to those who better the world with their literary achievement to his list of achievements. The award is named after Paul Engle, a poet and author who was the director of the Writers' Workshop for more than two decades and was not only vital in making the program as rich as it is, he also cofounded the International Writing Program.

"It is an honor [to be getting this award] because it associates me with a great poet, critic, and advocate for the writing of literature around the world, Paul Engle," Dawes said.

Despite never having been to the Book Festival in the past, Dawes is more than pleased to see that such an event is being organized.

"Any celebration of the book is an absolute necessity in all communities and has my support and encouragement," he said. "We secure our cultural and physical histories through our art, and the art of writing is one of the means by which we do so."

Kenyon pointed out that Iowa City is one of six UNESCO designated Cities of Literature in the world, meaning the city is familiar with literary events.

"It was a challenge to program a festival that would offer something bigger and better than what is on offer every week as a matter of course," he said. "I believe we have done that. The festival also offers the chance to interact with authors who have created so much amazing writing, giving readers a fresh perspective, and hopefully, a deeper appreciation of that work."

Indeed, the festival will be a chance for legions of readers, casual and otherwise, to meet authors, explore new books, and pay homage to an integral part of our culture.

"There's a mysterious charge that comes from meeting an author in the flesh," Chang said. "We're lucky to be living in a place and time where we can see and talk to so many live writers."


>> Click here for an excerpt from Susanna Daniel's Sea Creatures.


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