Gaithersburg Book Festival (GBF), Saturday May 20, 2017
The GBF is a tribal festival for those who love good books and who also love to share their passion with others. The 100 or so invited authors ground the day in focused readings, presentations, and dialog with attendees. The Politics and Prose enterprise from DC uses a big tent as a bookstore devoted to the specific books being presented by their creators that day. It’s a great pleasure to purchase a book there after an author’s presentation, and then meet and talk with the author in a designated book-signing area.
This was my third year in a row attending this one-day celebration of contemporary authors and their readers. Two of my sisters drove all day Friday from western New York state to attend the festival and enjoy a comfortable weekend of family companionship with my spouse and me at our home in neighboring Derwood. They had ventured down for this occasion two years ago as well. Our ongoing involvement since then in our family book group was keeping our shared love of reading alive and well.
The experience of the GBF is akin to attending a summertime “Chautauqua” — an old-fashioned fair-like environment in which the lead attractions are current writers and their latest books. Within this rich, creative environment, human encounters occur, discussions are entered into, and new ways of thinking and experiencing are articulated and shared.
I’m going to share a subjective account of my experience of the 2017 GBF. By way of disclosure, I’m a 67-year-old recent retiree who has taken up creative writing as a hobby. My youngest sister, Anna, is a devoted teacher and librarian at a public grade school, and my middle sister, Marian, is a working mother who is about to retire from a career in accounting and finance. Our family book group, conducted monthly via conference call, has brought us together in deep and beautiful ways over the past year.
Not the Cleaver Family
The three of us have each studied the Author Presentation Schedulefrom the professionally rendered GBF website. The schedule is a full-page 10X8 grid of locations, authors, and start-times. Our first destination is the James Michener Pavilion, consisting of a large white tent, open at the sides and front, with a speaker’s table and dais at the far end and with metal folding chairs arranged in neat rows from the entrance. It’s just after 10 AM and a short, vivacious, middle-aged, brown-skinned woman is enthusiastically speaking about her current family life in the upscale Chevy Chase suburb of Washington, DC.
Her name is Maria Olsen and she is a “mixed race” (Filipina/Irish) mother of two Anglo-looking children. She’s a lawyer as well an author, and also hosts a weekly FM radio show on her special topic — the radically changing demographics of the American family. She shares personally, and painfully, about how often she is mistaken for her children’s nanny, or hired housekeeper. She says that the challenge of being “other” is what drove her to a deeper investigation of what she calls the “beige-ing” of America. The fruition of her work is her short, illustrated book, “Not the Cleaver Family — the New Normal in Modern American Families”.
Ms. Olsen is a dynamic, well-organized speaker and uses her half-hour to positive effect. She speaks not only of the growing ethnic and racial mixing in families, but also of single-parent families, families led by same sex couples, the growing number of “singleton” (one child) families, and families who adopt or sponsor foster children. She goes beyond espousing tolerance to positively endorse the rich, variegated, human environments that we are creating within this large multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-sexual society. She speaks with the authority of incontrovertible demographics: in 20013, white children under 5 years old were a minority among all American 5-year-olds; by 2043, less than 50 percent of the US population will be white.
My sisters and I are taken in by this warm, smiling, intelligent woman. My wife and I, both white, adopted Afro-Brazilian children in 1998 so this territory is already familiar to us. We have family members and close friends who also occupy some of the “other” demographics Ms. Olsen describes. “Leave It to Beaver” was a favorite childhood TV show for us in the 1960’s, even though our gritty working-class family life was a far cry from that of the Cleaver family on TV even then. I leave the tent inspired by this unabashedly enthusiastic affirmation that the rich diversity of American families will continue to grow and prosper despite temporary, reactionary, fear-based attempts to ostracize and demonize “the other”.
The Good at Heart
The second author we visit is a German-born woman, Ursula Werner, a local lawyer and published poet, who has just written her first novel, “The Good at Heart”. The title comes from Anne Frank’s diary, in which the Nazi-persecuted and pursued Jewish girl writes: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
My sibs and I are children of a 2nd generation German-American father who was a sergeant in the American army fighting the Germans in northern Africa, Sicily, and Italy during World War II. We had many uncles and family friends who were also WW2 veterans, and our parents met at an American Legion social event in Buffalo, NY, right after the war. War stories and lore were the lingua franca of many of our family gatherings. Two of the books we had read together in our book club this past year — “The Boys in the Boat”, and “The Nightingale” — one non-fiction, the other a novel — were set within the wrenching history of that horrible bloodbath. How could we not be drawn to a new novel that dealt with the author’s own German family living through that conflict as subjects of the Fuhrer?
Ms. Werner was given an eloquent introduction by a young lawyer colleague and friend, a Jewish man who testified to his friend’s deep passion for human rights. Born in Germany, she grew up in Florida. She maintains a relationship with her family in Germany and visits there often. She had long been curious about her great-grandfather who was an economist who had served in the government of the Weimar republic and subsequently as an assistant cabinet member in the Nazi government. He had been arrested by the Allies after the war but was acquitted at his trial. No one in Ms. Werner’s family was willing to speak much about this great-grandfather and Ms. Werner herself feared the worst — that he had been an ardent Nazi. But she persisted in her attempts to get her German family to share more information and finally, one of her cousins steered her towards a box of old documents in her Hamburg basement. Those documents proved to be the legal papers in which her great-grandfather and his lawyer made a credible case for his having kept himself apart from the worst excesses of the Nazi atrocities.
Ms. Werner has used that basic information to construct what sounds to be a highly riveting novel. She read from a chapter in which Franz, a son-in-law and career soldier, is part of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. Until that point, Franz has sworn allegiance to the Nazis and their call to revive German nationalism. The brutal excesses of the Polish invasion sicken Franz and he begins turning against the Nazis, eventually joining one of the anti-Nazi resistance cells that actively plot assassination of Nazi leaders.
Having recently watched the classic film “Judgment at Nuremburg” for the third time, I had concluded that no German officials of the Nazi era were wholly innocent of the atrocities committed by the government, SS, and army. Ms. Werner was making a case that there were many shades of gray, and that it was worth taking a deeper, harder look at the historical records. She believes in the importance of knowing the worst of what occurred, but also of investigating those incidents in which many brave Germans attempted to thwart the monstrosities of the state.
At the end of her presentation, my sisters and I looked at one another in unspoken agreement that we definitely had a candidate for our book group. I rushed over to buy a copy of the novel and got in line at her signing table afterwards. I congratulated Ms. Werner on publishing her work and told her a little about our book group. After carefully inscribing my copy, she looked at me and said that she would be happy to speak on our conference call meeting if we chose her book. I felt a kinship with her in that moment and shared her offer with my sisters. They had already purchased the book themselves.
The last author event we attended had an interview format. Hannah Lilith Assadi is a young, pretty, articulate graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She recently published her first novel, “Sonora”, loosely based on her own life growing up near the Sonora desert in Arizona, the daughter of a Palestinian father and an Israeli Jewish mother. She was interviewed by the Armenian-American writer, Garine Isassi, who had read “Sonora” and had many engaging questions for Ms. Assadi.
Author and interviewer established an immediate rapport from their shared sense of growing up as “the other”. Most of Ms. Assadi’s Arizona schoolmates and family friends were white Americans, with little previous contact with either Jewish or Arabic people. Ms. Isassi’s family were the only Armenians in their small Texas town. Both women spoke of their confusing attempts to gain a sense of identity and place within communities which largely held them as invisible at best.
Ms. Assadi read from “Sonora” and transported us to the hot, dry, windy domain of the Southwest desert where her taxi-driving father would often take her to find a sense of home. The young heroine began having bizarre visions and nightmares from these desert forays. One of her classmates is an Apache girl who shares her feeling of being an outsider. They strike up a close friendship that culminates in both setting out for New York to seek their fortune as creative artists.
The interviewing format worked superbly for this presentation. I appreciated the genuine affection and interest that Ms. Isassi exhibited to her younger colleague. At the end, Ms. Assadi shared her own deep scholarship and love of contemporary Middle Eastern poetry — Arabic and Jewish. My sisters and I were taken with the rich, evocative prose-poetry of “Sonora”, and even more so by the opportunity to hear both women speak so openly and honestly about their struggles to claim their identities as authors.
Another highlight of this year’s GBF for me was connecting with other writer friends. I’m a member of the Maryland Writers’ Association (MWA) and enjoy hanging out at our organization’s table on the festival grounds. I had an inspiring connection there with Randall Luce, a local author who has written a series of mystery novels set in the Mississippi delta. I’d met Randy at previous MWA meetings and admired his soulful expressiveness and rich facility with language. At the MWA table, I had a chance to hear about the inspiration for his Mississippi novels – the years he had spent living there as an anthropology graduate student, working on his dissertation about the local history and culture.
I also connected with my writing buddy Mark and enjoyed a picnic lunch with him. We shared a table with a man my age who was reading that day’s Washington Post. The three of us had a lively discussion about the current political circus in town.
I drove home with Anna and Marian late that afternoon tired but happy. The three of us were bubbling over with stories about what we had seen and heard. The Gaithersburg Book Festival had exceeded our expectations once again.
John Bayerl, Derwood, MD