Saturday, May 19, in Gaithersburg, MD was overcast and chilly all day, with regular, periodic rains. My two sisters from western New York state had driven down the day before and spent the night with my wife and me in nearby Derwood. We all got up early that Saturday to watch the royal wedding. The ceremony felt like a welcome celebration of the new multi-racial, multi-ethnic universe that the Obamas had helped usher in ten years ago. We all reveled in the joyous affirmation of human diversity and human love, embodied in Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. The clear blue skies and bright, warm sun over Windsor Castle also warmed our hearts on that cold, damp morning.
The previous evening, the three of us had studied the rich program that the GBF was offering this year, with ten tent-covered venues and more than a hundred recently-published authors. As usual, we marked our preferred authors and sites on our program sheets to best facilitate our experience.
Politics and Prose
All three of us started our participation in the large “Gertrude Stein”” tent near the entrance to the City Hall grounds in Old Town Gaithersburg. A well-spoken historian, John Binknell, was presenting his new book: “Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856”.
Mr. Binknell prefaced his remarks by saying how often he heard in the media that our current time was the most divisive period in the history of our country. Binknell strongly disagreed with this, saying that the entire decade leading up to the American Civil War was far more divisive and more violent. He proceeded to illustrate his point with a litany of foreboding events in the 1850’s that led to the Confederacy and ensuing war. Things were already so badly divided by 1856 that Binknell asserts unequivocally that had the Republican John Fremont won that presidential election, the Southern states would surely have seceded then.
I stayed on in “Gertrude Stein” for the next author, E.J. Dionne, who is also one of my favorite political columnists for the Washington Post. The tent was filled to capacity (60 or so) by the time Mr. Dionne arrived, accompanied by his interviewer, Bradley Graham, co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookstore in DC. The two had started together as young reporters for the Post many decades earlier and were now good friends. Mr. Graham introduced E.J. as one of the earliest journalistic voices of the political resistance to articulate a coherent response to the Trump agenda. Mr. Dionne’s 2017 book is aptly titled: “One Nation after Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.”
Dionne was relaxed and at ease as he entered the tent from a steady rain outside. He joked with familiars in the audience and spoke appreciatively of his friend Mr. Graham’s many years of work in nurturing the Politics and Prose enterprise, which was co-sponsoring the festival. Dionne reminded us all that “his” book was actually a collaboration among himself, Norman Orenstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Like many of us in the tent that morning, he had been taken off guard by Trump’s victory. Recovering from the shock of it, he had sketched a way for progressive-minded people to organize and fight back, not losing a sense of historical perspective and a basic faith that the American people and traditional democratic values could eventually regain the upper hand.
For me, the most memorable part of Dionne’s talk that morning had to do with his son deciding to do grass-roots political organizing work in Connecticut after graduating from college last year. During his year-long tenure, his son’s progressive community organization succeeded in helping multiple towns to flip from Republican to Democratic control in local elections. Dionne pointed out that thousands of other people, old and young, had been inspired after Trump’s election to work tirelessly for progressive political values. This was a radical new force that Dionne believed could lead to more hopeful election outcomes in 2018 and 2020.
Back from the Brink of Madness
After a welcome snack of coffee and bagel, I walked over to another tent to hear Dr. Barbara Lipska speak about her new book: “The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind – My Tale of Madness and Recovery,” written with the help of journalist Elaine McArdle. I was late and had to stand in the back, but still got a clear sense of the author’s story. Dr. Lipska was a leading brain researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) when she herself developed a malignant brain melanoma in 2015. She described her own descent into both dementia and schizophrenia as the cancer manifested in some 20 tumors on her pre-frontal and parietal lobes. Dr. Lipska said that her behavior became that of a tantrum-ridden two-year-old, completely lacking in motivation, self-awareness, or human empathy. She received state-of-the-art brain cancer treatment, including radiation, immunotherapy, steroids, and targeted chemotherapy. The tumors soon began to shrink and then disappear, and she slowly began to feel and act more like her normal self.
Soon after her recovery, Dr. Lipska gave a famous TED-talk in which she described her ordeal. The video of that talk soon went viral and she became something of a celebrity. Dr. Lipska was able to return to work and continues her research today as Director of the Human Brain Collection Core at NIMH. She is extremely grateful to her family and friends who stood with her through the depths of her illness. She expressed deep gratitude for her return to sanity and the ability to work and love again. The lasting price she’s paid is loss of vision in one eye, weaker physical stamina (she’d been a marathoner and tri-athlete), unsteady balance, and slight spacial disorientation. Dr. Lipska’s message to her audience was lucid and uncompromising: that mental illness is a brain disease.
“Somewhere People” Living Anywhere
I joined up with my sisters again for our last author presentation, which they had selected. It was a panel discussion with a moderator and two Washington-based women novelists: Aminatta Forna and Adrienne Benson. Both of their recent novels (Forna’s “Happiness” and Benson’s “The Brightest Sun”) deal broadly with the lasting effects of trauma on mostly third-world people. The skilled moderator, Susi Wyss, is a counselor and writing coach for women at a local rape crisis center.
Aminatta Forna is a dark-skinned, honey-voiced Afro-British author with a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Scotland. Her father, a medical doctor, worked for the government of Sierra Leone in the 1970’s but became disillusioned with the blatant corruption and resigned. He was subsequently imprisoned and executed. Ms. Forna regards Sierra Leone as her home even though she has lived for long periods in Britain, the States, and elsewhere. She was deeply affected by the recent wars in her country and has contributed to and written about the ongoing healing required in the aftermath of the many atrocities.
Ms. Forna’s latest novel, “Happiness”, is set in contemporary London and deals with two characters, a Ghanaian male psychotherapist, and an American female anthropologist, coming to terms with the challenges of their private lives and their professions. One of Ms. Forna’s core beliefs is that life is inherently difficult and challenging but that human beings, more often than not, are able to find an inner resiliency and a desire to connect that can eventually lead to deep healing and peace. She questions some present-day psychological trends that she believes often serve to pathologize people’s struggles with the inevitable challenges of life.
Adrienne Benson is a self-described “third culture kid” who grew up in Africa where her parents worked a variety of assignments for USAID. Returning to the States at age 16 was the deepest culture shock of her life. It took her many years to acclimate here and she has finally found a home in Washington where she works as a lawyer and is a wife and mother of three young children.
Ms. Benson has become something of an expert on ADHD and how it has affected herself, her family, and our greater culture. This challenging experience has also given her hope that individuals, families, and communities can learn to accept and adapt to behaviors involving loss of focus and of become overwhelmed and mentally scattered.
Ms. Benson’s book is set in a Masai village in Kenya and deals with three women from different backgrounds, all of whom are coming to terms with the core issue of becoming mothers. As with Ms. Forna’s novel, “The Brightest Sun” describes deep and complex bonds of connection and interaction that enable the characters to eventually make sense of their challenges and move forward.
Both women spoke knowingly and revealingly about the difficult adjustments that many third world people, but especially women, have adapting to modernity. Ms. Forna spoke her observation that there are “somewhere people” and “anywhere people”. “Somewhere people” are deeply rooted in a culture and geographical place and feel out of sorts when transplanted. “Anywhere people” also have a cultural/geographical grounding but are able to better adapt to whatever place they land in.
Both authors’ books include characters who have suffered early traumas that continue to affect them in adult life. Ms. Forna worked closely with people in Sierra Leone after the horrible brutality of their civil war. From that experience, she learned just how resilient human beings can be. For while some people remained physically and emotionally scarred for life, a greater number were able to work through their traumas and pursue lives of purpose and meaning.
Susi Wyss did a masterful job finding common themes between the two authors and giving them both ample time and space to articulate their unique visions.
Afterwards, my sisters and I stopped at a local tavern for a late lunch and local craft beers. It was interesting to share and discuss what we had seen and heard. We all agreed that this year’s festival was as compelling as any, despite the bad weather. We participate together in an ongoing family book group and shared possible titles for our group going forward. Once again, the Gaithersburg Book Festival had exceeded our expectations and confirmed our mutual love for good books and the creative lives of the authors who write them.
John Bayerl, 5/28/2018