By Jenna Kelly
Iowa City is often referred to as a literary capital of the world. As I’ve only visited once, I can’t be too critical of that claim. One can find small book stores everywhere, especially privately-owned ones. Prairie Lights is famous for being a large attraction for bookworms that still retains its independent ownership; there are titles from up-and-coming authors to those already established, as well as the classics. Add in the independent coffee and snack shops, and it’s a paradise for any pleasure-reader. However, this city declares its proud status during the Iowa City Book Festival. I was fortunate enough to be able to hitch a ride with others from the Coe Review.
Looking at a map, I was stunned to see how large the area was that was deemed as territory for this event. I was expecting the library, a convention center, or even simply a series of conference rooms. Perhaps one, even, to hold this event. I definitely had underestimated a city’s capability to appreciate literature. The realization came to me that there were many buildings hosting the small parts of this celebration. The streets themselves were lined with vendors that sold everything from 1984 shirts to those handing out free bibles. Not only was it over a range of multiple blocks, it dominated this portion of Iowa City for four days. Dozens of authors came to speak on topics from everything to gender in literature to discussing how philosophies on freedom are portrayed.
Even though we only came on Saturday, there was enough packed into those few hours to provide a lot of learning opportunities. I personally attended the sessions Bookstore Blues and Fiction or Fact.
Fiction or Fact had a panel of five artists in the library: Mario Alberto Zambrano, Brian Kimberling and Tessa Mellas, along with International Writing Program participants Nada Faris from Kuwait and Oscar Ranzo from Uganda. I was impressed with the different views provided. The authors were to “discuss how writers use real people as and events and turn them into fiction/memoir”, as the guide states. One of the authors often changed names or events to prevent embarrassing her family (despite admitting to being unusually blatant about her characters and their traits). She said that writing magical realism helps blend truth with mystical facets of fiction. Having the international voices added different perspectives, though: Ranzo claimed that many political writers had to skew the facts to avoid prosecution. The reasons and methods behind altering reality varied with each writer.
Bookstore Blues was a more informal talk with many audience members participating. This was done by Joelle Charbonneau, Robin Romm and John Adams. They delved into the controversy about whether private booksellers will survive the future, and whether Amazon is truly the embodiment of evil for literature lovers. The debate heard here, as well as audience participation, kept me engaged through the discussion and the different opinions that were expressed.
I wish to go again next year. Iowa City instantly came off as a captivating place, and this celebration of knowledge and writing definitely highlighted its intriguing demeanor.
With all the book stores, I think my bank account will begin to regret it.