Pop-up bookstore at the Literary Women Festival of Authors. Photo by Sarah Bennett
They might hide behind thick, hardback covers and words so sinewy you can’t help but keep reading, but authors are, underneath it all, just like many of us: inquisitive chatterboxes, compulsive storytellers and, despite their best efforts, occasional procrastinators.
At least that’s what I learned at the 32nd Literary Women Festival of Authors, a day-long conference for book lovers that’s nothing short of a Long Beach bibliophile tradition.
Held this year on Saturday March 1, more than 800 voracious female readers (okay, and a few men, too) from Long Beach and beyond arrived at the Convention Center bright and early, giddy with excitement. The first author, New York Times journalist Denise Kiernan, didn’t start speaking until 9:15AM, but ladies began showing up at 7AM anyway, ready with nametags that had been mailed to them weeks prior and a mind ready to sponge up the day.
More than 1200 people applied for a seat this year’s festival, many of them returning their stamped-letter requests (the only way to do it) within hours of receiving Literary Womens’ registration announcement in their mailboxes.
For a certain set of people—including but not limited to Long Beach Unified schoolteachers, Long Beach librarians, Cal State Long Beach writing majors and local book club members—the Festival of Authors is one of the most sought-after events in the city.
It started in 1982 when two mothers were appalled enough at the lack of lady authors on the Wilson High School required reading list to do something about it. In an effort to raise awareness of talented female writers from around the country, the Literary Womens Festival of Authors began with a few guest speakers and around 200 attendees in a conference room at the Downtown Long Beach Hyatt.
It has since grown to take over four meeting rooms, two men’s restrooms (converted into women’s bathrooms for the day) and the entire Grand Ballroom on the Convention Center’s second floor. Today, Literary Women also funds scholarships for new female writers, gives money to local school libraries and even has a growing collection of donated lady-authored books at the Long Beach Public Library.
“Watch when they open the doors,” one of Literary Women’s 25 volunteers told me that morning as I stood aghast at the heaving line forming outside the ballroom entrance. “They rush in like a swarm of hornets.”
The ballroom is set up like a massive gala with circular tables spread throughout and two podiums placed atop stages that bookend the space. For the first hour and a half and again for another hour and a half after lunch, invited female authors from all edges of the world and writing spectrum take to these podiums and give 45-minute talks, to which the audience clings on every word.
Sometimes, the talks are serious, like Karen Connelly’s, which touched on her times spent discovering, then writing about, then being blacklisted by the corrupt Burmese military regime. Other times, they are narratives in their own right—a run down of how an author got a particular story (like Denise Kiernan’s), a summary of a Greek epic that inspired their own fiction work (like Madeline Miller’s), or a driving plot with character arcs and mixed metaphors centered around their career trajectory (like Susan Orlean’s).
No matter what the subject or who the author is, however, the talks are always inspiring, giving glimpses into the minds of some of the best contemporary female writers, glimpses that would be forever unavailable from just reading their noted works.
Of course there is time allotted between talks for mingling with fellow word lovers, and book-buying at the on-site pop-up store, but right before lunch, attendees must choose from one of three “breakout sessions,” which are held in the meeting rooms off the main ballroom. These are a chance to spotlight female writers specializing in more niche works—from thriller to romance to poetry—to a smaller, devoted audience.
While most authors need to be flown out to Long Beach to speak at the festival, this year’s breakout sessions featured a rare local flair, Poly High School grad Kristiana Kahakauwila, whose debut book of short stories, This Is Paradise, has been highly praised by everyone from Oprah to NPR.
Though her book includes stories written about Hawai’i after she returned to live in her father’s native land, Kahakauwila spoke of how important it was for her to have grown up in Long Beach, the city that first helped her think about race, about what it meant to be a Polynesian living in the continental U.S.
“I knew I needed to think global to think local, which is not a hard concept in the most diverse city in the country,” she said.
Long Beach was also the city where Kahakauwila was first introduced—through her 11th grade Poly English teacher—to Joyce Carol Oates, the author who inspired the young writer to pick up a pen and also the woman who would later become her mentor at Princeton.
In a way, Kahakauwila represents everything that the Festival hoped to achieve, her mere presence on the schedule the first evidence that its 32-year-old dream of supporting female authors has come full circle. Kahakauwila is proof that community members can make a drastic change in education, that those changes can inspire a new generation of students, who will, in turn, inspire others to do the same.
“I’m so thankful that I had access to these female authors at school,” Kahakauwila said to Festival attendees during her breakout session that day. “This is a moment that was made possible by Literary Women—and that is something very powerful.”
For more information about the Literary Women Festival of Authors and to get on the mailing list to receive registration material for 2015’s festival, visit literarywomen.org
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