Kick over any proverbial stone in Connecticut and you’ll find a reader: in trains, cafés, bookstores, dorm rooms, work cubicles, and park benches. Connecticut reads. But, until now, Connecticut readers and writers haven’t had a place to celebrate the printed word. They have found a home at the Connecticut Literary Festival.
On a Saturday morning in October, Real Art Ways in West Hartford hosted the first annual Connecticut Literary Festival to the sharp notes of Bach’s cello suites. Roughly 800 visitors attended this free gathering. The event was produced by the Central Connecticut State University English department and indie publisher Elephant Rock Books. The festival offered intimate discussions, readings, booths, and food trucks. Festival Director Jotham Burrello wanted to create a fun gathering for the state’s readers.
Writer Mary Collins is a member of the festival’s advisory board. “You need the liberal arts, but you also need programs that show how you can apply the liberal arts to the community and to jobs. So, [the festival’s] a great example of having a vision and following through with it, and then coming here today and seeing what Jotham’s pulled together.”
Collins co-authored the book At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces with her trans son, Donald. She hosted the first of many panels at the festival where authors discussed specific topics. Her panel, “Gender Across Genres,” kicked off the day. Three panelists examined how writers are impacted by the evolving understanding of gender in our society. There was a wide range of topics discussed in the panels throughout the day, including “The Lives of Others: Writing About the Real World,” and “Keeping It Real in Young Adult Fiction.” These panels promoted a deeper understanding of literature by allowing festival-goers to hear authors’ thoughts directly and ask them questions.
Literacy is the key to future success. The United States Department of Justice has stated that the connection between academic failure and criminal activity is “welded to reading failure,” and over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. In fact, according to reading aid site, Begin to Read, “two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.” Literary festivals like this one are vital in promoting literacy by providing a fun and welcoming atmosphere for people to open their minds to the written word.
I saw my classmate reading and it has really encouraged me.
A simple way this was achieved was through the festival’s Tiny Reader’s Gallery. This gallery featured over forty different authors throughout the day reading original work. Visitors could come and go throughout the day listening to the ten-minute readings. CCSU student, Marx Chiriboga, spoke about the inspiration he felt listening to the different authors. “I wish I could be up there,” he said. “I saw my classmate reading and it has really encouraged me.”
The Real Art Ways theater featured readings and one-on-one conversations with New York Times bestselling authors Sloane Crosley and Amy Bloom. Bloom read from her recently published novel, White Houses, about Eleanor Roosevelt and “first friend” Lorena Hickok. Conversations with accomplished authors are always enlightening, and this is especially so when they are peppered with the great wit of Bloom. The conversation was moderated by Real Art Ways executive director Will Wilkins. That was followed by a Q&A with an estimated 100 audience members in attendance. One guest asked Bloom about the real-life people who are characterized in her books, and whether she worries about their approval of her representation of them. Bloom spoke about doing extensive research to know the characters well, and how ultimately it is the writer’s novel. But, laughing, she also pointed out that the people in her book have passed away, so she’s not likely to receive any letters of complaint from them.
The highlight for many visitors was the Typewriter Gallery, a room filled with the clacking of punched typewriter keys as patrons got a chance to try out the antiquated machinery for themselves. Kristiana Torres, a writer attending her first literature festival, spoke about her excitement at the opportunity. “I think it’s important for writers both new and not to have the experience with that kind of writing instrument,” she said. “Besides it just being fun to use, the typewriter stresses the importance of thinking before you write. Every stroke is deliberate, and every word is crucial. There’s something beautiful about that kind of careful artistry.”
The main gallery of the festival housed a book fair, or what festival organizers called the Readers’ Marketplace. The steady hum of background voices accompanied eighteen tables featuring magazines, publishers, and literary organizations selling their wares. Vendors included CCSU’s literary magazine Helix, Yale Writers’ Workshop, Fairfield University, Black Lawrence Press, and R.J. Julia Booksellers.
“It’s been great,” said Jaquelyn Andrews, working a booth representing the Mark Twain House. “A lot of people interested in writing, which is great to see nowadays.” The marketplace is a space for writers to learn where and how to submit their manuscripts for publication, and readers can discover new sources of literature to enjoy. There is no sense of high-pressure sales routines or soulless marketing, just readers and writers making connections.
Connecticut’s readers and writers have found a home. “I was overwhelmed by the energy in the room,” Burrello said, “the participants were generous with their time and the community thankful for the multiple programming. We’re already working on 2020. No pressure.”
Andrew Jacobs is a staff writer at Blue Muse.
Headline Photo credit: Noah Hulton.