This past weekend, Festival America imported a varied and intensely-packed line-up of North American literary figures to Vincennes, a city in the Val de Marnes county located just east of Paris. Since its 2002 inception, this biannual gathering of considerably diverse authors has come to set a global tone for la rentrée (or French back-to-school).
Serving as literary ambassadors from all around North America, this year's roster included 11 authors from Canada (among them Richard Van Camp, Monique Proulx), 33 from the United States (including Dan Fante, Richard Russo, Claire Messud, Nick Flynn, Richard Price), six from Haiti (Yanick Lahens, Gary Victor), six from Mexico (Enrique Serna, Guillermo Arriaga) and five from Cuba (Wendy Guerra, Eduardo Manet).
The authors and poets circulated throughout the Mairie de Vincennes and satellite tents. It was a literary mobilization on all fronts: booksellers, editors, translators, and authors all came together to discuss the cross-section of how one’s literal landscape influences and grounds one’s fictional panorama. The Festival's city-centric panels (from New York to New Orleans; from Portland to Port-au-Prince, to name but a few) sought to capture the specific spirit of place. Authors based in those cities, both natives and transplants, discussed what it means to be “a New York author” or “a Haitian poet”, and the panels just as readily pluralized the points of view as harmonized what being from a particular place signifies.
Some additional offerings of the festival included screenings of films adapted from works of the authors, documentaries about American cities, translation ateliers, and student-specific events. Further themed round-tables (focusing on the topics of family, love, violence, exile, etc.) were sprinkled throughout the program. The moderated exchanges dealt not only with the literary process, but also spurred the inevitable American-versus-European compare and contrast of attitudes, spiking discussions with a healthy curiosity about foreign cultural and literary attitudes.
Overall, Festival America proved to be an ambitious undertaking, and one that, given its short span, did its best to bring the richness of the ever-evolving North American literary tradition to the fore, all while highlighting the importance of cross-cultural exchange on the page and beyond.