Celebrating 6 Years!!

Dear Readers,
That time of year has come (well, came!) to remember the origins of this blog and celebrate another anniversary. Begun as a pet project and as a way to converse with a scholarly friend, the blog has taken me in greater directions than I could have imagined. Thanks to you, dear readers and writers, for making this blog a worthwhile endeavor. And to anyone thinking of blogging—do it!
Best wishes,


Interview with Journalist Ian Shapira

Today’s post is an interview with Washington Post journalist and fiction writer Ian (pronounced “eye-an”) Shapira. Journalism is its own unique form of writing, and fiction is as well. But is there any overlap between the two? How can one genre inform the other? We will explore this in depth below. I conducted this email interview with Ian, a classmate of mine at the Warren Wilson MFA program, who also shares my conspiratorial sense of humor!

TWOL: Tell us a little bit about your own background in journalism.
IS: I started out in the mid-1990s writing for my high school newspaper, Pandemonium, at the Louisville Collegiate School in Kentucky. My best friend and I were co-editors and we decided to have the staff do all sorts of hard-hitting pieces like testing which was better, Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts. I think we also wrote serious stories — one was about Gorbachev’s visit to the city and I’m pretty sure we covered that. I do remember once that, in haste to make deadline, I misspelled the name of the newspaper in the banner at the top of the front page. “Pandemomium,” it said. Amazingly, “Pandemomium” came out on or about Mother’s Day.

When I got to college, I wrote for The Daily Princetonian, starting out as a news reporter before going on to write lengthy arts and pop culture essays. (Major shout-out to my editor, Marshall Heyman, who taught me so much.) During my summers, I interned as a reporter at a tri-weekly newspaper in Bardstown, KY called The Kentucky Standard (where I shot photos for my own articles and developed them in something called a “dark room”!), The Washington Monthly magazine in Washington, D.C., and The Boston Globe in its Living/Arts section. After graduating from Princeton in 2000, I got an internship in the Style section of the Washington Post. That fall, I was supposed to go Columbia University to attend its MFA program in non-fiction. But the Post hired me and [I ended up] forgoing an MFA program.

TWOL: Even in journalism, the best articles tell a story. How do you shape a nonfiction story?
IS: Whenever I’m writing a lengthy story for the Post, I think first about what point the story is trying to make. Then, I look at my reporting to see if there’s a pithy scene that I witnessed or can reconstruct that would make a good “lead” — the first paragraphs of an article that can draw readers in. From there, I tend to think about stories chronologically. How did it all start? And then go from there. But there’s no single right way to tell a non-fiction story, especially in books and literature.

TWOL: And now the flip side – you are also a fiction writer. How does your background as a journalist shape (or not shape) your fiction?
IS: Let me make it clear: I still consider myself very much of a hobbyist when it comes to fiction. I haven’t even published anything yet. At Warren Wilson, I feel a bit like an imposter, a basketball player, for instance, sneaking into a baseball team’s practice. I will say that my journalism career has given me a natural impulse to write “reality-based” fiction and pursue subjects that I’ve researched well. I have to know the language, the right verbs, nouns and adjectives, what people wear and what they eat. Once I feel fluent in the characters and language of a story, then I can feel like I have the authority and velocity to write. This is true for my journalism at the Post and very true for my attempts at fiction. If there’s any advantage to having been a Washington Post reporter all these years, it’s that I can write pretty fast. I can churn out the rough draft. And once I have a rough draft to work with, then the revision and the re-writing comes. This, frankly, is pretty fun. Especially cutting. I love to cut. (My editor at the Post may think otherwise, but I swear, it’s true!)

TWOL: You’re certainly not an impostor, though every writer feels that way! Do you see any overlap between fiction and nonfiction writing, personally, or are they two completely different things for you?
IS: I think the best narrative journalism tries to achieve the same goals as all fiction — making readers feel something deeply emotional. Short stories and novels are all about the pure story, the poetry of language, but much of journalism, especially in the age of Trump, is about accountability and setting facts straight. These are not so much “stories” but articles. And yet, some of the very best magazines and newspapers — The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, the list goes on — all routinely publish deeply reported “stories” that can feel like fiction but are, in fact, non-fiction. The structures and elements of those pieces will have traditional journalism nuggets like “nut grafs” high up in the article that explicitly tell you why the story is important, and might even give you a bunch of data — information that wouldn’t really necessarily be in a piece of fiction. So, if there’s overlap between the two genres, it’s that we both want to rip your heart out and keep you reading for as long as possible. Let me also add that I don’t think you need to write 8,000-word narrative articles to accomplish this. Some of my favorite “stories” in journalism are not that long at all, maybe 1,000 words or even less. But they still have a narrative arc.

At the Post, we have to be extremely judicious from paragraph to paragraph, making sure that the articles read fast and that we do the best we can to keep readers’ eyeballs moving. I think the same should be true for fiction, especially literary fiction, even “hard fiction.” So, I try the best I can to ensure that my attempts at fiction have a certain level of propulsion and momentum. The risk, obviously, is that you go too fast and you wind up writing stories or fiction devoid of any emotional power and character depth. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Adam Ross, Ottessa Moshfegh, Colum McCann, Sally Rooney, and Elena Ferrante. (I’ve been obsessed with this short story published this year in The Sewanee Review — edited by Adam Ross — called “Beautiful People” by Lisa Taddeo, a journalist/fiction writer.)

TWOL: Very interesting point about tradeoff between speed and emotional depth! With nonfiction and journalism, you already have a narrative arc laid out for you in that you know what has happened, so the task is how you tell it. However, with fiction, you have to create the narrative arc as you go. And also the characters. Can you talk a little bit about this?
IS: One of the reasons I like fiction so much — both as a reader and aspiring writer — is that I don’t know what will happen. I suppose that many fiction writers outline their stories or novels in advance, knowing what they’ll write every step of the way. I haven’t done this yet, mainly to avoid cornering myself and preventing twists and character development that might happen organically, from paragraph to paragraph. In my Post stories, I tend to know where things will go from start to finish mainly because I’ve done so much reporting and have sold my editor on a complete package. But in fiction, sometimes I don’t know where a story will go until I’ve got a rough draft and even then, I’ll take a look at it and say: This stinks. Let me re-write the last two-thirds so the story will end up in this new place.

TWOL: That’s always part of the fun of writing, seeing how a story unfolds on its own in ways you didn’t plan! Any other thoughts or comments?
IS: Since I write all my Post stories in the third-person, one of the things I am doing at Warren Wilson to make myself take even more risks is that I am working on a collection of short stories all written in the first-person. It’s rare that I pen first-person essays for the Post. (My favorite was this one about my late dad and daughter: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/06/11/my-dad-died-one-month-before-my-daughter-was-born-here-is-how-my-family-honors-him/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0bc176212e56.) It feels very new and uncomfortable to me. And the longer I’ve been at Warren Wilson, the more I am learning about the craft of point of view and the pitfalls of first-person. This is where I must thank my first supervisor, C.J. Hribal and my current supervisor, Sonya Chung, for pushing me to make sure my narrators are not over-narrating and being annoying. Which brings me to my final point: I feel so grateful for the friendships and mentorship of Warren Wilson. I learn so much from fellow students, especially during workshop, and I take those lessons and feedback and incorporate them into my own work.

TWOL: I, too, have had to learn a lot about point of view as I had done a lot of academic and social science writing, which requires a very “neutral” or objective narrator. That’s very admirable and bold to take that risk to write in first person. Doing things like that is the sign of someone who is truly committed to art, in my opinion. Thank you, and happy writing, Ian!

The Silver Lining to the #MeToo Movement

Would that it did not happen. Would that millions – no billions – of women did not face some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination or molesting on a daily basis around the world. If only it did not involve power, and women feeling threatened for their jobs or their lives. But unfortunately, this has been a part of women’s lives probably since the beginning of time, and we are in a period where so much of this sexual harassment has come to the forefront, starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It was quite disturbing to see how many of my friends had posted “MeToo” on their Facebook pages, friends from all around the world. So the scale of this problem is immense and acute. But as with any bad or traumatic situation, is there something positive that can come of it? I think so. Here are some thoughts on the silver lining to the #MeToo movement and the spate of cases of sexual harassment that we have been hearing about so much lately.

-It cuts across class and all social differences. Everyone from multimillionaire Gwyneth Paltrow to a waitress at Denny’s can relate. It affects athletes (as we have seen in the Larry Nassar cases), young journalists (think Charlie Rose), seasoned professionals, and women of all colors. Therefore, we see the universality of the issue.

-It normalizes the experience of sexual harassment. Notice that I did not say it normalizes sexual harassment. What this means is that women do not need to feel alone in what they have suffered. One of the most difficult things for any victim of an abusive situation is feeling alone and isolated. Certainly nothing can take away our individual sufferings. But there is some healing that comes when we see we are not alone.

-It brings feminism back to its core values of gender equality and non-discrimination of women. In the recent decades, I feel that feminism has often gotten ridiculous, focusing on dissecting words (i.e. herstory instead of history, which if you know its Latin roots has nothing to do with gender), radical feminism, academic feminism, an obsession with sexuality and sex practices, and everything that is extreme, esoteric, and individualistic. Now that we see the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment, we have to step back and ask ourselves questions about relations between men and women, and how women are treated as a whole in a society. It makes feminism accessible to everyone, not just someone who’s white and upper middle-class in an Ivy League school, or someone funky and pierced and tattooed in San Francisco. Therefore,

-It has a collective impact and makes institutions rethink policies. As above, since feminism in the recent decades focused so much on individualism, we are looking at women’s issues as a whole now and what kinds of programs and policies and rules will benefit the majority of women, and hopefully all women.

-It gets men involved with the discussion. I will say that there are and can be indeed gray areas in terms of male behavior toward women, and a range of behaviors that women will accept. (For example, some women may feel flattered when men comment on their body, but it can depend on whom, and some women may feel extremely harassed by such behavior.) However, men need to be aware of their own actions and behavior, the possibility that they will be misread, informed about respecting healthy boundaries and limits, and calling out other men who do not respect women and abuse their power. Many men are simply not aware of the power that they hold, that they are abusing it, or simply not aware of how women may feel inferior in certain situations. We cannot have a discussion about women without men. This was the great fault of radical feminism, not including men. Not all men are abusers or harassers. Many men are allies and supporters, friends and lovers.

-It has an impact on men who behave badly. They are getting forced from their jobs, positions of power, and most importantly, urged to seek treatment. While we have to be careful not to conduct a witch hunt and immediately oust men without hearing the full story and their side of the story (history is rife with examples of those accused being put to death or punishment very hastily), there are countless cases of multiple women coming forth with evidence against men, or even individual women who have proof. Women need to be believed when they come forward with a report of harassment. Institutions need to trust in them, rather than covering up, as Michigan State so sickeningly did with Larry Nassar. Consider the Stanford rapist case with Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky. After his lenient sentencing of the rapist, people protested and eventually voters in California recalled the judge. This was a successful move by the people and the law. We mustn’t have knee-jerk reactions to things. But we have to understand cyclical behavior in men, the abuse of power, and be aware of the existence of predators.

-Women do not have to feel guilty for their sexuality and sensuality. A woman has a right to be beautiful in whatever way she sees fit, be it high hemlines or a hijab. We need to take the onus off of women for the predatory behavior of men. This is not to say women should not be wise; I am still an advocate of young college women not getting drunk and going off with men at parties or otherwise, and believe in personal responsibility. There is some truth to what Camille Paglia has long said. But a woman should not feel that she does not have the right to express herself just because some creepy man will make comments or make her uncomfortable. Female sexuality holds tremendous power, and that is a universal truth. Men should not punish women or make them and feel comfortable for that power.

Southern Lit: An Interview with Lane Osborne

Today’s post is an interview with a Man of Letters. Lane Osborne is a Lecturer of English at Coastal Carolina University, creative writing fiction MFA student, and Southern gentleman who is one of my classmates at Warren Wilson. I am very much a Northerner in my sensibility and in the places I’ve lived, so I thought it would be interesting to get a broader perspective on the literature from a different region of the United States. I read a number of Southern writers during my second semester, which was a necessary part of my literary education, as I had read very little literature by Southern writers before.

SS: If I remember correctly, you are originally from Ohio, as am I! What took you to the south, and how did you get interested in Southern literature?

LO: My parents worked for the federal government, so two of my brothers were born in Africa, one in Alabama, and I was born and raised in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio. I moved to South Carolina, where my mother’s side of the family is from, to attend college and have lived here ever since. I think my interest in writers in and around this area was simply born out of a desire to understand and appreciate the place I’ve called home for nearly thirty years now—no different than enjoying the local arts, cuisine, or coastal landscape.

SS: It’s always hard to generalize characteristics about a group of people or an artistic movement. But are there some commonalities or characteristics you would note about literature from the South? Obviously, one would be the geography and the place. But what does “Southern literature” mean to you?

LO: Well, “southern,” by definition, does speak to a particular geography, but it’s more than that.
I see place as not only the given topography, but also its history and culture. I generally tend to resist thinking of literature in regional terms, though, because I find it, like any label, a little limiting, especially for those writers whose work is so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that it transcends beyond those borders. However, if there’s one distinction that tends to set Southern writers apart from other writers, it may well be that they’re inherently good storytellers. The oral tradition is still time-honored in these parts.

SS: I think that’s what makes the literature so rich. Who are, in your mind, some of the best Southern writers and why? And are there some great writers who capture the South who aren’t originally from the region?

LO: I admire the work of canonized writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, but there’s also a strong contingency of contemporary writers from the South I really enjoy too like Tom Franklin, Ron Rash, and Jesmyn Ward, whose work Michael Parker introduced me to—himself, by the way, a writer from the Carolinas whose work I also admire for its attention to language and sense of place. And maybe Cormac McCarthy might qualify as a non-native “Southern writer” whose work I’ve enjoyed. He was born in Rhode Island, but grew up in Tennessee, and, I think, still lives in El Paso, where he’s been for years.

SS: What changes have you seen in Southern literature over time? Like, say, if you were to compare 19-century works with 20/21st century ones?

LO: That’s a great question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer for. I can certainly attest that the landscape of the South has evolved in the time I’ve lived here, so it stands to reason that the literature produced in this area has along with it. But it’s not something I’ve been attuned to enough to offer any valuable input.

SS: And of course, there is the elephant in the room: the issue of race and slavery. What can you tell us about that?

LO: Well, they differ slightly in that slavery is a historical feature principally found in the South, while racism remains a current, cultural feature of the entire American landscape—found in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, in a Yale dormitory, outside an Airbnb in Rialto. I feel as though we have a responsibility as writers to address those issues, among others, in our work, irrespective of what region of the world we’re from.

SS: Well said! We tend to label the South as the only region with racism when really, it is widespread. Also, the South is known as the “Bible Belt.” How does religion play out in the literature?

LO: I suppose it depends on the story, the writer, and what he or she hopes to accomplish as to whether or not religion plays a role. I’ve read stories where faith is central in the telling of the tale, and others where there’s no mention of it at all.

SS: Thank you, Lane, for taking the time for this interview!

LO: The pleasure was mine!

Film Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

If there is one film everyone should go out and see right now, a feel-good yet socially meaningful film, it is the new documentary about Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers,” the beloved television host and children’s advocate. Morgan Neville’s film does not waste time going into much detail about the characters in the show or production; rather, it explores the interior life and personality of Fred Rogers, examining his character through his own life as well as the comments of others. The film really revolves around “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” as the representation and platform for Fred Rogers and his message.

What is so unique is that Rogers’s strength was in his quiet conviction. That often-mocked voice belied a Zen calm and integrity that was so powerful in its lack of aggression. Rogers was truly extraordinary for his time: a man who was willing to discuss emotions and feelings, to be genuine and authentic, and who truly treated children with complete dignity and respect and love. He was probably one of the best children’s advocates America has ever known. By listening to them, by validating them and including all of them, he fostered a sense of self-esteem that many critics have misunderstood. By telling children that each of them was “special,” he was not promoting narcissism or entitlement (which is what so much of today’s culture does). What he was trying to do was to make children feel a core of self-esteem and self-worth that was not contingent upon external appearances or achievement, to teach everyone that they are lovable even when they felt flawed. His ideas are worth revisiting as adults.

There are and were children who disliked Mr. Rogers, even when I was small. I can only attribute this to a dislike of that which is genuine, sensitive, and vulnerable. Fred Rogers was kind, by all accounts. He operated from deeply Christian principles, as well as a strong sense of having felt invalidated as a child by family and peers. The documentary so beautifully captures all of the emotions around the man, and his many talents. My one chief criticism of the film is that it could have featured much more about the music on his program. The songs were a major vehicle for conveying his messages of self-love, empathy, etc. and the lovely melodies and jazz arrangements (not to mention that heartwarming celesta that functions as deeply as any olfactory memory) remain in our minds’ ears and hearts even as adults. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment of the documentary is seeing him win over Congress with his sincerity, reading the lyrics to a song. It would also have been nice to hear commentary from other cast members, but perhaps they declined to participate or may be deceased.

In any case, this film is a must see for anyone who grew up with Mr. Rogers and has fond memories of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Or perhaps simply a must-see for anyone in these miserable, hardened, extremist, cynical times.

The 2018 Hay on Wye Lit Fest Part II

Here are some notes on the speakers I heard (due to illness, unfortunately I was not able to attend all the events for which I had registered). I took actual written notes on the two fiction authors; hence, my discussion of them is much longer.

Ian McEwan: One of my favorite modern writers, he addressed the question of how he would write a political novel. He said, were he to write a Brexit novel, he would inhabit the mind of a character – likely a pro-Brexit character, and take a sympathetic position to him/her. He said that inhabiting the mind of a character was imperative, else the novel would sound like a big polemic on the part of the author. This was extremely interesting to me, and has made me think about how to do such a thing in the future. One excellent example is 1984: if we think about it, we come to understand the oppression of society by Oceania only through Winston Smith’s experience of it. McEwan emphasized that we mustn’t treat novels as sociology: they are about particular people.

When asked about screenwriting the recently released “On Chesil Beach” he noted that the screenplay gave him a chance to add scenes that were not in the novel. McEwan also had high praise for the young actress Saoirse Ronan, saying that he sees her now in his characters she has portrayed when he rereads his novels. One very interesting point he made was about the form of the novella, and that novellas are perfect for adaptation. In McEwan’s opinion, Joyce’s The Dead is the most perfect novella ever written, and that it should have not been placed in Dubliners with the other stories. He praised John Houston’s film for being a perfect adaptation of the novella.

About five years back, The Guardian featured an article about McEwan losing his faith in fiction. When asked about this, about what he does when he feels jaded about literary fiction, McEwan said he goes back to an Updike novella with a line that reads something like “cognac…a knight’s move of consciousness” and this detail always inspires him. (I believe the original quote comes from Nabokov.) He also draws on Shakespeare, from whom he finds some phrase or nugget (“fondle the details”) that inspires him. McEwan said to always turn up at your desk, no matter what you feel. It is important for writers to feel a “determined stupor.”

Margaret Atwood: What a thrill to see the grande dame of letters talking on her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale! As always (from what I have seen in interviews), Ms. Atwood was elegantly eloquent and calm, good-humored, and tremendously intelligent and complex in her thinking. The lecture was begun by women who entered dressed as handmaidens in the red cloaks and white habits! She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale was written in conversation with 1984 (as that was the year she was writing her novel), and also with The Diary of Anne Frank and other survivor literature. She also mentioned that the novel was written around the time of the totalitarian regime in Iran, before the Shah was overthrown, the bombing of Afghanistan, as well as the beginning of the AIDS era. Everything has a historical referent in the novel, and she noted that the idea that we never know who’s on our side had cultural relevance. A film was made a few years later, and was launched at the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Berliners read the film politically, whereas West Berliners read it artistically. Not being allowed to read is a historical motif, she said, as there were 19th century discussions on how much education women should have, and also remember the fact that it was illegal to teach slaves how to read. The distortion of Biblical texts is a big part of the totalitarian control of reading. Various regimes and groups all misquote the Bible, Marx, Freud, etc. The novel also has origins in the ethos of the Puritans, who espoused a very rigid worldview and behaved oppressively toward others who did not fit their rules.

Atwood did not spend much time on discussing the techniques in writing the novel, but frankly, I was more interested in the discussion of the politics in the novel relevant to our current times. She did mention that the voice and tone are very strong in the novel, as the voice is so intrinsic to the idea of the plot. Writing and removing passages is what creates voice, according to Atwood. Her use of color-coding dates back to Medieval/Renaissance aesthetics, as the Virgin Mary is depicted in blue (which was an expensive color, given the dyes), and Mary Magdalene is red. She discussed the use of naming of the characters, such as Offred, and how she put Of- with various men’s names. Atwood joked that “Ofkeith” did not sound right! The novel’s heroine’s name also suggests “offered.”

The other major topic of discussion was about the new television series of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I have not seen this, but have heard that it is done quite well. The interviewer asked Ms. Atwood her opinions and feelings about the way in which the television series diverges from the novel. Atwood first mentioned the film made from her novel in 1990, and how she had very little control over that, its release, and the various distribution issues. With this new television series, Atwood has had some input, but she was surprisingly relaxed about the fact that it is out of her control. She simply said that if you have an interpretation of a book that fits, and you can justify it, then it is valid. The end of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” series is not definite, hence why the series is continuing for a second season. Dickens wrote in serial form to keep readers reading, and used cliffhangers! So she understands why the TV series is structured differently than her novel.

Atwood also mentioned that the novel 1984 ends on a positive note: the ending section is written in the past tense to show that Newspeak is over. Thus Gilead ends at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood comes across as extremely well versed in international politics and socio-cultural phenomenon. This talk was extremely inspiring to me, as I have always been interested in the intersection of politics and literature (Salman Rushdie has discussed and of course written much about this). She is not only an important literary figure, in my opinion, but also a cultural figure who always has her finger on the zeitgeist or pulse of current issues.

Simon Schama: It is hard to know what to write on the brilliant history professor (and fellow Columbian!) Simon Schama. He seemed to take the ball and run with it when delivering the Founders Lecture, expounding on many different topics, all under the general theme of how art is what connects us as human beings, and promotes empathy. He cited the example of a well-known woman art historian (whose name escapes me) who encouraged Jewish children at the time of the Holocaust to make art. She then saved many of their paintings and drawings after the children were put to death, and the children’s legacy is something that leaves us hope that art is truly a force for good. Professor Schama also discussed various time periods and cultures throughout history and their creation of art. Schama is a famously animated lecture (an enjoyable contrast with classic British reserve) but also comes across as warm and generous, as when a young woman in the audience who mentioned that she will be attending Columbia University in the fall, she was met with great encouragement by the professor. Schama’s knowledge is simply encyclopedic, and we are very lucky to have such a man of letters.

Martin Griffiths: This Welsh astronomer who has worked for NASA but now spends time with his research and projects in Wales was truly a delight to listen to, not the least for his Welsh accent! Griffiths talked about the overlap between astronomy and Welsh mythology, about the constellations and myths. As someone in the audience pointed out later in the Q & A, it is rare that an astronomer will discuss mythology, combine science and the arts. I found it especially fascinating to learn about Welsh mythology, as it is not something that we have so much exposure to in the US. I also realized how in our modern world we have such a dearth of mythological thinking as part of our daily lives. Growing up as a Hindu, I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) mythology, as it link humans to something much larger, to universal themes and to Gods with extraordinary forces.

Griffiths is currently involved in anti-light pollution work, with Dark Sky Wales, and is a very active lecturer.



The 2018 Hay on Wye Lit Fest Part I

I have been on hiatus, as I was overseas! I had the great fortune to attend the Hay on Wye Lit Fest in Hay on Wye Wales, UK. Sadly, this event is not publicized in the US; I happened to come across it when looking for literature events online six months ago. The scale of the event is massive: 10 days of nonstop speakers in the arts, humanities, politics, music, etc. that draws some of the biggest names in the world. Margaret Atwood (more in a minute) for example, and Bill Clinton many years back. The scope and scale of the event is simply stunning, and I can’t think of a single event to the United States that compares.


The Festival: Dubbed “The Woodstock of the mind” by Clinton, it is indeed a massive, Woodstock-like festival set up in a small village of “tents” in a dairy meadow with walkways between them (in reality, it is really a small village that happens to be covered by very sturdy, structured, tenting material with several auditoriums). The festival, I was told, draws tens of thousands of people, and there is an actual office there that deals with tickets, logistics, etc. as well as a security check. The festival office and staff at the event are extremely professional and organized; they make things run smoothly (which is not an easy task, given the scale of the event. Kudos to everyone involved.) There is a massive food hall that features everything from British cuisine to Spanish to organic vegan to Indian and more. It is a truly socially progressive environment, as they compost and promote a sense of positive energy (one of the stages for events is called the “good energy stage!”)

One of the perks for students like me is that you get five free tickets to events (the festival wisely does not charge a flat rate admission fee, but rather just for the events you attend.) Accommodations book up even a year in advance, so those interested would do well planning far ahead, as many people come from both the region as well as elsewhere in the UK. Many people are repeat visitors, and it is easy to see why.

The Town: The festival is set just outside the town of Hay on Wye, a charming, beautiful little Welsh village that has over 20 bookstores (for real), a book town like you cannot believe — imagine one bookstore dedicated entirely to poetry! Richard Booth’s bookstore is the landmark and I was told the largest secondhand bookstore in the world. Unfortunately, I did not have much time to spend in this beautiful village, but it is definitely worth coming back to. The surrounding areas are gorgeous and hilly, and a bus ride to my inn after dark was simply magical. Foyles of Glasbury (in Glasbury, a neighboring village) is simply my favorite place at which I have ever stayed. A charming inn with just 12 rooms, the beauty, coziness, and also the staff made it a wonderful experience, especially as I was ill for half a day.

It is tricky to stay outside the village of Hay without a car, as though there is a shuttle to the festival, it is not very frequent. I would recommend travelers to hire a car if possible, for it will also allow them to explore the surrounding areas.

Overlapping with the Hay Lit Fest, simultaneously over one weekend, is another festival called How the Light Gets In that focuses on philosophy and music, and attracts such luminaries as Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I did not find out about this until right before I left for my trip, so I did not included as part of my plans. I hope that they too will publicize this event in the US.

Constructive Criticism: One of the logistical drawbacks is getting there. Though only 160 miles from London, it can take over 3 1/2 hours to get there by car, and over 5 1/2 hours to get there by two trains and a bus ride. This is very exhausting, and it is unfortunate that the festival does not run some sort of coach service from London and other big cities. Trying to coordinate accommodations and transportation is quite difficult. There is a local tourism office that is certainly quite helpful, but what is missing is some sort of online forum or chat page on which those of us who are coming from overseas could get in touch with other visitors and try to organize travel plans. It is, frankly, not so well set up for international visitors. The festival organizers would do well to try to make it easier.

My other main criticism is the complete lack of diversity among the festivalgoers. I was there from a Sunday-Tuesday (with Monday being a bank holiday), and while it is possible that people in their 20s-40s were not able to take off the time to go there, to my eye, the typical festivalgoer was older (possibly mid-50s and up), very white, and I am guessing very educated middle to upper-middle-class. There were hardly any minorities in the audiences or events I attended: I hardly saw anyone in their 30s and 40s or younger, with the exception of a couple of college students here or there. There were a few families, as the festival does have quite a number of events for children. The lack of ethnic diversity was really quite surprising to me, and I think the festival organizers really need to work on their outreach. The speaker lineup is wonderfully diverse, however. Given that the speakers are really the cutting edge and forefront of arts and culture, I expected the audience to be. I cannot guess with certainty how many writers there were in the audience, but my impression is that the audience were more literature and culture lovers rather than makers. That said, I did meet some incredible festivalgoers, such as an international AIDS expert surgeon-turned-priest Dr. Anne Bayley, and a London-based Indian woman who is a fiber artist and weaver, Rachna Garodia.