LA Times Festival of Books showcases live poetry readings, cooking demonstrations
Esmeralda Bermudez moderated a discussion with Sandra Cisneros, the author of “Puro Amor,” during the first day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The festival took place at the University of Southern California’s campus from Saturday to Sunday. (Kanishka Mehra/Daily Bruin)
By Kennedy Hill
April 14, 2019 4:12 p.m.
Festival weekend calls for celebrities and good music – and thousands of books.
The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books returned to the University of Southern California campus from Saturday to Sunday, continuing its annual tradition of literary-focused programming. Hundreds of vendors in tents lined the festival passageways, including local bookstores, independent artists and LA-based food trucks. Alongside various booths, the festival featured free performances of poetry, music and other art forms among stages scattered throughout the campus. Although the festival displayed works from an array of creative disciplines, its main focus remained on books.
“The LA Times Festival of Books is this huge gathering of huge literary luminaries from around the country, and also internationally, that converges in Los Angeles,” said Eric Newman, a lecturer for the UCLA Department of English and an attendee of the festival.
As the festival sprawled its reach across the venue, it also expanded its programming. The poetry stage featured live readings from poets such as Jericho Brown and Terrance Hayes throughout the day. A short walk led to the main stage, which featured interviews with authors such as Sandra Cisneros. With a setup reminiscent of a Food Network competition series, a cooking stage offered tutorials from cookbook authors whose specialties ranged from Mexican cuisine to traditional Jewish dishes.
Alana Newhouse, the author of “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List,” was joined by Jewish actor, Joshua Malina, as she taught attendees how to make her version of matzo brei. Her book delves into the culinary traditions behind Jewish dishes, and Newhouse said many people are unaware of these long-held traditions’ origins. Newhouse said her mother, for example, had followed a pot roast recipe that said to cut off the corners of the roast to release its juices, only to find out years later the corners were removed so the roast could fit into a small pan.
Although the dishes from the cooking demonstrations were not for sale, over a dozen food trucks catered to the public. Selections covered an array of dishes, offering organic, vegan food at one truck and Philly cheesesteaks at another. New Orleans-inspired Cajun and sushi burritos could also be found along the outskirts of the venue.
Outside formal readings and proctored discussions, literary discourse emerged near the vendors’ storefronts. Independent authors offering elevator pitches and C-SPAN’s live broadcast of the event were interspersed in aisles of book vendors and comic book artists. The festival catered to many facets of literature, including young adult fiction, aviation-based comics and religious texts. Lisa Kwon, an attendee, said the festival brought together people with common sentimentalities toward books and also exposed patrons to different mediums of artistic knowledge.
“A festival like this invites people to open up their interests wandering in new tents, or have your day wide open (to) explore because there are different mediums of knowledge beyond just books,” Kwon said.
Beyond the poetry stage, rhyming couplets were delivered by rap artist Old Man Saxon. He elicited crowd interaction with a series of hot takes on rap culture, from the legitimacy of mumble rap to criticisms of hip-hop’s golden era. Now known as the homeless rapper, Saxon discussed how he released an album full of lyrics regarding the 13 months he lived out of his car. There is a taboo in rap culture to talk about struggle while one is still in it – a notion he aims to challenge, Saxon said.
Despite its numerous free events, ticketed conversations covering topics such as psychological thrillers, the popularity of podcasts and the legacy of Shakespeare, served as the festival’s main sources of literary engagement. Roxane Gay, the editor of “Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture,” and “Shout” author Laurie Halse Anderson discussed the use of literature in advocacy for sexual assault victims. Poet Morgan Parker and Damon Young, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays,” examined how the black experience is conveyed across the scheme of literary genres.
Volunteers passing out newspapers and shopkeepers advertising low-priced novels reinforced the purpose of the event: supporting books. Kwon said the physical printing of books helps to preserve memories and current history, and the thousands of people who attended the celebration demonstrates literature’s lasting impacts.
“People seem to think print is dying, and I think that’s very much a myth,” Kwon said. “I feel like we have a lot more accessible means of printing books … and I think there’s something still so special about being able to do that in a time of digital.”