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2020 National Book Festival: Hearing Black Voices

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The “Hearing Black Voices” topic thread at the 2020 all-online National Book Festival brings nearly 30 authors to speak about some of the most pressing issues in American life, from police brutality to social injustice to soaring literature about the way we live now.

It’s the second of three threads we’ll be showcasing – the other two are “Fearless Women” and “Democracy in the 21st Century” – and like the others, it ranges from children’s books to complex non-fiction, from poetry to fantasy. The festival, running Sept. 25-27, is entirely online this year due to COVID-19, but you can plop down in front of your screens – instead of at a single stage – and spend each day watching some of the world’s biggest names in publishing. You’ll also get the chance to talk with authors via interactive chats throughout each day. At the close of the festival, the live Q&A sessions will be available if you missed any.

Colson Whitehead. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

There are 26 presentations in “Black Voices,” headlined by Colson Whitehead, the two-time Pulitzer winner and this year’s Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction honoree. The 50-year-old native of Manhattan will be talking about how his identity – as an American, a Black man, a New Yorker – shapes his literary vision and what he chooses to write about.

Two of his heroes as a teenager, he says, were the musician David Bowie and the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. He approximated their gifts for reinventing new styles and personas from project to project and, so, shaped a unique approach to novel writing, which varies from genre to genre, from voice to voice and from era to era. “The Underground Railroad,” is a surreal slave narrative, “Zone One” is a zombie novel, “Sag Harbor” is a coming of age story and so on.

“You can definitely say something is Philip Roth-esque and you can definitely say ‘I hear Toni Morrison, that must be Toni Morrison,’ ” said Marie Arana, the Library’s literary director, naming two previous PAF winners. “But you cannot really say ‘I hear Colson Whitehead’ because there’s nothing Colson-esque about Colson. He’s the essence of reinvention every time.”

The science fiction and fantasy category is a marvel this year, with N.K. Jemisin discussing her novel “The City We Became,” Marlon James talking about his “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” and YA author Tomi Adeyemi talking about her sensational West African fantasy epics, “Children of Blood and Bone,” and “Children of Virtue and Vengeance.”

National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds, always a crowd favorite, will talk about “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” which he wrote with Ibram X. Kendi. The latter will also be in conversation with Saeed Jones, author of “How We Fight For Our Lives,” discussing their work combating racist beliefs across American society.

Finally, James McBride and Walter Mosley, two long-time masters of the form, will be here to talk about their latest works.

McBride is a chameleon, like Whitehead. He’s a professional musician who’s worked with jazz greats, written (among others) a best-selling memoir, “The Color of Water,” and won the National Book Award for “The Good Lord Bird,” a fanciful retelling of the raid on Harpers Ferry by abolitionist John Brown. He’ll be discussing “Deacon King Kong,” his newest novel, a darkly comic take on Brooklyn in the 1960s.

Mosley, likewise, has written prolifically over the years in multiple genres. He started out with a mystery series set in Los Angeles (“Devil in a Blue Dress” was the first title) but has gone on to write science fiction, erotica, non-fiction essays and screenplays. He won a Grammy for his liner notes to a Richard Pryor collection and has half a dozen credits as a television or film producer. For his crime novels, he was recognized with the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America (also known as the Edgars), and the National Book Foundation will award him the 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters later this year. He’ll be talking about his newest collection of short stories, “The Awkward Black Man.”

Finally, as a reminder, PBS stations will broadcast “The Library of Congress National Book Festival: Celebrating American Ingenuity,” a two-hour program featuring some of the biggest names at the festival, launching on Sunday, Sept. 27, 6-8 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings) and continuing through the fall. It will be hosted by Hoda Kotb of NBC News’ “TODAY” show and the daughter of a long-time Library employee. The program will also be available for on-demand streaming online and through the PBS app.

Follow the festival on Twitter @libraryofcongress with hashtag #NatBookFest, and subscribe to the National Book Festival blog at

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