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The 2020 National Book Festival: Fearless Women

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It’s not every poet who blows a mean sax, but U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo does. She’ll be at the virtual 2020 National Book Festival. We’re hoping she’ll bring the sax. Photo: Shawn Miller.

The 2020 National Book Festival will feature three major threads – “Fearless Women,”Hearing Black Voices” and “Democracy in the 21st Century” – that will anchor the Library’s 20th festival and its first virtual one. The festival’s theme is “Celebrating American Ingenuity” and, as always, the ideas, inspiration and conversations will flow from an array of some of the nation’s biggest names in publishing.

The Sept. 25-27 festival is all online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marking yet another venue for an event that’s been held on the Library’s grounds, the National Mall and the D.C. Convention Center. The all-digital format will mean that you’ll be navigating events on your screen instead of weaving from one conference room to another – or, as many fans like to do, plunk down in one room and devote the day to a single stage of speakers.

But this year’s major themes, the “Timely Topic Threads,” enable viewers to weave from stage to stage, all while following the overarching themes of women’s history, Black perspectives and the changing nature of democracy. Navigating each thread, you’ll be able to follow the topic from fiction to non-fiction to poetry, for example, and through reading levels from children to adult.

“Instead of a traditional book festival setting, where you limit yourself to a genre meant for a certain age group, we wanted to show that you can go from the history/biography stage to the fiction stage to children’s books, all while following themes that reveal what we’re thinking right now,” said Marie Arana, the Library’s literary director.

You’ll also get the chance to talk with authors via  interactive chats throughout each day, from the 25th through the 27th. At the close of the festival, all the live Q&A sessions will be available for those who missed out.

“These are subjects that are on peoples’ minds right now, no question about it, from the women’s suffrage centennial, to governments the world over re-evaluating where democracies stand, to the very compelling Black voices that are at the forefront of contemporary consciousness,” Arana said. “I’m seeing publishing being transformed by Black women being put in powerful positions. It’s quite a remarkable and wonderful transformation.”

For now, let’s talk about the first thread, “Fearless Women.” (We’ll feature the others in future posts.) This features 23 authors on 19 programs, all sponsored by the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.

Madeleine Albright. Photo courtesy of author.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will talk about her new memoir, “Hell and Other Destinations,” a recounting of how she’s thrown herself into several different careers since she left office in 2001. She was asked at the time how she wanted to be remembered; she had, after all, been born in Prague, fled the Nazi occupation as a child, eventually settled in the United States and became the nation’s first female top diplomat. When she left the government, she was 63.

“I don’t want to be remembered,” Albright replied. “I’m still here.”

Since then, she’s written numerous books (seven of them New York Times’ bestsellers), lectured, traveled, started a business, played with her grandchildren and stayed active in political circles. She was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Joy Harjo, the U.S. Poet Laureate and the first Native American to hold that post, will discuss her latest book of poetry, “American Sunrise.” The poems tell the story of the forced removal of Harjo’s ancestors, the Mvskoke people (also called the Muscogee or Creek), from east of the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma, then called Indian territory. Harjo returns to those lands, fashioning poems from both her personal and tribal histories.

Melinda Gates will talk about “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” her 2019 book about her work developing projects for women and girls around the world. The former Microsoft executive is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy. She’s also the founder of Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company that works to drive social progress for women and their families in the U.S. and around the world.

Haben Girma. Photo: Sean Fenn.

And there’s the remarkable memoir “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law,” the story of the first person with her disabilities to graduate from that prestigious institution. Haben Girma, the 32-year-old author and disability advocate, is often called a modern-day Helen Keller for her spirited innovations and achievements, and she’ll be talking about them all.

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. The television special 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.

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