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Festival Reflections from an Author Escort

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David Fernandez-Barrial has been an author escort at the National Book Festival since 2009, and worked before that representing the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress pavilion at every festival from 2003-2008. He is currently the foreign-language librarian of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. In this Q&A he shares some of his experiences and memories as an author escort.

How would you describe the role of an author escort?

An author escort at the National Book Festival is the person tasked with making sure that the writers who are the invited guests of the Library make all their scheduled stops – from press obligations, presentations and book signings. An escort also navigates an author through the festival crowds and making sure that they have everything that they need to make it the best event possible for them. An author escort is an ambassador for the Library of Congress to that writer and to festival-goers. As a librarian who cares about our institution, it’s easy to impart some of the immense cultural value of where we work and the good that we do daily as employees of the LoC.

Mario Vargas Llosa at the 2012 National Book Festival
Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa at the 2012 National Book Festival
What is your most memorable National Book Festival experience?

I’ve had many memorable moments. One that looms large was escorting the living legend, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa and his son Álvaro, who is also a writer. I attended a reception with them both, showed them the unique 1507 perspective of the Americas present in the Waldseemüller map on display in the Jefferson Building, and spent time with them and their friends, around a table, with great food and incredible views. There were a number of moments in that adventure where this man – the Nobel laureate who honestly deserves his accolades on the basis of his 1981 masterpiece La guerra del fin del mundo (“The War of the End of the World”) alone – was having a number of fascinating conversations with other authors at the Festival, who were all gushing like children to meet him. I recall asking him about Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite authors, who Vargas Llosa met and interviewed on multiple occasions. To be able to converse about politics, culture, even in an off-hand way with this man, was one of the highlights of my career at the Library.

What are some of the other National Book Festival experiences as an author escort that stand out?

I have been very lucky with the authors I have shown around over the years. With some, I encouraged them to walk in the crowds to get a feeling of the event as a spectator. In most cases, they could walk along anonymously and could only but be impressed with the love of books and writers on display. It says something wonderful about our country that we can put on such an impressive literary event, year after year.

Cedella Marley at the 2011 National Book Festival
Cedella Marley at the 2011 National Book Festival
Escorting Cedella Marley – Bob and Rita Marley’s firstborn daughter – was a lot of fun, because she and her family are from Miami, where I am from. She is a singer, fashion designer, author, and CEO of Tuff Gong Records. I embarrassed her, because I remember seeing her perform in the Melody Makers, which dated her. She and her husband and her kids were a pleasure to spend time with; a sort of homecoming for me in the middle of DC. I was navigating a formidable Marley entourage in that Festival, which to me was a pure honor. And it was nice to be able to get Bob Marley’s grandson a smoothie…because, well, he is Bob Marley’s grandson. For a fan of reggae, that was a big deal right there.

Two poets, Phil Levine (who recently died) and Albert Goldbarth were unquestionably the most entertaining. They both had an incredible great sense of humor. For some reason, the poets are the most fun to escort because of the obvious love of what they do, and their unflinching courage in putting forth their own artistic vision and projecting patterns of thought on the world. That involves a level of intensity that becomes contagious. Great conversationalists, both of them.

The incredibly gracious Pat Mora, the author and poet, was another definite highlight. She reminded me of a favorite relative – a person you admire, who is distinguished, giving, and very caring who can make everyone feel comfortable, make everyone feel welcome.

Esmeralda Santiago impressed me with her attitude and poise – resilient, humorous, powerful.

Gilbert Hernandez – comic book author and graphic novelist whose Love and Rockets magazine was part of my teenage years, was yet another. Funny and down-to-earth, with a punk aesthetic that has ripened, but which has not been abandoned.

Perhaps the most moving experience occurred last year, which was a culmination of my author escort role in many ways. Ilyasah Shabazz, author of several books and daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, was shown so much love by the crowd – huge crowd of people of every background, young and old. To be able to be next to her and feel the love from people of all walks of life, from every corner of the earth, was something I was lucky to be a part of. Things just seemed to happen, almost magically.

And the 2004 Book Festival, which coincided with a vocal anti-war protest concert on the Mall, brought together a diverse crowd in an atmosphere that was ultimately electric, ultimately American.

I actually can’t wait to find out who I got this year.

The theme of this year’s Book Festival is “I Cannot Live Without Books.” Tell us about a book you cannot live without.

If I had to pick one volume to have on a desert island – and this will sound strange, but as a librarian surrounded by books every day, I’ve thought about it quite a bit – the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary would be a my pick. A good dictionary is much more than a book of words defined. A dictionary captures our combined history, philosophy, science, art – all through a given language. It encapsulates a world; our world. (Obviously the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary would be ideal, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate fits the bill nicely). If I was on a desert island or putting together a future world, I’d want that book around to refer to the past, and to build from that past the best of what we have within us. In much the same way, the National Book Festival as an event points to some of the best that we have in us, collectively. Authors and their fans, sharing the same space, united in the love of books, all of them bringing their individuality, but still equal partners in culture.