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2021 National Book Festival Highlights: Fiction

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Welcome to our ongoing celebration of the 2021 Library of Congress National Book Festival! Here, we offer highlights from this year’s treasure trove of programs celebrating the theme, “Open a Book, Open the World.” Whether you’re tuning in for the first time, or revisiting favorites, we hope you enjoy these programs — and that they continue to open the world for you. Make sure to explore the full video collection from the 2021 Festival.

This week, we’re highlighting just a few of our many standout live fiction programs from the 2021 Festival. If you missed any of these conversations, you’ll be happy to know that all are now available to watch and savor on the National Book Festival website.

Alice McDermott (“What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction”) and George Saunders (“A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life”) discuss their new books on the art of writing fiction with Washington Post book critic Ron Charles. Both writers speak on the notion that fiction “is one of the ways we engage our attention and account for others,” as Ron Charles puts it. He asks Saunders and McDermott — who both teach fiction — how their young students “deal with that responsibility.”

“I notice they always are a little relieved when you reassure them that their job is to account for the beauty in life and also the evil, and to be sort of celebratory,” Saunders says. “When we’re young writers, I think we’re a little worried about being perceived as corny — so, a kind of young writer ‘move’ is to hold back on all the positive valances and emphasize the dark, fearful, negative ones. But I notice that my students are always a little relieved when I say, ‘Really, what I want to feel is you there in your entirety, and you like being alive.’ … And I can always feel them being a little relieved, like ‘Oh, good!'”

McDermott agrees. “We go to literature to find out what it is to be human and how to be more human,” she says, and her students “already know that. That’s why they want to try their hand. I think the relief comes in when you tell them, ‘Yes, those lofty goals that you feel a little sheepish about: Those are good things. Go ahead. Go for them.'”

P. Djèlí Clark discusses his new fantasy novel, “A Master of Djinn,” with Amal El-Mohtar, science fiction and fantasy columnist for The New York Times. Clark says the book was “born somewhere between reading Edward Saïd’s ‘Orientalism’ and watching a lot of Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers.’ I think I wanted to write an anticolonial story, and I wanted it to also be a little bit funny if possible — and my innate sci-fi nature kind of whipped all this together.”

About injecting humor into “A Master of Djinn,” Clark says he likes to “put comedy and levity in places, perhaps, where most people wouldn’t think. … And it also became a way where I could talk about intercolonialism and decolonialism and all these other things, and also make it entertaining in some ways, even if it’s a serious topic as I’m trying to tell this story. Because at the end of the day, of course, I want to entertain people as I tell the story, as they get all these other little nuggets as well.”

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois”) and Deesha Philyaw (“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”) discuss their new books with Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent for NPR’s “Code Switch.” During the conversation, Bates points out that their books “focus on both the interior and exterior lives of Black women,” and asks both writers to speak on the importance of that tension in their work.

“I think that, for my protagonist in the book, there’s very much a tug of war between what is expected of her and what she wants to do,” Jeffers says. “And I think that we still live in a time where young female-identified people are forced to make a choice between what they want for their lives, what is going to make them happy and what is going to make the community happy, or their family happy. And so that tension is in the book because I’m not really sure I know any Black women who don’t feel this sort of tension between what is expected of them by the community.”

Philyaw adds, “You know, my book wouldn’t be my book if women weren’t grappling with that [tension], because that’s how so many of us have been conditioned: that our position is to serve. Our position is to think about everyone else and then ourselves last. That we are sacrificial. And what I consider small acts of self-assertion and agency are considered radical or rebellious in the larger culture when Black women put ourselves first.”

Near the end of the conversation, Bates asks Jeffers and Philyaw to complete this sentence: “If my readers get [blank] from this book, I will be happy.” About “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” Jeffers says: “I would say if my readers get Black love from this book, I will be happy.” About “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” Philyaw says: “If readers get that they are deserving of freedom from my book, I will be happy.”

You can watch programs from the 2021 National Book Festival on our National Book Festival website. For up-to-the-minute Festival news, highlights and other important information, subscribe to this blog. The Festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You can support the Festival, too, by making a gift now.