Leave it to a poet to get to the essence of the 2021 San Antonio Book Festival.
“Closing the emotional distance? That’s what I do. As a poet, that’s what I do,” said Martín Espada from his home in Brooklyn, where he is looking to help close distances created by the coronavirus pandemic by virtually visiting the all-online festival.
Espada is one of 200 guest authors scheduled to appear on the book festival’s website April 9-11 for three days of mostly free virtual programming. With so much to choose from, the website offers search tools and bookmarks for favored events.
Though the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the cancellation of the 2020 event and the move online for the 2021 festival, one advantage gained is an expansion from one to three days and from 125 authors last year to 200 this year.
Clay Smith, the festival’s literary director, said while the proximity of an in-person festival would always be preferable to an online event, “I still feel sort of connected and warm in my heart and my mind after I’ve attended a good event by a writer who I care about. … There’s still so much to learn from writers, whether you’re meeting them in person or engaging with them online.”
The festival will employ an online platform with features including group lounges, chats, and Q&A capabilities, to foster conversation among attendees and interactivity with authors, Smith said.
“I really think of San Antonio is one of my communities,” Espada said by phone. “I have some roots … in the community of poets there,” he said, mentioning Naomi Shihab Nye, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and San Marcos poet Cyrus Cassells.
The social justice-oriented poet Espada will connect with San Antonians via videoconference twice, as a conversation partner with Guerrero for her new collection, I Have Eaten the Rattlesnake, April 10 at 4 p.m., and earlier that day at 1:30 p.m. for his own book Floaters: Poems.
The title of his book refers directly to an epithet used by a Border Patrol agent to describe a photograph of migrants – a father and his 23-month-old daughter – who drowned in 2019 while attempting to cross the sometimes treacherous Rio Grande. The insensitivity of the term struck Espada as dehumanizing, and his titular poem, quoted here, attempts to restore the humanity of such victims, firstly by recognizing their names:
“Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos.”
Regarding immigration in general, Espada said, “we could talk abstractions all day, we could talk about numbers, big numbers. And they mean, far, far less than the ability to give history a human face, to give history eyes, and a nose and mouth, and a voice, and most importantly, names.”
He continued, “isn’t it interesting how, once people saw that photograph they began using those names as if we had been on a first name basis with each other, and that emotional distance had been crossed.”
Historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello, but her editor had long been asking for a book on her native Texas.
With On Juneteenth publishing May 4, Gordon-Reed obliges by tracing the history of the important holiday from its origins through the present day. An ancestral connection through her great-great-grandmother Minerva Mills, who had been enslaved, allowed her the opportunity to approach history through a personal lens.
“We thought that it would be good to … write around [Juneteenth], to tell the story of the day, but also talk about all of the influences that led up to it, the development of slavery in Texas and the aftermath, and tell it through the story of my family history,” she said.
“It was a way for me to do a kind of writing that I’ve wanted to do, which is different from straight history, that has a historical element but also the personal element.”
Celebrated annually on June 19, Juneteenth began as a commemoration of the day Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to declare all Texas slaves free and to be given “an absolute equality of rights.” This was, of course, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and it testifies to the fierce independence of a state that once declared itself a sovereign republic and fought to preserve slavery.
As a kid growing up in the small East Texas town of Livingston, the Juneteenth holiday “was just a day to drink soda pop,” go to church, gather for barbecue, and eat her grandmother’s hot tamales. Independence Day was for everyone, she said, but the June holiday celebrating of freedom and independence was “just for us.”
Though Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980, Gordon-Reed said she supports having a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S.
“That was not my intention when I wrote this book,” she said. But “I think it would be a good thing. I think we should have a day.”
Gordon-Reed will speak with moderator Peniel Joseph on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Another Texas native, Rick Bass reflects on the landscapes of his home state in a series of essays titled Fortunate Son: Selected Essays from the Lone Star State, after the Creedence Clearwater Revival song that rails against class inequality.
Bass called the song “an anthem for every generation, timeless in that message that some people are born with the silver spoon and some aren’t.”
Though now living in Montana, Bass spent 18 years growing up in Texas and said he still considers himself a Texan going on “63 years and a month at last count.”
He said the state imprints itself indelibly on a person’s consciousness. “I don’t think anyone from Texas who’s ever traveled beyond the state lines has ever for a moment forgotten that they’re from Texas. And that’s a wonderful thing,” he said, nearly quoting fellow author Stephen Harrigan, who wrote the Texas-sized tome Big Wonderful Thing, released in 2019.
As an ecologically minded writer, Bass’s ruminations are sometimes mournful, as when he considers the loss of several species including red wolves, the leopard frog, and snapping turtles, and that so much of Texas land is in private hands.
“Public land is one of the great treasures of our democracy, and I would say further that Texas is impoverished in that regard,” though it does have some publicly accessible spaces he treasures, he said.
Reverence for the natural world is crucial to our humanity, Bass said. “That’s when we are our best selves. The natural world is so much larger and older than we are, and has given us a chance to be a part of it.”
Bass will participate in the “Expert Essayists” panel with Cary Clack and Steven Kellman on Sunday at 3 p.m.
Though not from Texas, Kristin Hannah found it the ideal backdrop for The Four Winds, her new novel set in the era when twin disasters, both human-made, beset intrepid residents of the frontier state.
“Once I started looking into the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, I really wanted to have a part of the story take place on the Great Plains,” Hannah said. Her main character, Elsa Martinelli, struggles first with economic devastation, then with the farm meant to offset it but ravaged by drought.
“That was just such a time of such unimaginable adversity for the whole country,” she said, making the timing of her book particularly resonant with the current moment.
She started on the book four years ago and didn’t see the pandemic – or the winter freeze crisis – coming, but “a lot of the other parallels between then and now were in place,” she said.
“We can always look to history and learn something. There are lessons there to be learned and in times like these right now, it’s particularly great to be reminded that we as Americans have been through really hard times before, and not only survived, but ultimately thrived.”
Hannah will be in coversation with novelist Meg Wolitzer on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, the Future of the Human Race, also was not intended for release during a global pandemic but is perfectly timed with the development of vaccines that make use of cutting-edge gene editing technologies.
Called an “opus” by the New York Times, The Code Breaker places Doudna in the same pantheon as previous creative geniuses Isaacson has written about: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs.
While “the first half of the 20th century was a revolution in physics” led by Einstein, the second half of the century was a digital revolution. Doudna is now at the forefront of the 21st-century “life sciences revolution, in which molecules become the new microchip, and people who know how to digitally code will also have to learn the basics of genetic coding,” Isaacson said.
Doudna was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work developing CRISPR, an RNA-based gene editing technology now put to use in the coronavirus vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The vaccines were developed far faster than previous vaccines thanks in part to the new technology.
“When the pandemic came along, it simply made what I was writing about hit home even harder. It made me realize that the story was even more important than I thought,” Isaacson said.
Isaacson will speak with moderator Shradda Chakradhar on Friday at noon.
A noted podcaster for children, author Mindy Thomas joined with NPR broadcaster Guy Raz and illustrator Jack Teagle on a new science-based book for kids, Wow in the World: The How and Wow of the Human Body, From Your Tongue to Your Toes and All the Guts in Between.
The decision had been made to turn their popular Wow in the World podcast for kids into a book long before the pandemic, “but then once the pandemic struck, we realized how little just people knew about their bodies,” Thomas said.
With the concentration on hand-washing, wearing masks, and physical distancing, “kids were told to do all of these things, but they didn’t quite understand why or how they were going to protect them,” she said.
The book teaches kids what’s inside their bodies and the hows and whys of what goes in and comes out, in lighthearted illustrations and language.
“The human body is fun. It’s funny, and it makes strange sounds and it leaks weird things,” she said, “so we celebrate that a little bit, mixed in with some of the serious science behind how our body works.”
Naturally, the book address poop. While adults tend to avoid the subject, “kids are going to talk about poop no matter what. They’re always going to think it’s funny, so let’s give them some scientific meaning behind poop. What is it? How is it made? How does your body create it? That’s interesting if you do it in a fun way,” she said.
Thomas will speak with co-author Guy Raz and moderator Michele Lepe on Friday at 5:45 p.m.
All of the festival’s books are available through its official bookseller, the locally owned and operated Nowhere Bookshop.