The Mississippi Book Festival: A Review©
Averyell A. Kessler
I was halfway through the Southern Hospitality panel at the Mississippi Book Festival when I realized what was really happening. Sheree Rose Kelly, CEO of Belle Meade Winery, and biscuit maker extraordinaire, explained that she learned the baker’s art by standing behind her grandmother’s apron strings. How true, Ms. Kelly. In a nutshell, or perhaps, in a biscuit pan, you’ve just explained what with the book festival is all about.
Last weekend, the Mississippi Book Festival, now in its fifth successful year, sparkled like a diamond in sunlight. For me, it was a gathering of the tribe, of young and old, many races, of home folks and those from far away, of families opening picnic baskets and children scampering of across the lawn, each sharing a love of words, stories, tall tales, and the people who put them on paper. Curiosity too. The festival allows us to stand behind a writer’s apron strings, to observe, question, and enjoy. To learn how they cobble their thoughts together, write, rewrite, and write again, before spreading it out for us to see. Here are our friends, some new and some we’ve known for a lifetime, inviting us in for coffee and conversation. It’s a pull up a chair, sit down and listen up occasion.
So, here’s the opinion of a boots -on-the-ground, joyous reader and writer, book collector, and proud Mississippian. Yes, it was hot. But that’s an authentic August day in the south. The children didn’t seem to mind and how else would I have gathered such an interesting collection of stick fans. What’s a little sweat among friends, especially at a literary lawn party that is dinner on the ground’s times ten. August is summer’s last gasp and I intended to wring out every ounce of its sweet, sticky juice.
For me, the book festival is community at its best, a first-place winner with a blue-ribbon rosette pinned to its chest. It’s an unusual and cheerful collaboration of state and local government, businesses, and private citizens all working together to produce a spectacular event. All saying “this is who we are – take a good, long look. This is our future and our past. Here’s where we’ve been, as well as where we’re going.” The festival is a happy gathering of friends, if only for a day.
If there’s any bad news, here it is – the festival is an embarrassment of riches. So many wonderful writers, an abundance of interesting people, and fascinating tales tossed into the mix, and it’s impossible to see them all. I’d gladly spend another Saturday going to the panels I missed. Deciding among them is difficult, especially when names such as Patchett, Oates, Ford and Sotomayor are included. The most fun for me is discovering a new writer and adding his or her book to the pile stacked on my bedside table. I’ll never work my way through them all, but that’s the point.
Finally, the Mississippi Book Festival is important. Besides being an incredible gift to the community, it’s a star in the crown of our small, poor state whose people are accustomed to black eyes and bruises instead of praise. It’s a puff out your chest, hold your head high, we own the bragging rights kind of day. In addition to the 150+ writers attending the festival, it’s also Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and Willie Morris. It’s Shelby Foote and Barry Hannah, and those who are just now making their way to the front. We are proud of them all, as we should be. They are Mississippi, we are too.
Sometimes people ask why Mississippi produces so many great writers. The answer is simple. We are story people. It’s innate, born in our blood, inherited from southern soil, and nourished by time. It’s an art we’ve learned standing behind our grandmother’s apron strings. It’s more fun to sit on the back porch, sip a bit, and listen to Nanny tell a captivating story than to closet ourselves in a dim room dominated by the beeps and pings of a glowing laptop. Our words rhyme and we remember them, not because of a writer’s skillful arrangement, but because they sound right. They sing in our ears like the harmonic chords of a gospel choir or the rhythm of a college drumline on gameday. In short, they ring true. As Mississippians our job is simple, keep the festival growing, water it and make it thrive. The seeds have been planted and the flowers are beginning to bloom. We must tend our beautiful garden well.