Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Wordcraft – What it means to be a literary good citizen

It was a first – the first visit to Dallas of the Writers' League of Texas, with a public panel discussion similar to those held monthly in its home base of Austin. The topic in this election year, when civic issues are on everyone’s mind: defining what it means to be a good citizen in the literary sense.

Judging from the enthusiasm of the crowd that filled the community room of Dallas’ Half Price Books main store on Northwest Highway, it should be the forerunner of many more such panels to come. WLT Executive Director Becka Oliver moderated an eclectic panel of four Dallas-area literary figures: Karen Blumenthal  (author, Tommy: The Gun That Changed America); Will Evans (publisher, Deep Vellum); Sanderia Faye (author, The Mourner’s Bench); and Jeramey Kraatz (author, The Cloak Society).

So what did they think being a literary citizen really means? What are the pathways to becoming a literary citizen? What are the ways of claiming and acting on that citizenship?

For a lot of writers who create alone, “being a literary citizen is like engaging with a community,” Evans said.

His literary journey began with the intention of becoming a writer. But it was discovering Russian literature in the original language in college – and realizing that he was able to translate books he wanted to read into English – that would move him from translating to engagement with the international literary community through his nonprofit press, Deep Vellum.

Blumenthal also found her definition of literary citizenship evolving. From a career as a journalist and nonfiction writer for adults, she became interested in nonfiction for children when one of her daughters became interested in the Great Depression, a subject with little representation on her school library shelves.

Public and school librarians have been enthusiastic supporters of Blumenthal’s work. Her volume Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition was one of School Library Journals Best Books of 2011. The support of libraries in turn influenced her to help, including organizing support for expanded hours fat Dallas’ public library system and for the upcoming April 30 Dallas Book Fair.

For further delving into that literary community, Blumenthal recommends organizations such as the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators), which has a North Texas chapter, and PEN International. “And PEN Dallas,” Evans said. (He’s vice president of the Dallas chapter.)

Perhaps the most unlikely of journeys to literary citizenship was the one Faye took: as regional manager for Walmart, where she helped direct corporate giving to community organizations such as Dallas’ Tulisoma, the annual South Dallas Book Fair.

“I believe in supporting the artists financially,” she said, noting that as an author, even one with a book acclaimed by the likes of Dennis Lehane, “I work so many hours for zero dollars.”

Support can also be as simple as buying books, at readings as well as bookstores such as Deep Vellum’s, opening next month, as well as supporting the support systems of writers, such as libraries, recommended by both Blumenthal and Kraatz.

Add to that the act of writing reviews. And finally, social media.

“If it weren’t for social media, I don’t think anyone would know about Deep Vellum,” Evans said wryly (a position sure to change following this week’s very favorable review in The Dallas Morning News of his translation of Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin).

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