Tennessee Williams Literary Festival has something for everyone

Bryan Buckles, a finalist in the annual Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest, in homage to the bellowing mates in Tennessee Williams' iconic play, A Streetcar Named Desire. The contest takes place in Jackson Square in the historic French Quarter. Photo by Earl Perry.
Bryan Buckles, a finalist in the annual Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest, in homage to the bellowing mates in Tennessee Williams' iconic play, A Streetcar Named Desire. The contest takes place in Jackson Square in the historic French Quarter. Photo by Earl Perry.

A variety of events is scheduled for locations in and around the French Quarter

“It’s fun. It’s just fun.”

That’s Susan Larson’s opinion of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and if you’re someone who loves books and authors or live theater or food, you will probably agree. Because, as Larson notes, “There’s a little something there for everyone. It’s all in the mix.”

The festival, Wednesday-Sunday, March 20-24, offers lectures, plays, readings, discussion panels, classes, music, food, a scholar’s conference, book fair and more. It all happens mostly in and around the French Quarter, and attendees can buy a one-day pass, one-event pass or all-inclusive pass. Don’t forget the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest in Jackson Square where participants re-enact the famous scene in A Streetcar Named Desire in which Stanley Kowalski stands in the street and shouts up to a second floor apartment, calling his wife, Stella. It’s always a crowd pleaser.

“You get a lot of bang for your buck,” Larson said. “There are so many choices.”

Larson is the festival board’s vice president for literary programming and host of The Reading Life on WWNO, 89.9 FM in New Orleans and is the book critic for the television program Steppin’ Out on WYES-TV in New Orleans. She is excited about the literary events, of course, but knows many people also enjoy other aspects of the festival.

“The great thing about it to my mind is the mix,” she said. And most events are relatively inexpensive, including a unique writing class led by Southeastern Louisiana University English professor Richard Louth.

“He does these writing marathons all over the place. He’s such a great teacher. He teaches at Southeastern (Louisiana University). He gets all of his people together and he kinda sets up the rules — there are no rules really — and people go off either in groups or individually. And then they write all over the French Quarter, and they can hang with Richard or not. Then at the end of the time, they all gather together and the people who want to read their work can. It’s kind of a nice kickstart if you have a project in mind or if you just want to get some discipline or if you just want to be in the company of other people writing.

“That’s free,” she added. (There is an admission fee for the reading session.)

The writers are a combination of local and out-of-town writers, said Jessica Ramakrishnan, associate director of programs for the festival. There is a strong Baton Rouge contingent as well.

“We’re doing a panel about New Orleans in the ’20s, and the writers who are going to be on that are John Shelton Reed, who has got a new book out called Dixie Bohemia which is about (the French Quarter in early years) and then we have Alecia Long who I believe is one of yours over at LSU in Baton Rouge, and Kim Marie Vaz who has got a book about the baby dolls. There is a bit of a Baton Rouge angle for you there. So I think that is going to be really an interesting panel there, looking at New Orleans in a very different but still a raucous time and from the literary and social aspects of it. I think that will be fun,” Ramakrishnan said.

“We’re doing a panel on Creole women where we have the poets Mona Lisa Saloy and Ruth Salvaggio and Carolyn Morrow Long who is a nonfiction writer,” Ramakrishnan said. “And then we’re doing a panel on free people of color and we’ll have Leonard Pitts, who won a Pulitzer on that, along with Emily Clark and Carol Gelderman.

“We have a panel called ‘Writing New Orleans, The Most Exotic Place in America’ that’s sort of looking at how people write about New Orleans, how it’s portrayed, does it make a difference if you’re from here, how does that impact the sort of canon of New Orleans at this time of change. We have another panel on literature of exile, refuge and return in the South looking at different waves of immigration to New Orleans and the South in general. That panel should be very, very exciting. We have great panelists, two of whom include John Jeremiah Sullivan — he’s the Southern editor of the Paris Review and he’s from Kentucky. He writes a lot about the South, and he does nonfiction essays for the New York Times as well. It’s a very interesting perspective — also on that panel we have Ayana Mathis whose book Oprah (Winfrey) recently chose for her book club.

“We booked her well before Oprah did. She’s coming and her book is about the great migration,” Ramakrishnan said.

“We have another author who is a professor at MIT, his name is Vivec Bald and he’s got a book about a South Asian community in Treme in the late 1800s which I thought was an interesting undiscovered history.”

“We’re always finding new ways to look at New Orleans,” Larson said. “New Orleanians are all fascinated by where we live, so it’s interesting to have this kind of range of how the city is portrayed in the past and in the present. It’s great to see these writers continuing to bring such energy to the subject.”

There is plenty of interaction between audiences and lecturers and panel participants, Larson said.

“One of the remarkable things about this is that when these writers come to New Orleans they’re very accessible. It’s one of those times when you can walk up and have a conversation with Leonard Pitts or have a conversation with Michael Cunningham. You know they hang around, they have a good time. It’s a chance to interact with them directly. We have such an intelligent, sophisticated audience, and the questions that come from the audience — after almost every panel or discussion there is time for that (questions) — it’s kind of thrilling to see what people come up with it,” she said. And the panelists talk to each other too. “The chemistry between the writers is always kind of unpredictable, and it’s kind of fun to see that unfold, to see those creative minds riffing on each other’s words. It’s just wonderful. I always get really inspired by it,” Larson said. “You never know who you’ll meet that will change your life.”

Participants sharing their diverse talents at myriad events include:

SCHEDULE

Wednesday, March 20

Friday, March 22

Saturday, March 23

Sunday, March 24