Festival America: A Celebration of American Literature in France

Special guest Toni Morrison joined seventy other writers from North and South America to celebrate literature at the grand tenth year anniversary of Festival America just outside Paris.

Festival America writers in Paris Untapped CitiesA gathering of leading literary voices at Festival America

Every two years, Festival America brings “les littératures américaines dans tous leurs états” to France.

That is America in the largest sense, including the play on words that it’s literature in “all its states.”

For Festival America wasn’t just celebrating literature from the United States this past weekend; 70 writers from countries in both North and South America participated in a jam-packed extravaganza of panels and debates, discussing everything from the big questions of society to family relationships in fiction.

Perhaps it would be the same anywhere, but it seemed fitting that the focus of so many panels in this famed city of love was… love. “L’amour, un folie?” (Love, a madness?) was the very first panel after the opening event.

The opening itself was the main event for many. Noble Prize winner Toni Morrison was the special guest for the 10-year anniversary edition of Festival America. The opening interview was just one of her three appearances during the weekend.

A recording of the entire opening event. All questions and discussion are in French; Ms. Morrison speaks in English

Toni Morrison was not the only big name in the festival. In fact, I thought I had died and gone to fangirl heaven as it seemed all of my favorite contemporary American authors were there: Jennifer Egan (Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad) and Nicole Krauss (author of A History of Love and Great House). Other lauded writers included Chris Adrian, Russell Banks, and Dinaw Mengestu.

Throughout the weekend I fell in love with Karen Russell (who said she recognized me from my laugh when she signed my book!) and Teju Cole. Gary Shteyngart could be relied upon to provide the comic relief.

Festival America Gary Shteyngart Paris Untapped CitiesGary Shteyngart hamming it up before his panel with Teju Cole

What heartened me as much as hearing all of these inspiring writers was the popularity of the event. As we all gathered in Vincennes, the suburb just east of Paris hosting the event, I marveled: there’s still an eager, committed reading public! It exists!

Festival America Paris Untapped CitiesCrowds awaiting Toni Morrison at the Hotel de Ville in Vincennes

“It seems so French,” a writer named Linda said to me as we were exiting a discussion. All this serious talk, the very manner of it. I had to agree. I adore that literature is given such a central role here, understood to be vital. The actual discussion was at times a bit staid, however.  A few reasons jump to mind. One, it can be difficult to have much back and forth when everything needs to be translated. Two, the French really do like to hear themselves talk – sometimes the moderators would speak more than the writers just in asking their questions!

Festival America Paris red carpet Untapped CitiesRed carpet at Festival America

I found the translation aspect of the event fascinating. They did a great job with simultaneously translating the questions for the authors so no time was lost that way. On a panel focused on writing about the city, author Adam Ross quipped that while New York was great, Paris was pretty cool: he arrives, gets put on a stage, and then a young woman whispers into his ear the whole time!

Festival America Paris Adam Ross Untapped CitiesAdam Ross and his translator awaiting a panel with Jonathan Dee and Teju Cole

The translators had a terrifically difficult job – translating under pressure some of the most eloquent people of our day. Still, I found myself many times taking issue with the translation. (One particularly egregious example: Louis Erdrich said “speak truth to power” and it was translated as “speak truth to pow-wow.” Whoa. Just because she’s Native American does not mean she’s going to mention a pow-wow! We all heard it, though, and it was quickly corrected).

A photo exhibition of “The North American Indian” featured at Festival America

One of my favorite panels was called “Looking North, Looking South” about the fascination of North and South American writers with each other. Besides my favorites Nicole Krauss and Karen Russell, I discovered Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra.

For laughs, nothing could really beat “Writing about Sex” with Jennifer Egan and Gary Shteyngart. This event was pitted against the hommage to Toni Morrison, but it’s no surprise that the sex talk drew an enthusiastic crowd.

Festival America Paris French clowns Untapped CitiesFrench clowns at Festival America

I am feeling grateful and inspired after a full three days of events. Just another two years until the next one!

Festival America Shakespeare and co Untapped CitiesShakespeare & Company selling books at the Salon du Livres, Festival America

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Her nonfiction has appeared in  The Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris  and her fiction in  Smokelong Quarterly  and the anthology  Strangers in Paris, among other venues. She holds an MFA from Vermont College and is currently seeking publication of her first novel. She blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at  paris (im)perfect.


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