It’s amazing how easy it is to live within a bubble. I live in Bronx, NY, and I have my entire life. I work in Manhattan, known to New Yorkers as “the city”. But while I’ve been a part of the online writing and bookish communities for years now, and I’ve made appearances at events in the city on and off over that time, I somehow never managed to stumble upon some of the events going on in The Bronx for artists within my very own borough. What an oversight! And the truth of it is, there aren’t enough of them. The Bronx has been continually disenfranchised, the media doing its level best to portray us as a neighborhood without thinking minds, a place where only the strong survive. It’s a myth perpetuated by those who proliferate it, a story created to make the old white men who so often make the big decisions feel better about continually pulling funding on education and literacy programs for the area.
But strides are being taken in the right direction, often by stubborn members of the community itself, who have had enough of this wrong-minded take on our rich community. Created in 2013, the Bronx Book Fair takes place yearly at Bronx Library Center and, I’m ashamed to say, this was my first year in attendance. With the Bronx being a focal point of diversity, the organizing members look to reflect the community, with a diverse group of speakers and vendors. And this year just happened to be the first year in which the Executive Director was a woman–Lorraine Currelly, who was just a delight, her kindness and care for the community shining through every word she spoke as she made her presence known. It also happened to be the first year with a female keynote speaker, the lovely badass book lover and owner of the only bookstore in the borough, Noelle Santos.
Owner of The Lit. Bar, Noelle is really the person who pulled me into the Bronx literary community. I stumbled upon news of The Lit. Bar by accident, while looking into Bronx venues in which to do future book signings. I discovered The Lit. Bar’s website and emailed her for details. Noelle explained to be that she was still in the process of creating the bookstore, and that she’d definitely be happy to have me once they were up and running. After talking Bronx literacy with her, I have watched as Noelle gained media attention with her winning smile, her intelligence, and her real talk. “I’m not polished,” she said, but the truth is, she’s just not doing business-as-usual, and it’s about time for that. She doesn’t need to be polished. She needs to be authentic. In following her, and helping when I could (some of you have probably seen my social media blasts attempting to raise crowdfunding bucks, for instance), I tripped my way into the Bronx literary world.
As the Keynote Speaker of this event, Noelle shined as she related her story of discovering that the only Barnes & Noble, the only BOOKSTORE, in the Bronx was set to close, and how this inspired her to make a change. “I’m not signing any more petitions,” she said. She decided she was going to change the way the gatekeepers viewed readers through her own actions. She was going to show people that a real reader comes in many varieties, and she was going to do it by proving the need for a Bronx bookstore. And she has! Not only has she garnered a ton of press for herself and her cause, but she will be opening her bookstore this summer. And in many ways, she sounded the trumpets for others, looking to find a way to prove our borough is worth more than the gatekeepers of the education and literary industries believe. Hell, I heard the call! By the time I left her speech, I was itching to do something productive for the community. If her closing poem doesn’t rile you up, I don’t know what will.
If I dive into everything I did at the fair (I bought books! For me! For Logan!), this will become a very long blog post, so I’ll give you the condensed version, to the best of my ability. I unfortunately didn’t get to attend everything, due to a combination of the split between programs held in the auditorium, programs held in the conference room, and the vendor floor. Also, I ended up having to leave an hour earlier than originally intended thanks to a migraine (chronic illness and large crowds don’t mix all that well for prolonged periods). But here’s some of the compelling finds I made.
Bronx Library Center is a beautiful and rather large library, and its librarians are kind, caring people who truly believe in spreading a joy of reading. One of the panels I attended included a discussion of book recommendations from librarians that work in all age groups, and suggestions on how to break a book slump and to encourage reluctant readers. One thing I learned? Don’t discourage children from reading outside of their age ranges. Reading over their age range can help challenge them. Reading below their age range can remind them of all they’ve accomplished, thus boosting their self-esteem.
I watched a presentation about a wonderful children’s story about dealing with grief, My Yellow Balloon by Tiffany Papageorge. Following that, there was a reading of the book in Spanish, as that book had just been released, translated into Mi Globo Amarillo by Fernando Aquino and Melissa Coss Aquino. Melissa also taught a writer’s workshop that focused on narrowing yourself to one writing project and how to remain focused on it until its completion. Specificity was stressed, and the need to cut out a time to work on several small goals to contribute to your larger goals was a very helpful discussion for a writer like myself, who always has a billion balls in the air.
Another highlight was a panel titled “How to Get Your Work Published.” While I’ve been around that block a time or two, this was a great panel for people who are just starting out and are looking at the different methods of getting your work out into the world. The panel featured Carolyn Butts, Editor/Publisher of African Voices Magazine, Steve Bloom, writer, and Jennifer Baker, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and contributing editor of Electric Literature. The moderator was Marc W. Polite, Founder and Editor in Chief of Polite on Society. The sentiments here varied, with some discussing the advantages of self-publishing, while others discussed methods of snagging agent representation. Editing your work was stressed, as well as a need to get out into the world and make human connections. There was a general agreement that opinions are arbitrary and taste-based, and the reminder that rejection doesn’t mean the work is bad, it’s just not right for the person reading it. Writing Workshops were also discussed, reminding young writers that a writing workshop should feel helpful, not soul-sucking. Jennifer in particular discussed the helpfulness of borough-based grants in NYC.
Women in Leadership: Arts, Activism & Social Responsibility featured Yolanda Rodriguez, Co-founder and Executive Director of BxArts Factory, and Poet and Author Mercy Tullis-Bukhari as they discussed the various demands and misconceptions that circle women in the arts. A particularly interesting point was when a question was posed: Is it an artist’s responsibility to also be an activist? Both women stressed that activism should find its way into art when it comes from a genuine place. Tullis-Bukhari specifically discussed how her identity and the identity of her family are among the groups that are under attack in this country, so she often has no choice but to lean towards activism–it’s a part of her life. However, Rodriguez pointed out that if a person chooses to create work that does not serve as activism, or if a person cannot march among activist, it does not mean that they are not assisting in any way. There is more than one way to protest.
From the vendor floor, I got to meet so many amazing people, and wish I’d been able to make a stop at all of them. I discovered the National Writers Union (and joined them), an organization that offers tremendous resources to writers such as contract advice and seminars about important writing issues. To learn more, check them out here. Riverdale Avenue Books had a table, and I had a great time chatting with Publisher Lori Perkins. I picked up an intriguing book about the #MeToo movement that I intend to gobble up.
Another great vendor represented at the fair was Boogie Down Books. Specialized in readers from 0-18, Boogie Down is a bookstore without walls, with pop-up shops and special book-related events hosted in local stores around the borough. Another great place for children who love reading to try, Writeopia Lab offers writing classes for kids in grades K-12, both individually, and through their school, or camp. It truly sounds like a great way to turn reluctant writers into pros.
All in all, while chronic illness left me super tired and kinda hurting through this, the people I met and the discussions I viewed were both inspiring and invigorating. It’s been a few days and I’m still riding high off the feeling of community and the sense that I want to do more. The Inkwell Council was my first attempt to try to do more for the writing community, and it has been a success. But my brain is starting to work towards what I can do for the literacy community in The Bronx itself. Stay tuned, folks–I’m spinning around a few ideas…I’ll keep you posted.