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The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival kicked off with a reading from the anthology New Fiction from the Festival, upstairs at the Bourbon Pub’s Parade disco. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that room when all the lights were on. My high school pals and I used to sneak in and dance there in the early 80s, when the Parade reeked of poppers and posted a sign admonishing dancers not to jump during The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump.”
Last night, the dance floor was packed again—with barstools to support the mostly-over-40 literati. The room, however, was anything but sedate. Amie M. Evans, who co-edited the collection with festival director Paul J. Willis, emceed a reading punctuated by howls and applause. Contest runner-up James Driggers read an excerpt from “Jesus is my BFF,” a trip through the racist religiosity of an Appalachian addict trying to fathom a gay brother and a new generation of mixed-race children. (What Driggers didn’t read—and you absolutely must—is the story’s ending.) Next up was James Nolan, longtime French Quarter resident and author of Perpetual Care, with “Latins on the Loose,” a hilarious locals-only take on trick-hungry tourists. Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of the new novel The Big Bang Symphony, read from “The End of Jesus,” a testimony to lesbian survival and, in a sense, resurrection, despite the forces of evil dressed in holy cloth. Finally, contest winner and longtime music critic Wayne Lee Gay read “Ondine,” a confluence of three lives: a Mexican lawn boy, a music professor, and a gifted young pianist hobbled by her family’s religious fundamentalism.
While the familiar trope of hypocrisy and bigotry in the name of God dominated the evening, other fine contributions with a specifically New Orleans flavor include Jewelle Gomez‘ “Storyville 1910,” Aaron Hamburger‘s “Finders Keepers,” and Greg Herren‘s “Mr. Lonely.” This first contest collection is packed with good writing and manages not to fall into too many New Orleans clichés. I’m curious to see whether next year’s collection will step outside of the usual coming-of-age and escaping-my-crazy-church stories that, while important, tend to define “gay” literature. Jimmy Nolan and I talked a bit about this phenomenon, wondering whether there’s room for LGBTQ writers to be recognized for their work as writers, in the context of LGBTQ literature, without having to address one’s gayness as a precondition of inclusion. The question is old, yet one which remains open in 2010.
Today, Saints and Sinners is devoted to a series of master classes: Bernard Cooper on the short story, Lucy Jane Bledsoe on characterization, Jess Wells on making time for your writing, K.M. Soehnlein on revising the novel manuscript, Michael Nava on taking a novel from start to finish, Fiona Zedde on infusing the novel with poetic language, Radclyffe on e-publishing, and Jim Grimsley on “worldbuilding” in SF/fantasy fiction. Tonight’s fete is “Glitter with the Literati” in New Orleans’ historic Hermann-Grima House.
En passant: Although this isn’t part of Saints and Sinners, Mark Doty is in New Orleans, as poet-in-residence for the Audubon Zoo, where tomorrow he’ll unveil a series of public installations featuring his poetry. If you’re broke, the Times-Picayune reports a limited number of free passes to the readings, plus zoo admission afterwards, are available from the Milton Latter branch of the New Orleans Public Library. The Audubon Institute encompasses the zoo, the Aquarium of the Americas (where I used to serve as volunteer naturalist and diver), the Insectarium, and the Audubon Center for Research on Endangered Species. Read more about how you can help the Audubon Institute’s longtime sea turtle and marine mammal rescue efforts, which are all the more important as tarballs wash up from Louisiana’s South Pass to Alabama’s Dauphin Island.