Under a desert sky, avid readers, aspiring writers, small presses, independent publishers, and other enthusiasts of the written word gathered on the Mall at the University of Arizona campus for the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend. The five-year-old Festival drew over 100,000 people with free admission, free parking, and an impressive lineup. This year, authors such as Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain), Jodi Picoult (Songs of the Humpback Whale, Sing You Home), Chang-Rae Lee (Native Speaker), and Luis Alberto Urrea (Devil’s Highway, Queen of America) were featured in panels that strived to appeal to a wide variety of literary interests.
“Every genre will be represented,” said Bill Viner, chairman of the Festival. The extensive program, featuring over 300 presentations and 450 authors over 2 days, attested to this commitment. Panels, workshops and presentations were offered in poetry, nuestras raices, and multi-genre (fiction covering more than one genre), as well as memoir, children/teen, mystery, romance, sci-fi/fantasy and literature. Apropos to the saguaro-dotted setting, the Western National Parks Association celebrated its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at Science City, an area of the festival dedicated exclusively to the sciences.
Panels addressing recent events in Tucson were included, too: “Remembering January 8” (the date of the 2011 shooting in Tucson) featuring Daniel Hernandez, credited with saving Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s life that day; and “¡Ban This!”, a literary journal conceived in reaction to the 2012 controversial ban on Mexican American studies in the Tucson Unified School District, which resulted in the banning of five books written by Latino authors.
Families were a common theme, with panels covering the many ways in which familial relationships form the core of contemporary and historical stories. Books about Arizona history or settings added local color. The festival offered live entertainment at various stages, the sounds of which occasionally competed with the presentations occurring in outdoor tents; at times, I had to strain to hear the wise and funny words of legendary independent filmmaker and novelist John Sayles over the riffs of a nearby rock band.
Although a storm system brought chilly weather and light rain on Saturday, that didn’t deter festival goers, who arrived prepared with rain gear. “I am always impressed by the number of people who participate in the Festival, and how well it’s organized,” said Kristen Metzger, panel moderator and program director at Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo. “The Tucson community loves it.” The sun finally came out on Sunday, bringing a bright end to Tucson’s biggest literary event.
The Tucson Festival of Books occurs each year in spring on the University of Arizona at Tucson campus. Since its launch in 2009, the Festival has contributed $700,000 to local literacy organizations. Recordings from the Festival can be viewed at www.booktv.org.