Entering the Old South Church sanctuary, I sized up the available pews: front and center, back right… where did I want to receive the day’s message? Ah, the side pews were open. I shuffled quietly to the front. After a call for donations, WBUR and NPR Here & Now Host Robin Young kicked off the “Is There Still Sex in the City?” panel—she warned the audience that the next hour wasn’t for the faint of heart… we’d be talking about vaginas, she said, really emphasizing the word. And of vaginas, we talked.
If I hadn’t had the schedule grasped firmly in hand, I would have forgotten I was at a book festival… the Boston Book Festival to be precise. It’s an annual festival focused on “a culture of reading” and “celebrating the power of words to stimulate, agitate, unite, delight, and inspire.” This year, it provided a stage for some eyebrow-raising conversations, including thoughts on post-menopausal sex, the process of seeking and writing about one’s identity, and whether God or Peanuts comic Charles M. Schulz wrote the “longest novel in history.”
All of these conversations took place on church stages, at Old South Church and Church of the Covenant. Now, re-examining the words that Boston Book Festival stands for, I get it: stimulate, agitate, unite, delight… the mission was fully at work on those stages. I, for one, was inspired by the candor!
Candace Bushnell, author of the Sex and the City series and her latest Is There Still Sex in the City? (about love and life in NYC after fifty) shared her woes with gynecological realities, imparting some advice on estrogen cream usage that continued to spark audience questions near the end of the session. Author Ada Calhoun, also on the panel, shared her own gynecological mishaps, like when her doctor prescribed her Swedish flower pollen for mood swings and primrose oil for breast pain, both of which turned out to be pre-menopausal symptoms. Le sigh, to be a woman.
Taking in the stained-glassed, wood-carved, bronze-chandeliered masterpiece of the church we sat within, I could only smile… so these were the conversations held within church walls in 2019. Or, at least at the 2019 Boston Book Festival. As one of those New York imports who lost her religion freshman year at NYU, I hadn’t been much for conversations in churches since about circa 2006. But at the Boston Book Festival on Saturday, I’d find myself mouth agape, staring at crucifixes in two more panels that day.
Perhaps the most stimulating and agitating juxtaposition of sessions happened between the Memoir: Seeking the Self and “The Peanuts Papers” panels.
Excited to hear about the writing lives of poet Saeed Jones and author Cyrus Grace Dunham, I power walked over to the Church of the Covenant to get a good seat… another pew off to the side, this time further back. Moderator Arielle Gray, Arts Engagement Producer for WBUR’s The ARTery, introduced the panel and then stated, “We don’t want to spend time renegotiating our identities as gender-nonconforming and queer individuals…” And with that, she started a pronoun declaration, stating that she goes by the pronouns “she/her.” Dunham followed with “he/they,” signaling that either were he/him or they/them pronouns were acceptable. Then, Jones concluded with “he/him.”
An older couple two pews ahead of me—presenting as a heteronormative, married couple—looked at each other perplexed. “Do you think we’re in the right place?” the gentleman whispered to the woman, her eyebrows pasted at her hairline. “It seems a little too sexist.” Sexist? I wondered. Nevertheless, they gathered their things and tromped down the aisle, loudly clambering out of the door with the sign pointing visitors to use the other door. Whoopsy doodles. The door slammed, and an organizer walked over to pull it tightly shut.
The duo likely made the right move. If pronouns seemed a bit too risqué for their ears, musings on “humping the pillow at twelve” (commentary on a segment of Jones’s poems) or on navigating the publication of a memoir after a life of secrecy and silence (on Dunham’s experience with their book, A Year Without a Name) would have really thrown them for a loop.
Seeing that couple flee the conversation before it got too deep came full circle when I saw them at my final session of the day—”The Peanuts Papers” panel. Compared to the rest of the events I attended (which extended beyond those mentioned here), this one was a celebration of Americana and [mostly white] male achievement. Notably, the panel did laud the comic strip as an exploration of “the sensitive male” (Clifford Thompson), a celebration of “real” characters, and a reflection on “life and love and loss” (editor Andrew Blauner), all intriguing topics.
I felt annoyed, though, looking two pews back—I had that advantageous side pew seat once again—and seeing that older couple applauding heartily at the end of the panel. They smiled with nostalgia, comfortable in the discussion they had just heard.
What was it that made them stay to the end of this panel, but dart just a couple sentences into the other? I’d say comfort, or lack thereof in one case.
What I found so compelling about Boston Book Festival was that there were sessions for everyone. The old-school nostalgic types could get their fix with lots of laughs and not much mind bending. Meanwhile, those concerned with existential explorations could find plenty of content on gender, race, and sexuality (among other topics) in literature, perfect for questioning evverrryyyttthhhiiinngggg.
I cried during three out of four of the memoir readings at lunchtime; I took so much knowledge away from the nonfiction picture book panel, and I was awe-struck by the brilliant questions asked by children in the middle grade session.
But, what I really took away from Boston Book Festival is that it’s a forum for everyone, where even churches are open spaces for some of the most controversial conversations in books… from sex to self to Snoopy.