A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of my most favorite cities on earth, New Orleans, Louisiana. The occasion was cover the 2014 Words and Music, a Literary Feast which is sponsored by The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and organized by the Society’s Co-Founder, Rosemary James. The Faulkner Society is a nationally recognized non-profit arts organization. As such it is a literary and educational institution. It receives grant donations, membership contributions, and contributions to their fundraisers all of which are fully tax deductible.
As I sat in on Master Classes and Workshops, networked with Editors and Publishers and Presenters, I noted in the catalog for Words and Music many events listed as a “BIG READ EVENT.” I knew that The Faulkner Society created and supported outreach programs for high school and college students and literacy projects for at-risk teenagers. As I networked with individuals at the Words and Music “literary feast,” I became apprised about how BIG READ projects funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were integrated seamlessly in Words and Music. I further learned how The Faulkner Society embraces the BIG READ in its mission and integrates BIG READ projects in its endeavors.
The National Endowment for the ARTS (NEA) identified the tremendous need in our modern technological culture that reading in part had fallen by the wayside. Indeed, Gore Vidal had mentioned in numerous interviews before he died in 2012 that “Americans don’t read.” The BIG READ is a program created by NEA to bring back reading to the center of American culture. This program provides competitive grants to support innovative reading programs in designated communities.
As a former English teacher and professor I saw students struggle through reading literature. I worked tirelessly for 33 years attempting to improve students’ reading and appreciation of literature from 9-12, from Special Ed students to college level English and Advanced Placement Literature students. I taught in a district on Long Island where over half of the students were on reduced or free lunch. They often did not grow up in a reading household as I did; their parents often worked two jobs to put food on the table, if there were two parents. Sometimes parents or single parents did not encourage reading because their own reading skills were limited and it was painful to read. This situation happens nationally in many districts and certainly in New Orleans. So I was doubly thrilled to learn that wonderful literacy programs are alive and well. I felt a complete synchronicity as a former educator and professor and current writer and journalist when I discovered that a mission for The Faulkner Society’s was literacy and that they had exciting BIG READ projects encouraging literacy and appreciation of literature.
I became familiar with BIG READ during Words and Music and I must say I am impressed. Every day during Words and Music, there were a number of BIG READ events. Each of them was integrated into highlighting and revisiting the themes and experiences of the characters in the 2014 BIG READ focus book, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. Some of the events were on site at the Hotel Monteleone in the Queen Anne Ballroom. One example was the session that featured successful screenwriters and novelists, Carleton Eastlake and Loraine Despres. The workshop was on Creating Compelling Characters for Books, TV, and Film. Participants in the workshop were to have read Mengestu’s book. Eastlake’s and Despres’ discussion centered around how Mengestu created memorable characters and distinguished them through specific details, for example, their will to power, their conflicts with others, their backgrounds, their desires and goals.
Some BIG READ events occurred off site of Hotel Monteleone. One was held at Loyola University, Dana Hall. This was a BIG READ and PAN AMERICAN connections event. The title of the session was Immigration: It’s Human Toll and Its Inspiration for the Arts and Cultural Enrichment. The event was free and open to the public. This session was a joint venture with Loyola’s Center for Latin American Studies and Caribbean Studies directed by Uriel Quesada, Ph.D. The session featured Luis Alberto Urrea, Mexican-born American poet and bestselling author of the non-fiction book The Devil’s Highway and other works. The former Louisiana Poet Laureat Darrell Bourque open and closed the program with poems related to the migration of Acadians from Nova Scotia to Louisiana and how that migration greatly impacted Louisiana and enriched the culture.
Words and Music 2014 included many other BIG READ events which can be seen online at The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society website. There you will be able to browse through the Faulkner Society, note its mission and endeavors and gain an understanding of how innovation should be at the heart of literacy. It is vital that we who adore the written word and find reading an easy facility encourage this skill especially for those at-risk, young and old and not just those who are uneducated, but those who have an education and who do not read longer works but read short bursts online.
We live in an age that requires we read extensively and widely if we are to keep our vision of a democratic society viable and manifest in our political system. As part of this reading we need to be able to read critically and hone our critical thinking skills to differentiate the unsupported blather and straw man arguments from those works that are well supported with rational argument and facts. Worthy literature and non fiction are what inspire us to live and get through to the next day. It is paramount that BIG READ continue and that organizations like The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society continue to make magic for others.
If you are interested in reading more about the annual endeavors of The Faulkner Society in New Orleans, then check out their website linked in the first part of this sentence. Or contact Faulkhouse@aol.com to ask questions and learn more.