Festival of Books: Novels and the 'dream deferred'
All the authors on the Sunday panel “The Dream Deferred” have written novels in which the main characters are defined by the struggle to survive and thrive in America.
Their characters face various antagonists -– immigration and employment battles in Hector Tobar’s "The Barbarian Nurseries" and Mona Simpson’s "My Hollywood"; issues of religious and sexual identity in Ayad Akhtar’s "American Dervish"; and the force of Hurricane Katrina in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel "Salvage the Bones" -– but while the dreams may be deferred, they do not die.
Each author read a brief excerpt from his or her book. Moderator Joy Press then asked panelists about the genesis of their ideas.
Simpson described time she spent in parks with Filipina nannies after her baby was born, and the way she found herself extremely sensitive to the rhythm of their speech. In this manner, a narrative voice also was born.
Tobar said he finished the first draft of his novel the day his son was born, and it was published 15 years later. In contrast, Ward conceived of her novel about “a girl growing up in a world full of men” around the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, but she found she was too sad afterward to write about it for more than two years.
After a dismal start with a previous novel, Akhtar decided he wanted to explore a Muslim American boy’s burgeoning relationship with the Koran.
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Talking about children as narrators, Simpson characterized their speech as a mix of immediacy, slang and limited vantage, calling it “the New English.” Press identified a connection between the novels, describing how they all travel between multiple linguistic levels.
Simpson said she worried about being a white woman writing the voice of an immigrant nanny because “no one wants to get clobbered” for their presumption, but the voice achieved a sense of authenticity with readers. Tobar pointed out that readers appreciate skill and courageousness, something he discovered when he wrote a novel with two women as the central characters.
Akhtar said that when he wanted to show his characters’ personalities through their accents, he found he was only able to achieve this in the book’s audio version (which he read). Ward experienced more of a tension in the difference between how her characters spoke and what they said versus the more complicated content of what they thought and felt.
In general, Tobar feels less of this tension, perceiving the characters as outsiders, but observing that “outside is the new in” and predicting that the outsider will play a progressively central role in American literature. Both he and Akhtar see Americans trying to reinvent a way of living, with upheavals in culture and class. Akhtar believes the immigrant narrative, increasingly the American narrative, is a cycle of “rupture and renewal.” In this climate, writing itself becomes a subversive act.
During the Q&A period, an audience member read Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred,” which shed some light on the nuanced meaning of the panel title.
Earlier, panelists had offered their thoughts on how their books related to the poem's message. Ward thought the title of her novel directly addressed the elusiveness of dreams and those characters who keep fighting in order to survive and “salvage the bones” of their difficult lives.
Like Ward, Simpson felt writers often want to portray “people we love in communities we love who didn’t get their dreams or even what might be fair.” There is a tension in all our lives between “dreams lost and dreams gotten” and the randomness of who gets lucky.
-- Chris Daley
Photo: Ayad Akhtar, left, Jesmyn Ward, moderator Joy Press, Hector Tobar and Mona Simpson on the Sunday panel. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times