Brooklyn book festival: Margaret Atwood, the war on terror and anxieties

Between the tote bags and discussions of cat puns in Margaret Atwood’s new book, worry about the future dominated the literature festival

“I don’t want to be the first person to mention the name,” said the writer Moustafa Bayoumi as he brought up Donald Trump during the Terror, Threats and Fear panel at the Brooklyn book festival on Sunday, attributing the resurgence of anti-Muslim fringe groups to the rise of the Republican candidate. In this context, he said, he preferred the term “Trumpism, rather than Trump”.

Bayoumi, author of This Muslim American Life, shared the panel with Amitava Kumar, author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and Masha Gessen, whose book The Brothers, about the Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, provided the subject matter for much of the talk.

“It’s impossible to predict the roots of an act of violence,” said Gessen, as the panelists questioned the value of a “theatre of protection” if they impeded personal liberties and spoke of an “economy of terror”, in which informants and terror suspects with “no other recourse to wealth” sought to transcend their financial destinies. Easy solutions were not offered, but a throwaway comment by Gessen seemed to point towards a troubling universal cause. “Nobody is going to blow people up if they’ve had a great life,” she said.

Bayoumi would have been pleased to learn that he was neither the first to mention Trump, nor the first to wish he didn’t have to. During the earlier, Nation-hosted panel The Whole World is Watching, journalist Sarah Jaffe lamented the things “going on in the world that we don’t see, because we’re busy hanging on every word Trump says”. Meanwhile, Mychal Denzel Smith noted that for Trump’s supporters, “democracy is in full force”, while the left wing of US politics had “seen what happened on the right and panicked back to the centre”. Still, the Nation’s Sarah Leonard offered hope to despondent Bernie fans. “These movements come in waves, they cascade,” she said, “There will be others [after Bernie Sanders], don’t panic.”

Panic was hardly in the air. But in the context of the looming election, it is no surprise that the festival’s speakers described an America that is riddled with anxieties. These ranged from the collective, with issues like war, recession and clashing communities stirring up insecurities, guilt and fear, to the personal. In one panel, American Angst and Anxiety, Emma Straub covered teenage angst – “the purest angst of all” – with a reading from her novel Modern Lovers, in which Ruby, “a black Jew with lesbian moms”, rages against her situation with considerable solipsism. Elsewhere in the book, she told us, a middle-aged couple’s angst stemmed from unfulfilled creative ambition, though they lived a life with “all the trappings of success”.

This talk of an artist’s ambition contrasted with Helen Ellis’s confession that, despite critical acclaim for her story collection The American Housewife, she had no desire to be considered a writer. Instead, she said, she channeled her daily experience of a housewife’s ennui into her characters, trapping them in “gilded cages” in which they could entertain themselves with mischief. These perspectives led the charge for the middle-class New York experience, with its accompanying existential niggles, while a panel led by the podcast Lit Up’s Angela Ledgerwood dug deeper into family life, as Gayle Forman described a mother’s decision, in her novel Leave Me, to break the ultimate taboo and abandon her family.

Ledgerwood’s panel guests included Ali Eteraz, whose Native Believer returned my mind to a prevailing theme of the day – the Muslim experience in America. In Native Believer, M is a secular Muslim who is fired from his job for nebulous reasons, which we suspect are related to his heritage. Despite his own belief that he is living in “post-racial America”, M is unable to escape from prejudices formed without his participation, in part due to the ongoing war on terror.

This is an experience that came up repeatedly from other sources in panels throughout the day. The children’s writer, Jeanette Winters, spoke about calls to ban her book The Library of Basra in Florida schools because of its depiction of a child praying to Allah, and its inclusion of the phrase “inshallah”. The transformation of individuals to faceless symbols during the 15 years since September 11 was also encapsulated poignantly in a metaphor by the artist Molly Crabapple, who spoke about her experiences drawing prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. “They have been turned into orange jumpsuits,” she said, “who can be attached to whoever the US is currently at war with.”

The festival took place less than 24 hours after Saturday’s explosion in Chelsea, and before any details emerged of what it was. Although it was perfunctorily raised at the start of the Terror, Threats and Fear panel, the explosion was a non-issue elsewhere. That was a testament to the fabled resilience of New Yorkers and to the unwillingness of the festival’s attendees and performers to jump to quick conclusions. Instead, they focused on a shared love of words and discourse.

Nowhere was the powerful draw of literature more visible than in the two-block queue around the St Francis College Auditorium, ahead of a highly anticipated conversation with Margaret Atwood. Over the course of an hour, the beloved author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy entertained her fans. She also discussed her latest work, a graphic novel called Angel Catbird, which features a superhero character with an “identity crisis”, along with helpful tips on how to look after your cat.

“There’s a lot of cat puns in this book, I apologise,” said Atwood, who seems to have a permanent twinkle in her eye.

Atwood’s final thought was with the Future Library, the public art project to which she has contributed a story, to be read for the first time in 2114. There is an inherent optimism coded into this project, as in her answer to a question, from founder Katie Paterson, about artistic forms she has yet to try: “Maybe there is some medium that is yet uninvented that I will explore.” For the worries of the near future, however, she had a simple solution. “Canada is not big enough to come to the rescue,” she said, “But you’re all welcome. We’ll set up cots.”


Emma-Lee Moss

The GuardianTramp

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