2020 Southern Festival of Books
Serenity Gerbman, Director of Literature and Language Programs at Humanities Tennessee.
For the first time in more than twenty years, I am not worried about rain in October. As Director of the Southern Festival of Books, which is in normal times an indoor-outdoor event, the weather forecast this time of year has always camped out in a back corner of my brain. But these are not normal times.
Back in May, the staff and board of Humanities Tennessee made the decision to move the Festival online. It will take place October 1-11, and it will be completely free, as always. The exterior trappings of the event: long green and white banners, striped tents, slightly battered park benches, and piles of autumn mums, won’t be in their traditional places. These are just things, we know. But sometimes things connote normalcy, and normalcy is a balm to anxiety. It felt like a hard decision at the time and, laughably, we worried that we would be out of step, that the whole world might be back to normal by October.
This year, the authors aren’t coming to Nashville, unless they live here. We’re lucky that many do. But other writers will join us from Brooklyn. New Orleans. Seattle. Birmingham. Raleigh. London. And many more places on the map. They will be in their living rooms and home offices and on back porches and at kitchen tables. But that is true also of our potential audiences. Our community now is the community of the Internet, where many of us have been living our cultural lives for months.
Our mission is to serve Tennesseans. Looking past what we can’t do, we see so many things that we can, starting and ending with who we can reach. Not everyone has the capacity or the desire to come to Nashville (despite pre-pandemic tourism numbers). Across Tennessee, there are households who will be able to interact live and ask questions of Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin (“Click, Clack Good Night”) and Erik Larson (“The Splendid and the Vile”), and Joe Hill (“Dying is Easy”) and Kiley Reid (“Such a Fun Age”) and United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (“American Sunrise: Poems”). Along with more than 100 other authors. That dialogue has always been the core of the Festival, and nothing about that has changed. This year, it’s just okay if it rains.
Serenity Gerbman has served as Director of Literature and Language Programs at Humanities Tennessee since 2001. She has been a judge for the National Endowment for the Arts Big Reads program, and is a past board member and Athena Award nominee for the Women’s National Book Association. She lives with her daughter in Murfreesboro.