Texas From Below: Texas Book Festival Panels Punctuate Climate, Immigration and More
By Austin Cheatham
Despite the disruption brought on by a pandemic now going on two years, this years’s Texas Book Festival allowed writers — virtually and literally – to display Texas’ diversity.
During the Texas Institute of Letters panel, authors Christina Soontornvat, David Meischen and Marisol Cortez discussed their novels and the influence of their identities and Texan roots on the stories they tell.
“I tend to think about Texas—there’s a Texas from above and the Texas from below,” said Marisol Cortez, author of “Luz at Midnight,” which won Best First Book of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. “When I went outside of Texas and would tell people where I was from they’d be like ‘Ooh Texas politics like scary,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well yeah, but Texas is also Tejas, it was once part of Mexico—in many ways still is.’ There’s a Texas from below that is very diverse, that is a lot of different communities—that is full of people you wouldn’t expect to be in those spaces.”
Soontornvat’s middle-grade fantasy, “A Wish in the Dark,” takes place in a city based on Bangkok and draws inspiration from Soontornvat’s Thai heritage. She was born in Dallas, which has one of the highest Thai American populations in the U.S., but moved to Weatherford, a much smaller town in the Texas panhandle, because her father wanted to open a restaurant.
“Even though we were a Thai family we served Chinese food because no one in that county had heard of Thai food,” Soontornvat said. “I feel like my storytelling training came so much from the restaurant. So much from hearing customers come in and telling their stories about their lives. Our staff—our Thai staff, our Mexican American staff talking to the customers—telling the same stories over and over again. Growing up steeped in these stories from people who’ve moved away from home. Always talking about back home in ways that were like fairy tales—folk tales.”
Meischen’s book of poetry, “Anyone’s Son,” covers his experiences as an older gay man who grew up on a farm in the 1950s.
“My life as a Texan was shaped by the farm—by farm work, the work ethic I learned from the third-generation German immigrants,” said Meischen. “It’s the memories of that place that still shape me these decades later.”
The world of “Luz at Midnight” is built upon Cortez’s San Antonio upbringing, her experiences as a climate activist and her time spent living in various places around Texas.
During her in-person discussion at the festival, Maria Hinojosa, author of “Once I Was You” and a veteran journalist, focused heavily on the themes of immigration and hope present within both her novel and her reporting.
“Trying to have a pro and con of children in cages is not helpful,” Hinojosa said, referring to the U.S, government’s recent policy of separating immigrant families and holding them in detention centers. “There isn’t a pro, and as a journalist, you should be able to state that.”
Her experience fighting for greater diversity, with more inclusive and forward-thinking newsrooms, prompted several audience members who shared their stories of her impact on them.
“You actually spoke to my company a while back and the number of people who were inspired by you—the Latinas in particular,” said one of the audience members during the Q&A section.
A pair of older white women from Lubbock who said they’d attended the festival for 10 years, sat in the back on the end of the row for one of the discussions.
“Well, for me personally, the authors have been sensational,” said one of the women.
However, the authors would not have been able to inspire without the efforts of the festival’s organizers.
This year’s transition to hybrid programming proved a difficult challenge. The Texas Book Festival held its first in-person program since 2019. While last year the festival
took place completely virtually, this year it lasted a week. Amid falling coronavirus cases in Austin, the program utilized a hybrid approach, with in person programs taking place on Oct. 30 and 31. The festival had already planned to incorporate more digital content into its programming, but the pandemic forced their hand in 2020.
“This was a more difficult pivot because we had so much planned, and we really wanted to be back. Some people really wanted to be back; some were really nervous. Some authors really wanted to be out. Some still wanted to do virtual. So, we felt like we were juggling a lot of balls at the same time.”
The festival was originally going to return to the Texas State Capitol, where it has traditionally been held, but needed a more controlled environment. So, the in-person events were held at the Austin Public Library.
“Last year we were so encouraged by how many people watched,” Burrows said. “I have actually been pleasantly surprised by how many people have tuned in virtually still this year. The numbers are lower, but I think it’s along the lines of what we expected. People are obviously coming here (the Austin Central Library). It’s lower than a normal year for sure, but we’re just really happy that anyone is paying attention and caring—and they do—it’s such a strong literary community.”
Recordings of virtual discussions and panels such as “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of the American Myth” and “History Revisited: Tulsa, Wilmington, and Their Legacies Today,” as well as the in-person programs are all available on the festival’s website to be viewed at any time.