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Diverse Voices and Literary Exploration Flourish at Virginia Festival of the Book

by Sonia Montalvo | Photos by Eze Amos

Virginia Festival of the Book serves as a cherished institution and vibrant creative hub, bringing authors and readers together to embrace the wonderful world of books. In late spring 20,000 plus literacy lovers convene in Charlottesville Virginia to revel in some of the biggest books of the year. This year’s Festival kicked off with a diverse array of events sprawled throughout the Charlottesville and Albemarle area. One such event is Soul In Celebration, a Black Women Centered gathering featuring decorated poets Cynthia Manick, January Gill O’Neil, and Amy Alvarez.

Photo of January Gill O’Neil reading excerpts of her book, Glitter Road

Soul In Celebration offered a deeper look into each of the poet’s new books as well as the lived experiences that helped to shape some of their pieces. While a common thread amongst the writers seemed to be Black Womanhood and place; O’Neil expressed during the panel, “Place is almost as important as anything else. It’s almost another character in the story…”  A Virginia native herself, January Gill O’Neil uses her time in Mississippi during a writing residency as the set for her poetry book Glitter Road.

All three authors and their literary works offer several different approaches and styles to the aforementioned themes, showing that Black is certainly not Monolithic. Manick shared pieces from her newest book No Sweet Without Brine. Her selected pieces during her reading touched on issues of identity, her love of family, and even taboo topics like the struggles of gynecologic visits for her as a Black woman by weaving together her personal narratives using rich and relatable language.

Photo of Amy Alvarez reading excerpts of her book, Makeshift Altar

Amy Alvarez’ debut book Makeshift Altar lends itself as telescope of sorts into the world of the Afro-Caribbean writer, born to Jamaican and Puerto Rican parents, the idea of intersectionality is explored with profound depth and insight revealing the nuanced layers of identity, culture, and heritage.

All three poets were able to share their unique voices with the festival audience before sitting down to discuss their lives as writers during the panel discussion. Also serving as the moderator for the Soul In Celebration event, Alvarez posed questions to the trio as a whole. When asked how they embody joy and pain into their writing, Cynthia Manick expressed, “When I think of the Black body right, we go through these phases of childhood where everything is full of wonder and then at some point you get told ‘you’re a girl, so…’ As you get older you think “well how can I be myself in all these spaces?” She goes on to say, “It’s learned actually, you’re doctrined to not be all of you, you’re doctrined to be as small as possible to fit into this slot, and we have to learn to be all of ourselves in all of our bodies in where we go. Poetry is a way to sort of reveal that and also get by it.”

Photo of Cynthia Manick reading excerpts of her book, No Sweet Without Brine

When asked by an audience member “How do you do it, where do the poems come from?” Alvarez stated, “Everyone has an interesting way of processing the world, we all have our own thing to process what’s happening. My spouse who is here, is a musician and processes the world through music. When I have an experience, I process the world through words…so whether it is joy, or pain, or rapture, it ends up kind of coming to me in a series of words.” She states that there are times when she has no idea where the poems come from. Using her poem about Breonna Taylor titled Lighting Candles on my Stoop/watching the wind snuff them out, as an example she expressed, “It came to me fully formed which is a very rare thing that ever happens for me.” Alvarez went on to share, “That’s kind of where it begins, it’s life. You live, you experience, and then how do you process as an artist?”

Virginia Festival of the Book will end on Sunday, March 24th, 2024. To find out more about the Authors and the schedule of events, please visit vabook.org

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