For the Love of Books

By Mohamed Sheriff, NEA Literature Specialist

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Three people on stage having a discussion at National Book Festival.

Mohamed Sheriff (left) leads a discussion with authors Lisa Ko and Peter Ho Davies on the NEA's Poetry & Prose Stage at the 2017 National Book Festival. Photo by Amy Stolls

Working in the Literature Department at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) comes with at least two guarantees: Literature Director Amy Stolls will thoroughly edit everything you write for her, and your Labor Day weekend will involve, well, labor. Since September 8, 2001, when then-First Lady of the United States Laura Bush worked with Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to create the National Book Festival, the NEA has sponsored a stage to ensure that poetry has a place at the event. Upon the festival’s establishment, Billington said, "We must all try, in every way we can, to send the message that reading is critical to our lives and to the life of our nation." This past Labor Day weekend was my third time working the festival. Previously, I’ve had the luxury of sitting in the background, far away from the stage, while watching others introduce authors and moderate panels. This year was different.

About a month ahead of the festival, on a rainy day in the office, I received a seemingly innocuous call from Amy. The festival had been in the back of my mind, and something told me it would soon be coming to the forefront. I thought Amy might offer me the opportunity to introduce a single author on the NEA’s Poetry & Prose Stage—that task alone came with anxiety-inducing expectations. Instead, she proposed that I read two books: The Fortunes by a profound author and two-time NEA Literature Fellow Peter Ho Davies, and The Leavers (recently longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction) by an equally compelling author Lisa Ko, whose debut novel heightened our national discourse surrounding matters such as race and immigration in America. The prospect of moderating an onstage conversation between the two sealed the deal. I accepted the offer, quickly hung up, and got to reading.

I spent the next month immersed in Davies’ and Ko’s tenderly illustrated world of Chinese immigrant experiences in the U.S. and abroad, finding myself—as a Liberian American—represented improbably in these two narratives. I realized, eventually, that what I once thought was an impossible mission was an opportunity for growth through a conversation with the new characters I had come to care for, the two authors, and myself. And it now felt appropriate and meaningful for others at the festival to be a part of that discussion.

“What would you want Americans to understand about the experiences of your characters and the immigrants who risk so much to come to this country?” asked one audience member. Ko said, “I’m writing to pose questions.… To raise questions in my reader’s minds about what it means to be American.” Davies added, “People who immigrate here really want to be here.… They are patriotic before they get here. It would be nice to welcome them in that spirit.”

Some other notable events of the day included interviews with Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate, and NEA Big Read author Ernest Gaines about his newest novel, The Tragedy of Brady Sims, which launched at the festival. We also paired writers in conversation, including the poets—and NEA Literature Fellows—Marie Howe and Adrian Matejka. The 2017 Poetry Out Loud champions kicked everything off in the morning with poetry recitations. And to our pleasant surprise, each event this year filled our 300+ capacity space.

After everything was said and done, I learned two things from the day: Amy is still the most thoughtful editor-in-chief of her staff and their sentences; and the work we do each Labor Day, we do for the love of books and for what they bring to our lives.