Future, present literary lights shine at NC festival

jprice@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2014 

— The future of literature was the theme of this year’s North Carolina Literary Festival, and that future seemed already here, with attendees using the free festival app to navigate the main venue, N.C. State University’s futuristic Hunt Library.

They also uploaded photos of the event to Instagram with a tag that routed them for display on the library’s video screen “art wall.”

The festival, which is held every few years, rotates among Duke, NCSU and UNC-Chapel Hill. Much of the program on Sunday, the final day this year, focused on North Carolina’s place in literature, in keeping with the run-up to the festival’s final event, the naming of new members of the state’s literary hall of fame.

In the Sunday night finale, poets Jaki Shelton Green, Betty Adcock, Shelby Stevenson and Ronald Bayes were named to the hall. Hillsborough author Allan Gurganus showed at several appearances during the festival why he is already an inductee.

On Sunday, he turned a simple introduction into a form of literature before an onstage discussion between novelist and NCSU faculty member Wilton Barnhardt and literary icon, Chapel Hill resident and former UNC-CH visiting professor Elizabeth Spencer. His descriptions of their places in the world of letters left the normally erudite Barnhardt floored.

“Oh my goodness,” Barnhardt said. “I’d like to meet someone like me.”

Many readers feel Spencer was robbed of the 1957 Pulitzer in fiction when the Pulitzer board ignored its jury’s recommendation to award the prize to her novel “The Voice at the Back Door,” and instead declined to give one at all.

Gurganus so deftly gutted the decision, which he hinted was done because the world was not yet ready for the book’s frank look at racial tension in the Deep South, that he made not winning the prize more honorable than winning it.

“Surely this stands as another tribute to Elizabeth Spencer’s insight and eloquence,” he said.

Minutes later, in another hall, the day’s theme of North Carolina’s place in literature came to the fore as NCSU professor John Balaban, who is a literary hero in Vietnam for his work preserving that nation’s poetry, read a poem about riding The Carolinian train home from President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. You could almost feel the rhythmic clacking of the wheels and the long, slow surges of acceleration as the train came back south past shutdown mills and collapsed tobacco barns.

In other rooms and halls throughout the library, there was everything from music and storytelling for children, to a discussion of North Carolina dialects, to memories from two progressive writers and religious figures, Jimmy Creech, a North Carolina minister who was defrocked for conducting same-sex weddings, and Jay Bakker, the son of former Charlotte-area televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who is a longtime advocate for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender rights. Among other things, Bakker and Creech talked about turning to the Bible and searching, fruitlessly, for anything that could legitimately be used to call homosexuality a sin.

Pulitzer-winning writer Richard Ford, in the keynote address, spoke about the future of reading and his upcoming book of shorter stories about Frank Bascombe, a protagonist of some of his novels, including “The Sportswriter.”

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