Carolina Mountains Literary Festival returns to Burnsville

MOUNTAIN TALK: Jackson County author David Joy is the keynote speaker at this year's Carolina Mountains Literary Festival. Photo by Ashley T. Evans

What comes to author David Joy’s mind when he hears the phrase “Southern literature”? Plenty.

“As far as literary traditions go, there are very few places or regions in the world that can lay claim to anything even remotely close to the literature of the American South over the last 150 years,” says the Jackson County-based writer. “Whether that be those historic figures like [William] Faulkner and [Flannery] O’Connor and [Eudora] Welty, or the writers I cut my teeth on, like Larry Brown and William Gay, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah [and] Ron Rash. I think as writers we’re always following in the footsteps of those who’ve come before us, and in the case of the American South, those footsteps were made by some very large boots.”

And yet, Joy notes, contemporary writers continue to fill those footsteps and expand upon them. In his view, some of the brightest modern-day literary stars are Mississippi-based Jesmyn Ward, the only woman and lone African American to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice, and Bolton, N.C. native Jason Mott, whose novel Hell of a Book won that same prize in 2021. And the talent keeps emerging.

“I think part of that is because we’re a region that has managed to keep a lot of its cultural identity intact. We’ve not succumbed to the homogenization that a lot of places have. We’ve got very rich soil to farm,” Joy says. “And we’re a region for whom story has always held the center of our universe. We’ve always had a tremendous advantage in all of those regards.”

That appreciation for these traditions makes Joy an inspired choice to deliver the keynote address at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, which runs Thursday, Sept. 8-Saturday, Sept. 10, in Burnsville. The author of Where All Light Tends to Go, a finalist for the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and When These Mountains Burn, winner of the 2020 Dashiell Hammett Prize for Literary Excellence, Joy will give the festival’s closing talk, “The History of All Places: A Discussion of Identity and Belonging,” at the Burnsville Town Center on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m.

Location, location, location

The focus of Joy’s presentation is an apt choice for a 12th-generation North Carolinian who identifies as being “from a people who are very much defined by this state.” Having lived in a total of two places — primarily in Jackson County after growing up in Mecklenburg County — Western North Carolina is a character in and of itself throughout his work.

“When I sit down to begin a story, the canvas isn’t blank in that there is already a landscape. There are already mountains and streams and buildings and roads, so that when a character finally arises, that character claws himself from the ground,” Joy says. “Because he emerges from that ground, he already has a name and an accent and mannerisms that are tied directly to the dirt from which he rose.”

But as Joy has gotten older, he’s become increasingly interested in the way a place changes in terms of its physical landscapes and the people who inhabit it. Both concepts have likewise helped shape his keynote address.

“The history of all places is a story of displacement. Something must be removed for something new to take root,” he says. “That changing of the tide interests me, especially with regard to Appalachia and Western North Carolina as a region. What does it mean to belong to this place? What does it mean for a story to be rooted here? Who gets to tell that story? I think all of those things are questions I’ve been wrestling with the past few years.”

The new South

Such contemplations are simpatico with the aims of CMLF Director Katie Anne Towner, who sees the event as “a cornerstone of Burnsville literary history.” Since its debut in 2006, she says, the festival has provided a chance for writers and readers to build connections, share stories and discuss ideas, celebrating the traditions of Southern literature while simultaneously growing them. She adds that this community building was sorely missed over the past two years, during which restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic made it impractical to hold the event.

CAPTIVATED: Asheville-based author Terry Roberts speaks at the 2019 edition of the festival. Photo courtesy of CMLF

“We intentionally cultivated a festival this year that was a quieter return that focuses on our mission: to bring together — in relational settings — authors, readers of all ages, novice writers, listeners and learners,” Towner says. “Most of the authors published the works they are presenting in 2020 and 2021, so the festival this year will very much be a reflection of ideas and themes that emerged in all of our lives during the pandemic.”

The 2022 lineup of authors also intentionally brings a multitude of viewpoints, backgrounds and ideas to CMLF. According to Towner, each session will include a statement to “acknowledge the brave spaces we create when we bring our hearts and minds together in discussion; encourage curiosity, respect, sincerity and brevity from one another; and welcome all voices and perspectives, embracing ‘controversy with civility’ when disagreements arise.”

The diversity of artists and opinions is key for Joy as well, as he considers the current state of Southern literature and how it continues to evolve and embrace a broader range of perspectives.

He points to his friend Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, who will also be at CMLF, and her award-winning book Even as We Breathe, the first novel ever published by a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He also highlights West Virginia native Neema Avashia‘s  2022 debut memoir, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. Not very long ago, he notes, that story would not have had the opportunity to find its readers.

“I think we’re at a really beautiful moment in literature in a lot of ways where we’re finally getting a more complex and fuller understanding of the lives that are lived in this place,” he says. “There’s a lot more work to be done, but making headway toward more inclusivity [and] expanding that stage is the most positive and hopeful change I’ve witnessed over the past few decades with regards to the literature of the American South.”

WHAT: Carolina Mountains Literary Festival,
WHERE: Downtown Burnsville. See website for schedule
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 8-10. Free-$35


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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