This year’s Carolina Mountains Literary Festival boasts “on the move” as its theme, with speakers and sessions exploring immigration, migration and travel. “More and more we’re a mobile society,” says festival chair Kathy Weisfeld, who has led the event for five years. The festival returns to venues around downtown Burnsville Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 5-7.
Organizers also chose the theme with current events in mind. “We thought it was timely,” Weisfeld says, “because of the political situation with immigration.” And the festival’s kickoff event explores one immigrant’s story: On Thursday evening the Red Herring Puppets will perform My Grandfather’s Prayers, a multimedia performance that dramatizes the life of Izso Glickstein, a Jewish cantor who emigrated to the United States after enduring Russian pogroms, the White Terror in Hungary and both world wars.
Immigration will also play a role at the banquet on Friday evening when Asheville-based author Andrew Lawler speaks on his book The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
Lawler says that thanks to repeated childhood viewings of the Paul Green outdoor drama The Lost Colony, he “became fascinated with the idea of a big group of people simply vanishing.” This childhood interest was rekindled in 2015 when Lawler, by then an established science journalist, attended an archaeology conference in Oxford, England. He met a researcher there who claimed to have found traces of the lost Roanoke settlers in a site on the North Carolina coast.
Lawler soon learned that another rival team was also digging in the Outer Banks and that both teams hoped to prove that the colonists survived by assimilating with neighboring tribes. But, as Lawler continued his research, a more fascinating story emerged: how the missing settlers had become a mirror for America’s complex relationship with race and immigration.
As Lawler tells it, for 250 years, the few historians who took any interest assumed the Roanoke colonists must have assimilated. But, in the 19th century, consumed with anxiety over the influx of Irish immigrants and conflicted over the forced relocation of native tribes, Americans turned to the idea that the colonists’ disappearance was a mystery. “In 1830, the term ‘The Lost Colony’ was coined,” Lawler says, “and Virginia Dare was resurrected as the first English child born in the New World.” In this way, Dare’s fate, and the fate of the other colonists, became a barometer of white anxiety about race and integration. As Lawler puts it, by insisting on the colonists’ immutable Anglo character, “we lost the Lost Colony.”
The theme of migration within North Carolina continues with the Saturday keynote event featuring Charles Frazier. In conversation with Elaine Neil Orr, Frazier, whose novel Cold Mountain famously depicts one soldier’s journey from Raleigh to his home in the mountains, will discuss depictions of travel in his works. He will also read selected excerpts from his novels Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons.
The festival draws its lineup of authors and presenters largely from North Carolina and the wider South, though organizers hope their event will connect attendees to a larger world. Festival planners hoped that the theme of stories of migration, immigration and travel would include some Latinx authors. Unfortunately, none of the Latinx authors who were invited were able to attend.
Another leading literary figure presenting at the festival, Jaki Shelton Green, is herself a testament to how far one can travel in the state: In her first year as North Carolina’s first African American poet laureate, she’s appeared at more than 150 engagements across the state. She’s performed with symphonies, given convocation speeches and shared her own work, including one reading that drew hundreds to a Biscuitville restaurant in Greensboro.
Green will read poems from her soon-to-be-released eighth collection at two sessions at the Carolina Literary Festival.
Asked for her take on the themes of travel, migration and immigration, Green observes that “you can be an immigrant in your own country,” and that for her, “as a woman of color who is constantly crossing borders,” the topic is “layered.” She has crossed physical borders as well as spiritual ones: Born in the Piedmont, Green left home as a child after winning a scholarship to a prestigious Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. She moved to New England, then Switzerland.
“There was a world out there,” she says, “a globe out there, and I know that travel and the experience of crossing borders has made my writing voice stronger.”
These days, in addition to teaching at Duke University, Green organizes SistaWRITE retreats for women writers, held in locales such as the Outer Banks, Ireland and Morocco. The liberation of leaving home, Green says, “gives us permission to give ourselves the time to unplug, to just write. To think about the possibilities of how I’m going to go back home and create a similar sanctuary for myself.”
In all, the festival offers more than 40 separate events, with topics ranging from world building in science fiction to the ways music can inform poetry. And while not all of the sessions involve travel, migration and immigration, many do. “For me, that’s the most fun part,” says Weisfeld. “Thinking of authors, thinking of the theme and working them together.”
But at the heart of the festival is the intention to bring the world of writing into Burnsville — and into Western North Carolina. “We had attendees coming from 63 different ZIP codes last year,” Weisfeld says. “It brings varying communities together in a way they might not get together ordinarily.”
WHAT: Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, cmlitfest.org
WHERE: Various locations in downtown Burnsville
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 5-7. Most sessions are free, but some workshops, the Friday banquet, and the Charles Frazier keynote event have an admission fee. See website for details