The 2007 Wisconsin Book Festival was in full swing by Friday evening, with enough words leaping off the page through authors' readings that some federal agency somewhere might have been justified in issuing a Literary Advisory.
Nowhere was the word density greater than at the "Trinidad Meets El Barrio" program featuring Willie Perdomo and Roger Bonair-Agard, but there were also lyrical bounties to be found in The Progressive magazine Editor Matt Rothschild's appearance in conjunction with his book You Have No Rights and in the tandem appearance by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and South African writer Zakes Mda at the Overture Center, where I began my evening.
What a way to start off the night. Adichie is the acclaimed author of Purple Hibiscus, and finds herself at the center of a contemporary renaissance in Nigerian literature. Her new book, Half of a Yellow Sun, is set in the context of the Biafran civil war that threatened to rip apart Nigeria 30 years ago but has already begun to fade in memory, as Adichie explained while introducing the passages from which she read and in the discussions that followed. She is an assured and confident reader of her work, which is lyrical in tone and keen in the details of its descriptions and dialogue.
As such, Adichie was a fine match for Mda, a giant of South African letters whose work spans playwriting and novels such as his latest, Cion, which intermixes several narrative lines to tell a story that spans continents, oceans and history. Mda is quite a powerful presence, an animated figure whose stature is enhanced by the esteem in which his work is held. A compelling reader, he uses his arms and hands in forceful gestures that amplify what he is saying. His exchanges with UW Prof. Daniel Kunene during the question-and-answer period that followed the two authors' readings made for engaging theater.
Mda's dynamic presence made for a smooth transition to "Trinidad Meets El Barrio: Nuyorican Poets Bring the Noise." Held in the auditorium at the Wisconsin Historical Society building on the UW's Library Mall, the program paired two-time National Poetry Slam champion Roger Bonair-Agard and spoken-word innovator Willie Perdomo in a blazing display of poetic pyrotechnics that repeatedly pulled the trigger on right here right now and sometimes turned in the space of a syllable from rapid-fire staccato rhythms to freeze-frame stop-action metrics bold enough to stop bullets.
Both were in top form and pulled in the support of a partisan audience that lent the auditorium the atmosphere of a secular gospel tent. Bonair-Agard and Perdomo are both scheduled to perform during Saturday night's "Talking Gods & Lyrical Legacies: All-Star Showcase of the Diaspora" starting at 8 p.m. at the Wisconsin Union Theater, along with the Midwest Spoken Word All Stars, the First Wave Multicultural Arts Ensembles, Afro-Cuban chanteuse Bobi Cespedes and Malian griot great Alhaji Papa Susso.
Go! If you don't, you risk regret at the missed opportunity.
Within minutes of finishing the short walk from the Historical Society to the UW's Red Gym, whatever fire I'd carried away from the Nuyorican Poets had been doused by the chill of what Matt Rothschild was telling the audience that had assembled for his appearance with Chris Finan, author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America.
Finan had finished his presentation by the time I arrived, but Rothschild was just getting started on his overview of the cases he has compiled between the covers of You Have No Rights. Hearing his recitation of stories involving assault after assault on people's fundamental constitutional rights, you come to realize that the title of his book is not hyperbole.
These are real stories about real people whose right to freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom to be secure in their selves and belongings and homes has been trespassed upon, compromised or flat-out denied. Friday night, Rothschild ended his talk by saying he perceived some indication the tide might be turning as patriotic U.S. citizens and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union turn to the courts to try to restore their constitutional rights.
But he tempered this hopeful note by cautioning that some people have suggested the imposition of martial law might be necessary in the event of a second attack comparable to 9/11. When he said this, you could feel the temperature plunge.