Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature’s 2022 Book Festival to put big ideas and local authors into the spotlight

Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature’s 2022 Book Festival to put big ideas and local authors’ books into the spotlight Highly esteemed authors from across the nation will present a variety of books meant both to entertain the audience and educate them on some of the most important issues of our times.


Matt Sindt

Photo illustration by Matt Sindt

Vaishnavi Kolluru, Arts Reporter

Iowa City’s contributions to literature are innumerable and brilliant. Renowned writers have found inspiration and support in Iowa City, and institutions dedicated to the pursuit of literature thrive here.

To celebrate and honor Iowa City’s importance to the literary community, UNESCO sponsors the annual Iowa City Book Festival.

This year’s festival will take place from Sept. 28 to Oct. 13 in a variety of locations that foster reading and writing, including the Iowa City Public Library, Prairie Lights Bookstore, and the University of Iowa’s Main Library.

By Ryan Hansen/The Daily Iowan

Executive Director of Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature John Kenyon has played an integral role in putting the festival together. He said the festival will elevate Iowa City’s literary life.

“Literature is the thread that holds together the fabric of our community,” Kenyon said. “Having a book festival that really shines a bright light on literature for a couple of weeks brings in people from outside who maybe don’t normally interact with us, raises awareness about local writers who have been toiling away and maybe get lost in the shuffle as we continue to tout all the big names.”

Kenyon said this year’s festival will be celebrated for longer than usual, as it is the first time since the pandemic that the literary community can enjoy the events in person. The festival will also be one of the largest held in its 14-year history, with 40 events taking place over the two-week span.

“That is a week longer than we normally would do, but this year we had so many things that we wanted to do, so many partner organizations that wanted to do things with us that it just necessitated expanding the schedule,” Kenyon said.

While the festival is meant to be a social and entertaining activity for book lovers, many presenters also hope to utilize their platform to comment on pressing societal issues and intellectual questions.

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“We see the festival as contributing to ongoing conversations within our community,” Kenyon said. “There are a lot of larger topics that people are talking about when they get together, like race, like violence, like environmentalism — a lot of our authors address those topics.”

James Throgmorton is one author who wishes to speak on an issue at the heart of public interest at the festival.

As the former mayor of Iowa City, he was one of the leaders of the city’s mission from 2012-2019: to become more inclusive and sustainable. His new book, “Co-crafting the Just City,” is a non-fiction account of his experiences striving for this goal, and he will discuss it during one of the festival’s events.

“As a former member of the City of Literature’s board and as a former Iowa City council member and mayor, I strongly support [Iowa City’s Book Festival],” Throgmorton said. “I greatly look forward to being one of this year’s participants, especially given the outstanding lineup of invited writers.”

Another presenter is author Jerald Walker, who wishes to comment on race, a topic he said is of great importance. Walker is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a professor at Emerson College, and a highly esteemed writer. The event will focus on his latest book, “How to Make a Slave.”

“On the issue of race and racism and how people deal with it, we have a number of authors, but the one I would highlight the most is Jerald Walker,” Kenyon said. “He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, and he is a National Book Award finalist for his book ‘How to Make a Slave.’ It is a collection of essays that deals very much with how we grapple with race in our everyday lives. I know his talk is going to be very thought-provoking.”

Walker hopes presenting his book at the Festival will make it more accessible to people facing situations similar to what he went through.

“It is a collection of essays,” Walker said. “They are based on my experiences as a husband, father, writer, and as an American citizen who happens to be Black and what it means to be a Black person in this country who is working, teaching, parenting in this country, and the difficulties sometimes that that presents as well as all of the opportunities.”

Walker is excited for the opportunity to present his book.

“I recognize what an important festival this is,” Walker said. “Iowa City is known for its respect for writers and writing. They do their most to promote literature. It’s an honor to be invited to it, and I’m happy to participate.”

Beth Livingston, a professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, is another author who sees the festival as an opportunity for people to become better informed about social justice. She co-wrote a book recently with Tina Opie, a professor of organizational behavior at Babson College.

The book is called “Shared Sisterhood: How to Take Collective Action for Racial and Gender Equity at Work.” Livingston said it began with her co-writer Opie’s perplexity as to why women found it so difficult to connect with one another.

“[Opie] had started thinking about this idea of ‘if we are all women, why is it that Black and white women seem to be so divided at work?’” Livingston said. “She said [she felt] like we should all be fighting for women’s equity, so what’s dividing us, what’s keeping us apart?”

Through their presentation and their book, Livingston and Opie aspire to solve some of these problems.

“I’m excited to talk to employees, managers, companies — anyone who is like, ‘okay, I really care about equity — but I don’t know how to connect with other people who are different from me. I don’t know how we can bond together to create this change,” Livingston said. “Our book is kind of a step-by-step on how to do that.”

Journalist, author, and UI professor Don McLeese will entertain and educate at the festival through a conversation with an old journalist colleague, Kyle Munson, on his book “Slippery Steps: Rolling and Tumbling Towards Sobriety.”

“One of the reasons that I wrote that book is that a lot of recovery books are presented from [perspectives of] people [whose] life fell apart, marriage fell apart; people who lost their health and job — making it seem like one would only change one’s life if one hit that sort of rock bottom,” McLeese said.

Aside from hosting these conversations on these urgent contemporary social and moral issues, the organizers of the Book Festival also want to remember and deepen the audience’s appreciation of influential classics.

Darrin Crow, Iowan storyteller and teacher, will perform some of the most reputed works of poet Edgar Allan Poe as part of a performance titled “Morbid Curiosities and Mabbott Poe.”

“It’ll be cool to present the program,” said Crow, “It is a first-person account, so it is essentially a visit with Poe, and through what he shares, the stories from his life and also some of better-known stories and poems.”

Anna Barker is a humanities professor at the UI. She offers free tutorials on classics of world literature throughout the year and hopes to spread awareness about these tutorials. Barker will also host a screening of Victor Hugo’s chef-d’oeuvre “Les Miserables” at the festival.

“I like to celebrate a book’s birthday,” said Barker, explaining that the screening will commemorate the 160th anniversary of the novel.

Through this eclectic mix of events, the Book Festival organizers hope to honor and nurture Iowa City’s literary tradition. Aron Aji, director of UI’s translation programs, is volunteering as an organizer of this year’s festival. He spoke enthusiastically about how this festival will enliven IC’s literary circles.

“The Book Festival is a wonderful celebration of all things written and literary; very fitting for our city and the university given the extraordinary concentration of creative writers and artists in our community,” Aji said. “Iowa City is known for its love of literary arts, and the Book Festival is a signature event to mark it.”