BBF 2021 in Review: “Now What?”

Our full week of Boston Book Festival events for 2021 has come to a close, during which we gathered together (virtually) over our love of words to hear discussions about craft, scholarship, and imagination, and to interrogate the big ideas floating around in our world today.

While there was no planned theme this year, once you take the sessions as a whole, some thematic connections do emerge. One of them was authors looking to and learning from the past, and asking how history influences who we are today.

We saw it stating with our kickoff keynote, where Nicholas A. Christakis and Sandro Galea sought to place our current pandemic in the context of history. Tracy K. Smith spoke about using poetry to interpret the not-so-distant past, and Annette Gordon-Reed and Clint Smith discussed how public historians seek to uncover the stories of the past to tell today.

Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell told us about recreating the past in visual form for their graphic biography of John Lewis. George M. Johnson discussed how their childhood shaped their identity, along with Brian Broome, Kim McLarin, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein tracing how their past created their present personal narratives.

C. B. Lee and Bethany Morrow described their new YA explorations of past classics. P. Djèli Clark, Anita Kopacz, and Lucinda Roy also talked about how they’ve used past time periods to inform their speculative fiction.

Eddie R. Cole, Martha Jones, and Kate Masur detailed their scholarship on Black institutions of the past impacting the present, and Candace M. Fleming, Kekla Magoon, De Nichols, and Jamia Wilson traced past activism’s impact on the present. Both Tamara Payne and Tiya Miles detailed the research that goes into bringing people from the past alive today, from Malcolm X to slaves nearly forgotten by history.

Even in our story times, Jason Chin and Andrea Wang shared a story of past traditions continuing in the present, and Katie Yamasaki shared a story of a father moving on from his past.

Throughout the Festival, a few of our presenters referenced James Baldwin, and it was “Speculative Fiction” host Quentin Lucas who quoted him, saying “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” And that seemed a fitting theme for many of our BBF 2021 sessions.

But as readers and attendees, we have to ask the next question: “Now what?” It was this question—the idea of response and action—which was asked of the filmmakers in our post-screening discussion of A Reckoning in Boston. We’ve listened to authors discuss their work, and heard about their scholarship and research, or how they craft a story, or their road to publication, or how they lead a community of readers, or how they’re rethinking the workplace or everyday leadership.

So how do we respond? Now what?

For many, it may simply be sinking into a chair with a new good read and a happy ever after, alone or curled up with a furry friend. Or it may be reading a book to learn more about a particular topic you may be unfamiliar with. For some, it could be getting involved in their community, having been inspired or challenged by something they heard in one of the discussions. It may be cutting out plastic usage to lead a more sustainable life, or being the first in their workplace to try to end stigmas. For others, it could be responding through writing, and using fiction to comment on your experiences or to finally tell a family story. Or it may be responding through drawing and illustration, or by taking the next steps in your writing career. It may be as big as trying to change public policy, or as small as writing your first poem.

So, how will we, as readers and writers, let what we experienced last week at the BBF influence us going forward? The good news is that if you missed a session or two (or missed all of them!), replays are available at our Crowdcast channel, so you can rewatch and relive a discussion, or experience it for the first time.

We at the Boston Book Festival are also thinking about our past and present, and how that impacts our future as an organization as well. Fill out our survey to let us know what you’d like to see in the years to come.

Finally, we’ve learned from the past two years that what we expect the future to hold isn’t certain. But do sign up for our newsletter, and follow along on our social media channels to find out what we have planned next, as we have plenty more programming throughout the year in additional to our annual Festival!

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