Houston’s literary scene shows signs of surviving – and thriving post-pandemic

BIPOC Book Festival founders Brooke Lewis, Jaundrea Clay, and Brittany Britto; Houston Poet Laureate Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean; and Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton at Kindred Stories Bookstore / Photo by J. Vince

From national grants to the new BIPOC Book Fest and the return of Writefest, recent developments suggest that Houston’s literary scene is recovering, returning, and growing as we emerge from the pandemic.

Five Houston literary groups will receive aid from the Literary Emergency Fund, which announced last week $4.3 million in funding to support 313 literary nonprofits and publishers across the U.S. – as these groups experience continued financial losses due to COVID-19 and as literary magazines struggle to stay afloat.

The 2022 Houston recipients are:

Launched in 2020, the Literary Emergency Fund is administered by the Academy of American Poets, the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses, and the National Book Foundation, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

“In some ways, this year was even more challenging than last year for literary organizations and publishers, as there were fewer opportunities to receive emergency funding but also increased costs including producing hybrid events,” said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, in a statement.

The emergency funding helps these organizations continue to serve readers, writers, students, and teachers, who “rely on our country’s vibrant ecosystem of literary magazines, presses, and organizations — one that reveals the power and the possibility of the literary arts to the broader public,” according to Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation.

With plans first announced last fall, Houston’s inaugural BIPOC Book Fest is coming to fruition and takes place this weekend, April 23 – 24.

While the city has seen other notable efforts to support writers of color, the festival is the first of its kind in Houston centered on literary works by and about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are underrepresented in U.S. publishing.

An analysis of children’s books in 2020 shows that only 8% were written by Black authors and 12% centered Black characters, while 7% were by Latinx authors and 6% were about Latinx characters – with those percentages changing little in 2021.

Founded by Houston journalists Brittany Britto GarleyJaundrea Clay, and Brooke Lewis, who grew up with a love of school book fairs, the festival aims to encourage reading through representation, inclusion, and dialogue.

It kicks off on Saturday, April 23 at Buffalo Soldiers Museum with a book fair for adults and teens. The day also includes panels on book banning, the state of Latino literature and publishing, contemporary voices of the Asian diaspora, and comic books, as well as a poetry showcase featuring Texas Poet Laureate Lupe Mendez and Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans. Tickets and a full schedule are available here.

The festival continues on Sunday, April 24 at Smither Park with the Little BIPOC Book Fest, a free children’s event aimed at developing and empowering young readers.

This comes at a time when Houston-area schools are seeing a widening gap in student reading levels due to the pandemic.

The Little BIPOC Book Fest will feature book giveaways, writing workshops, crafts, and storytime with award-winning authors, including Jasminne Mendez and Alda P. Hobbs. Free tickets can be reserved here.

The indie writers’ festival, Writefest, is back after a two-year hiatus.

Founded in 2016 by the Houston grassroots literary nonprofit Writespace, the festival grew from a desire to help local writers not only improve their craft but also connect them with agents, teach them about the industry, and build community.

“The last Writefest was planned for 2020. We already had our keynote selected (poet Jericho Brown, who won the Pulitzer Prize that year), and we were forced to cancel,” said Holly Lyn Walrath, the festival’s coordinator and a board member of Writespace, in an email.

“In 2021, Writespace underwent a shift in board management, and we felt it wasn’t yet safe for all of our writers to hold an in-person event,” she said.

This year, the festival made the decision to go virtual, April 29 – 30.

Nearly 50 editors and writers – many Houston- and Texas-based, as well as those from around the country – will present online writing workshops and panels on topics like submissions, podcasting, publishing, slam poetry, horror fiction, writing for young writers, inclusivity and representation, writing sexuality and gender, and writing through trauma.

There will be two in-person events – a free open mic on April 29 at The Orange Show and a Writefest Social on April 30 at City Orchard Cidery.

A complete schedule and registration details are available here.

“We’ve made this year’s festival more intimate and virtual, so while there are fewer panels than in the past, I think the events will serve our diverse literary community in new ways,” said Walrath. “Writers are starved for engagement.”

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