Irish novelist Edna O’Brien spoke at Friday night’s BABEL series, now in its 10th year, presented by Just Buffalo Literary Center, now in its 40th year. Kleinhans Music Hall was full, as usual for these events, and after a particularly warm introduction by Artistic Director Barbara Cole, the octogenarian author (born in 1930) came out to a standing ovation. O’Brien was the 39th author so far on this series. Originally held at Babeville, where every author event was a sell-out due to the limited 900-person capacity, the move to Kleinhans years ago signaled just how successful this book-club-writ-large is.
The authors are major voices in the world, some with a Nobel Prize, many with Man Booker prizes, or other major awards. Some are rock stars, such as Patti Smith, many are public figures such as Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, or Richard Blanco, all are “literary rock stars.” Some authors read from their featured book, others read some and talk some, and still others such as O’Brien speak for an hour usually on the topics of reading and writing and how they interact with the world.
If this is all new to you, Just Buffalo has posted “40 stories” (very short videos) on their website, one of which features Deborah Ott explaining how she came to create the literary center and the origin of the name “Just Buffalo.”
In another video former Artistic Director Mike Kelleher discusses the early days of the BABEL series. The word “babel” by the way, comes from the teleological story in Genesis of how the Lord confounded human language so that as a species we would be divided and not so proud.
But BABEL is certainly a point of pride for Buffalo, situated on an international border, and known far and wide as very welcoming to refugees. Of course it helps that, despite the many languages of origin of the authors, English is the modern “lingua franca” and given the size of the North American market, all of the books discussed, if not written in English, have been translated. While we Americans may not be bi-lingual, every author who comes is, and speaks to the audience in English. And some of the accents heard over the past ten years were so lovely, including not only Ms. O’Brien’s lilting County Clare Irish accent, but the voices of Nigeria, Iran, India, China, Haiti, Cuba, and Chile, just to name a few favorites.
The featured book of this past evening was THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS, a novel which, among other themes, deals with the genocide inflicted by Radovan Karadzic, the “Butcher of Bosnia.” The title comes from a 2012 event, observing the 20th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo, when 11,541 red chairs were set out on the main street of the town to commemorate the lives of the victims, including 600 little red chairs representing the children who had been killed.
Edna O’Brien herself, in person, is quite funny while her many novels are quite the opposite, something she observed during the evening.
Edna O’Brien herself, in person, is quite funny while her many novels are quite the opposite, something she observed during the evening. During her talk and the audience Q&A moderated by Barbara Cole, Ms. O’Brien graciously took time to celebrate two American authors in particular – William Faulkner and Emily Dickenson.
On a related note, there is an EMILY DICKINSON COMMUNITY MARATHON READING scheduled for SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 2017 from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, 724 Delaware Avenue (near Summer Street) in Buffalo. Co-sponsored by the University at Buffalo English Department, Just Buffalo Literary Center, Security Credit Systems, and Talking Leaves Books everyone is invited to join in reading all 1,789 of Dickinson’s poems. The public is invited to come to read or just to listen for some or all of the 13-1/2 hour long event. You do not need to register or sign up in advance. Copies of the poems will be provided. For more information visit www.edmarathonreading.com
The next BABEL event will bring the 40th author to the series, Dave Eggers, who will speak on Thursday, April 20, starting at 8:00 p.m. at Kleinhans Music Hall. The featured book will be A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. All books from past and future Babel authors are available at Talking Leaves books. In light of Just Buffalo’s and BABEL’s commitment to involving students in writing, Barbara Cole encouraged everyone to listen to Dave Eggers’ TED talk in advance of his visit to Buffalo.