Last Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. She was in Paris to celebrate the launching of her latest book The Candy House in French, as well as participating in Festival America. I belong to a writing group through AAWE (Association of American Women in Europe). Through a unique partnership of AAWE, Editions Robert Laffont, and AAWE, Jennifer spoke at the beautiful American Center for Art and Culture in the 16ème. My writing group had the honor of being volunteers at the event on Friday.
I’m embarrassed to admit that before this summer I had not read any of her books. When I learned she was making a special appearance at ACAC, I read three of her books backwards! First the Candy House (2022), then Manhattan Beach (2016), and finally A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011). My overall impression was that this was one brilliant woman who had an ultra creative mind and was also very complex. I wasn’t sure I understood The Candy House very well and resorted to reading reviews in the NYTimes and New Yorker. I was a bit afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow her thinking.
I had absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Jennifer walked into the venue with a backpack slung over her shoulder, a simple black top, a short skirt, and knee high boots. She greeted everyone with a huge smile. The room filled up with a large Franco-American crowd of at least one hundred people. Answering questions posed by the interviewer, she gave generous, thoughtful answers and captured everyones’ hearts. When someone asked her “Do you think young people are still reading?” her response got a rocking spontaneous applause. “Reading is the only way that someone can step into someone else’s head. The world now is full of devices. My sons have told me that apps are built to be addictive, but looking at the phone keeps you on the outside. I say put your device in another room and read for pleasure. Nobody is selling you anything when you read a book. Reading is an act of resistance!”
When asked about her favorite books, she responded, House of Mirth by Edith Warton and The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. “To me, they describe America.” When she signed the book I bought, she was as generous with her dedication as she was with her responses. It was clear to me that Jennifer was having fun. She used that word multiple times in describing her writing, how she wrote, what inspired her, how her thought processes went.
I mentioned that she was here as a part of Festival America. FA was founded twenty years ago by a Frenchman who wanted to shine a light on American writers who were under-represented by the media. African American authors, indigenous authors, Asian-American authors. It has evolved into an every other year celebration of American authors. “An unparalleled event, the AMERICA festival (invites), every two years in Vincennes (Val-de-Marne, France), around 70 authors from North America (United States, Canada, Quebec, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti). Since 2002, it has set itself the goal of celebrating diversity on the other side of the Atlantic – a cultural mosaic that is Indian, Hispanic, African, Anglo-Saxon, French and Francophone – and giving the public the opportunity to better understand their cultural realities.”-actes-sud.fr
I had read recently that a nineteen year old young woman from Oakland, Leila Mottley, was long-listed for the Man Booker prize. Her book, Nightcrawling, has been applauded everywhere, translated into French, and won the Festival America prize at the end of the festival. I was so surprised to see her on the stage with the other authors. Afterwards, I saw her and told her that I was probably the only other person in the building from Oakland. She didn’t seem particularly impressed!
“A news item inspired Leila Mottley to write her novel, the first manuscript that she dared to intend for publication” writes Le Point, a french magazine, “In 2016, the media talked a lot about the rape of a young girl by the police and I was struck to see that we knew nothing about it. (Yet) they kept showing how the police lived the case. Women of color are particularly the target of violence because the law does not protect them in the same way. By imagining Kiara, I wanted to give the visibility she didn’t have at the time to this young black woman, to her world. And, to follow her into the night of prostitution, she had herself reread by a sex worker.”
I haven’t read the book yet but am so proud of her, a follow Oakland resident. A friend told me that the Bay Area Book Festival, in conjunction with the Oakland Museum, is planning an event for her in April, on the launch date of the paperback. Leila was asked to say something at the Opening Ceremony and she giggled like the teenager she is and spoke eloquently about what matters to her. She is something.
To finish this blog, I’m including a video of the Native Americans who performed a drumming concert for us.