Blame it on the pluff mud, the salty air, or the abundant sunshine. Whatever the reason, the Lowcountry is fertile ground for writers. Following in the footsteps of Charlestonians DuBose Heyward and Robert Jordan, best-selling authors like Bret Lott, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Alice Monroe, and many more continue to carry on the area’s literary legacy.
So when Capital BookFest founder and producer Kwame Alexander decided to expand his rapidly growing festival, Charleston seemed ripe for the picking.
“One of the first things we learn as writers is write what you know,” Alexander says. “So with this book festival, when we set out to expand it, I wanted to go to places that I knew, that I had a connection and relationship with people, first and foremost. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and have to prove my artistic integrity to folks.” He adds that, from a business standpoint, he was looking for places that didn’t already have book festivals.
Alexander first came to Charleston with the MOJA Festival in 2003 as a poet, hosting children’s writing workshops as well as poetry readings. In subsequent years, he built strong ties with members of Charleston’s arts community, including S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth. She was one of the first people he contacted when he decided to expandthe festival.
Wentworth quickly jumped on board and put Alexander in touch with a handful of local literary leaders, like Blue Bicycle Books’ Jonathan Sanchez and the College of Charleston’s Carol Ann Davis. “In a city with so many writers, it seemed like a book festival was long overdue,” Wentworth says.
Alexander started the original Capital BookFest in 2005 in Washington, D.C., inspired by a visit to the National Book Festival. Although the city already boasts a number of book festivals, Alexanderrealized that very few writers of colorwere represented.
“I found that to be a little disappointing, especially in the Washington, D.C. area, where there’s just such a diverse population of people from all over the world,” Alexander says.
“It was a little disconcerting to me,” he adds. “I decided rather than complain about this, let me do something about it.”
Alexander’s father, E. Curtis, is a publisher and author, and his mother, Barbara, is a storyteller and writer. Alexander’s book-centric upbringing (“It was like growing up in a perpetual book club,” he says) led him to build a career in writing, publishing, and producing events like BookFest. The D.C. festival has attracted an average of 5,000 people over the past three years, and this year it expanded to Maryland and Pennsylvania as well as Charleston.
Despite Alexander’s original reason for starting BookFest, it’s not limited to minority writers — it’s about representing the community in which it’s held.
“The flagship festival is in Washington, D.C., and it’s primarily African American because the community we’re in is primarily African American, and we really wanted to have writers that represented that community,” Alexander says. “With this expansion and choosing different cities, my feeling was that this festival would represent the community that it’s a part of. I knew that any festival in Charleston would have to be diverse because the community, especially the community of artists and writers, is diverse in and of itself. I think we accomplished that.”
The Charleston lineup includes appearances from Nikki Giovanni, Bret Lott, Beth Webb Hart, Jack Bass, Margot Theis Raven, Jenny Sanford, Dori Sanders, and chefs Nathalie Dupree and Holly Herrick. Wentworth will also present, and Alexander will offer free copies of his new children’s book to the first 1,000 visitors to the library. Celebrity guests include Victoria Rowell, author and longtime star of The Young and the Restless, as well as children’s book author Roscoe Orman, a.k.a. Gordon from Sesame Street.
“Our theme has always been strengthening families through reading,” Alexander says. “We wanted to be geared toward families, not C-SPAN or a solely academic audience. In each city we’ve gone to, we’ve been able to maintain that purpose. I think that’s what makes us different from other book festivals.”
Activities throughout the day include workshops, readings, musical performances, and a kids’ zone.
“Basically the library is being turned into this big interactive book festival,” Alexander says. “This is like a book lover’s dream. We’re taking the page to the stage.”
The range of activities — and the fact that everything is free — helps achieve the event’s mission of spreading literacy to theentire community. Free parking is available at the Aquarium, and the full schedule is online.
“To bring a festival to the community, you want everyone to feel a part of it,” Wentworth says. “We all want to increase literacy and get families involved with reading, and this is kind of a fun way to do that. The more people we can reach in the community, the better.”