For New Mexican lovers of literature, there's no greater boon to our state than the Lannan Foundation's excellent Readings and Conversations series. Every year, the powerhouse philanthropic and cultural organization, based in Santa Fe since 1997, brings the superstars of contemporary literature to the Lensic Performing Arts Center to read from their work and then engage in an on-stage discussion.
This year, the series kicked off Oct. 1 with Irish Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney. Famed Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to town in the middle of that month, followed by the rabble-rousing editor of Harper's, Lewis Lapham, who mixed it up with the host of "Democracy Now!," Amy Goodman, at the end of the month. Rita Dove, the former poet laureate of the United States, gave a reading on Nov. 5.
The season's still just beginning, though, and will stretch all the way through May of next year. Although these events often sell out quickly, several Lannan readings are broadcast live on KUNM 89.9 FM. Santa Fe's public radio station, KSFR 90.7 FM, broadcasts all of them the Sunday following each reading.
Thanks to Lannan, an incredible circus of literary bigwigs will be coming to our state who otherwise might never even consider coming here. "Some of the people on the roster have won Lannan awards or have been considered for them in the past," says Christie Mazuera Davis, Lannan's Art and Public Programs Manager. "Others are simply people we're interested in who we'd like to bring to New Mexico."
The process of selection is fairly simple. "We receive some suggestions from our literary committee, then our staff gets together and comes up with a dream list," Davis says. "Surprisingly—or maybe not so surprisingly because people love to come to New Mexico—we almost always get everyone who's on our list."
This year is certainly no exception. On Nov. 19, famed Pakistani writer Tariq Ali will be at the Lensic. Ali became embroiled in radical politics at a very young age. During the height of the Vietnam War, as a student in Britain, he made a name for himself by engaging in debates with the likes of Henry Kissinger. The four historical novels making up Ali's Islam Quartet portray Islamic civilization in a deliberately unorthodox manner.
South African writer and Nobel winner Nadine Gordimer is next up. She'll be at the Lensic on Dec. 3. Gordimer's short stories and novels are inspired by the political and social dynamics of her home country. They examine what she refers to as the master-servant relationship characteristic of South African life as well as different disturbing aspects of colonialism and liberalism. At the Lensic, she'll be reading from her new book of short stories, Loot and Other Stories, and conversing with Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Next year, on March 3, the renowned critic and fiction writer Susan Sontag will give a Lannan reading. In addition to authoring many ground-breaking books, Sontag has also written and directed four feature-length films and a play. She is undoubtedly one of the most respected and controversial literary figures currently at work in America.
Near the end of the series, on May 12, prolific fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates will take to the Lensic stage. A professor of creative writing at Princeton since 1978, Oates will discuss her life and work with Michael Silverblatt, host and producer of public radio's literary talk-show, "Bookworm."
Those are some of the bigger names. In between, you'll find readings from some equally stellar but less well known authors. "John McGahern [April 7] is an Irish writer," says Davis. "He's sort of toward the end of his career. He's been writing for many, many years but has only been widely known, really, in Europe. We're really excited to bring him to the States. Then Timothy Ferris [April 28], who probably not everyone has heard of, is a little different from others in the series. He's a nonfiction writer who writes about astronomy in a very accessible way and has done a couple of specials for PBS."
Finally, capping off the 2003-2004 series is an event called "Exile, Writing and Cultural Freedom" on May 28. "The Lannan Foundation focuses on four different areas," says Davis, "art, literature, indigenous communities and also what we call cultural freedom."
Lannan defines cultural freedom as "the right of individuals and communities to define and protect valued and diverse ways of life currently threatened by globalization." The May 28 event is a benefit for the International Network of Cities of Asylum (INCA). "This organization," says Davis, "supports writers that have been exiled from their own countries, either by themselves or by their governments, due to some kind of threat." Writers who have suffered from or written extensively about persecution will be present, including Svetlana Alexievich (War Doesn't Have a Woman's Face), Russell Banks (current INCA president), Jayne Cortez, Chinese dissident Bei Dao and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.
All in all, Lannan is presenting an astonishing array of great writers and events this season. Jump on the Lannan bandwagon. You might not have a chance to witness these writers again in person for a very long time.