The Conference on Southern Literature, which will be presented here Thursday through Saturday, is a cultural and educational benchmark for Chattanooga, for Hamilton County and for the surrounding region. The event, the 16th biennial of its name, has earned an enviable national reputation for excellence, always attracts an avid and engaged audience, and, coincidentally, produces a positive economic impact for the community.
This year's conference, sponsored as always by the Arts and Education Council, marks the 22nd anniversary of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, which houses its valuable archives at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and holds its meeting in association with the writer's conference. It's proved to be a happy partnership. The union of fellowship with the conference is beneficial to participants, to those who attend the event and to the region at large.
As has become its practice over the years, this week's conference promises to provide a gathering where an engaging mix of writers who have earned enviable reputations for their work and writers who are no less skilled but who are just beginning to attract widespread acclaim. The result is a gathering that benefits both those whose names grace the program and those in the audience.
If the past is any indication of what might occur during the public sessions of upcoming conference, it's likely that there will be lively - even memorable - repartee on stage as well as instructive and entertaining discussion between writers and those attending the conference. That sort of talk is a signature of the event.
The understandably popular conference is expanding this year - from two and a half days to three days of events. Conference highlights include the premiere of "Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story," a film directed by Kevin McCarthy. It will open the conference on Thursday at the Tivoli, site of most conference events. A full and savory program will continue to unfold over the course of the conference.
Among other highlights are keynote presentations by Dorothy Allison and Roy Blount Jr., and the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Ernest J. Gaines, author of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "Lessons Before Dying", during a Saturday luncheon at the Convention and Trade Center. The fellowship will award its usual bevy of prizes, including the Robert Penn Warren Fiction Prize to Elizabeth Cox, a Chattanooga native. Cox also will be installed, along with 11 others, as new member of the fellowship during the event.
A special tribute to Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is scheduled as well. The notoriously shy Lee won't attend, but that does not diminish her achievement or the reasons for the tribute. Also scheduled is a dramatic reading of "Cicada," a play by Jerre Dye. It won the Fellowship's drama prize, and Dye will participate in its reading at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre on Friday evening.
There's something new at the conference this year, and it promises to be a crowd-pleaser. "Book Notes" - an after-party event - will take place after Allison's address on Friday evening. The gathering at the Tanner Hill Gallery at Warehouse Row will feature the art work of writers and fellowship members Clyde Egerton and Louis Rubin. Admission to "Book Notes" is included with registration, thereby giving event attendees a chance to meet, greet and mingle with guest speakers in what promises to be a most pleasant - and elegant - setting.
Conference participants include a "Who's Who" of men and women prominent not only in the nation's literary life. The list includes Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Ron Rash, Wendell Berry, Richard Bausch, Josephine Humphreys, Ann Patchett, Toney Early, Beth Henley, Charles Frazier and Natasha Trethewey. The event is not limited to downtown venues and to authors of note. Its outreach programs are especially expansive - and impressive.
On Tuesday from 6-8:30 p.m. at the Tivoli, winners of the AEC's annual and ever-growing Young Southern Student Writers contest for grades K-12 will be presented with medals. About 5,000 students - a record - submitted entries for the contest, which is conducted in partnership with the English Department at UTC.
Workshop for teachers
On Wednesday, local educators will participate in a creative writing workshop for teachers. It will be held at the Hamilton County Teachers Training Center on West 40th Street. Twenty participating writers also will visit local high schools to discuss their work and the writing process. Other writers will attend meetings of 10 local book clubs. These events are similar to ones in the past and have been scheduled and in some cases expanded because of widespread interest and increased demand.
Local and area residents, naturally, are invited to attend the numerous events that are part of the celebration of writers and writing. General admission tickets for the all three days as well as single-day tickets are still available. Discounts for full-time students are available, as well. Call the Arts and Education Council at 423-267-1218 or visit the www.SouthernLitConference.org website for additional information or to register.