Literature enriches Chattanooga's culture

It's not often that a city hosts a nationally notable public gathering of prominent authors and prize-winning playwrights and poets to read to their readers; and to talk about their work, their characters, and the process of creative writing. It's even more rare that such eminent authors and artists come together to bring their work to life in the cozy atmosphere of a charming old theater auditorium, and in small-group sessions in more intimate venues near the Tivoli. But it happens here in Chattanooga every two years.

This week from Thursday through Saturday the Southern Lit Alliance presents the 17th biennial Celebration of Southern Literature. Among the many stars at this literary festival will be:

n Lee Smith, a prolific writer whose novel, The Last Girls, was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award;

n Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer winner and poet laureate of the United States, a gifted and brilliant poet whose recent book of poetry, Thrall, explores her own historical and personal interracial roots;

n Roy Blount Jr., a noted humorist - often heard on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" - and nonfiction writer whose downhome Southern heritage and narratives enchant journals from Garden & Gun to The New Yorker to the Oxford American.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley will deliver the keynote address. Arthur Golden, a native son whose best-seller first novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," prompted an Academy Award-winning movie, will have an on-stage conversation with Bob Bernhardt. Novelists Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle will take turns doing readings, and award-winning musicians Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg will interpret their passages musically.

Other participants whose names will resonate with readers here include Clyde Edgerton, Richard Bausch, Allan Gurganus, Claudia Emerson, Andrew Hudgins, Randall Kenan, Dave Smith, Jamie Quatro, Bobbie Ann Mason and Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Oh, there's also film. "The Rough South of Larry Brown," named one of 13 Essential Southern Documentaries by Oxford American Magazine, will be presented. It weaves interviews of Brown and his wife, Mary Annie, with narrative adaptations of three of his short stories. Other features of the Celebration will include dramatic scenes on stage and in narratives. Readings by new members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the organization that founded the Celebration, will feature Tim Gautreaux and Maurice Manning.

The examples here are quick samples of the range of readings, panels and conversations among the writers that will take place over the three days of the event. A complete listing of the individual break-out sessions, main events and topics is easily found on the Southern Lit Alliance's well-done website

Click on happenings, and then Celebration of Southern Literature to find out about the writers, tickets and schedules. Tickets for all or parts of the Celebration may be purchased online; or at the Tivoli, which will open at 10 a.m. on Thursday and 8 a.m. on Friday and Saturday; or by calling 267-1218.

Thanks to the Tivoli Theater capacity, there are still tickets available for the general sessions, and two of the three pre-Celebration sessions (one is sold-out). Area residents, to be sure, form just part of the Celebration's loyalists. Others come from up to 30 states, and there's usually a crowd of 800 to 1,000 at the Tivoli.

The Celebration is both a treat and a bonding experience for readers at any level. More broadly, it is a mainstay and a talisman of this community's embrace not just of southern literature, but more generally of the love of books, of reading and of the discovery of the world that great literature, poetry and plays unlocks. The digital age may change the format, but it doesn't alter the compelling expression of these arts. Readers who wish a deeper connection with the creators of such work will find at the Celebration.