Oxford Conference for the Book turns 30

Published 11:34 am Tuesday, March 26, 2024

By Lucy Gaines and Rebecca Lauck Cleary

University communications

The storied Oxford Conference for the Book returns to the University of Mississippi and downtown Oxford venues April 3-5 for its 30th-anniversary edition.

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A group of authors, including Willie Morris, Barry Hannah and Kaye Gibbons, convened April 2, 1993, for the first Oxford Conference for the Book to discuss “the dependence of literary arts upon practical concerns.”

Three decades later, the conference is the longest-running event sponsored by the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

This year’s conference features a robust lineup, due in part to a grant from Hawthornden Foundation, a private charitable organization supporting contemporary writers and the literary arts.

“We are committed to using this gift in ways that nurture both writing and reading in north Mississippi,” said Jimmy Thomas, the event’s director. “Furthermore, we envision this gift supporting the entire Oxford creative community. Hawthornden Foundation has presented us with an opportunity to imagine new and exciting ways of bringing the written word to Oxford and the University of Mississippi.”

All events are free and open to the public, except for the opening party, which is $50.

The conference is preceded on March 28 by the Children’s Book Festival, which the OCB plans and operates in collaboration with the Lafayette County Literacy Council, Junior Auxiliary of Oxford, First Regional Library and Square Books Jr.

The festival is open to Lafayette County first and fifth graders, and all attendees get a book of their own.

Memphis author Alice Faye Duncan, whose latest book is “Yellow Dog Blues” (Eerdmans Young Readers, 2022), and Karina Glaser, author of “The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), will read to children in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

Duncan’s program for the first graders will be an interactive presentation.

Alice Faye Duncan is set to read to children March 28 at the Ford Center as part of the Children’s Book Festival. Submitted photo

“The opening will include students learning and singing the chorus to Jimmy Reed’s ‘Big Boss Man’ and I will share how hip-hop evolved from blues music,” Duncan said. “Then I will read my celebrated blues fable, ‘Yellow Dog Blues’ along with my interactive Gospel stomp ‘This Train is Bound for Glory,’ which was featured on ‘Good Morning America’ this past fall.

“Because ‘Yellow Dog Blues’ is a fable that mentions tamales and Chinese sundry stores, I will share how once upon a time in history, Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese lived in the Delta and contributed to a fusion of food in that area.”

The Children’s Book Festival is underwritten by the Elaine Hoffman Scott Memorial Fund.

The OCB kicks off unofficially at 6 p.m. April 2, when Ole Miss English and creative writing professor Sheila Sundar has a book launch for her novel, “Habitations” (Simon and Schuster), at Off Square Books, 129 Courthouse Square.

The conference officially begins at 6 p.m. April 3 with the annual authors’ welcome party at Memory House, 406 University Ave. Tickets, which include food, drinks and music with members of the UM Jazz Ensemble, are available here.

The opening day of panel discussions begins at 9:30 a.m. April 4 in the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. Joseph McGill Jr. and Herb Frazier, authors of “Sleeping with the Ancestors” (Hachette Books, 2023), will discuss the book, which recounts McGill’s overnight stays in former slave dwellings, with Jodi Skipper, associate professor of anthropology and Southern studies.

Another panel is the third in a partnership with the National Book Foundation. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Chain Gang All-Stars,” and José Olivarez, “Promises of Gold,” will talk with Melissa Ginsburg at 11:30 a.m. April 4 in the Archives and Special Collections room of the J.D. Williams Library.

Ginsburg, UM associate professor of creative writing and literature whose most recent volume of poetry is “Doll Apollo” (LSU Press, 2022), said she is excited to speak with Olivarez and Adjei-Brenyah about their books.

“Both of these writers employ humor and tropes from contemporary culture to create work that is incredibly entertaining,” she said. “These books exemplify that elusive magical combination of qualities: they’re so much fun to read, and they carry so much import and depth that will stick with readers for a long time.”

Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson discusses essays from her New York Times-bestseller “Democracy Awakening,” a collection of her daily digests regarding American politics, at 1 p.m. April 4 at the Overby Center.

John and Renée Grisham Writers-in-Residence past and future convene at 2:30 p.m. in the Overby Center for a poetry session with January Gill O’Neil, author of “Glitter Road,” and H. Jerriod Avant, “Muscadine,” moderated by Saddiq Dzukogi, assistant professor of English at Mississippi State University.

O’Neil will talk about the importance of history and place when it comes to telling stories, which for her specifically means Oxford.

“Speaking at the Oxford Conference of the Book will be a sort of homecoming,” O’Neil said. “When I was here in 2019-20 as the Grisham fellow, becoming a part of the Oxford community changed my life.

“‘Glitter Road’ would never have happened without this place. The fellowship gave me the time and space to write the kind of book I was always meant to write.”

January Gill O’Neil is set to discuss her work as part of a poetry panel April 4 during the Oxford Conference for the Book. Photo by John Andrews

At 4 p.m., the conference shifts to Off Square Books, where Téa Obreht discusses her novel

“The Morningside” (Random House, 2024) with Snowden Wright. Other panelists include authors Jen Fawkes, Jennifer Maritza McCauley and Gabriel Bump in conversation with English professor Michael X. Wang.

“Thacker Mountain Radio Hour,” Oxford’s weekly live radio show featuring literary and musical guests, will host its annual OCB edition at 6 p.m. at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center, 413 South 14th St. The show will feature readings by Kaveh Akbar and music by Creekbed Carter Hogan, and Hope Clayburn and Soul Scrimmage.

Renowned author Andre Dubus III is the keynote speaker for both the conference and the Southern Literary Festival, which overlaps the conference, running April 4-6. He speaks at 3 p.m. April 5 in the ballroom of the Gertrude C. Ford Ole Miss Student Union.

Representatives from 10 Southern colleges, including Belhaven, Millsaps and Ole Miss, founded the Southern Literary Festival in 1937 to help undergraduate writers develop their craft while providing them with concentrated exposure to successful Southern authors.

Beth Spencer, SLF co-director, said she is excited to partner with the book conference this year, which marks the festival’s 85th year.

“We are delighted to celebrate the long history of the SLF and our participation in it, and thrilled to have the festival back on the University of Mississippi campus,” Spencer said. The festival rotates among member institutes.

Dubus is the award-winning author of eight novels, including “The House of Sand and Fog” (W.W. Norton, 1999), which was turned into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, and “Such Kindness” (W.W. Norton, 2023), several short story collections and the memoir “Townie” (W.W. Norton, 2011). His forthcoming collection of essays, “Ghost Dogs,” is set for publication this spring.

Winners of the Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing will be introduced at 4:30 p.m. April 5 at Off Square Books. The announcement will be followed by a closing reception featuring live music, book signings and libations.

Finally, a “Postscript: Noir at the Bar” party closes the conference at 9 p.m. at Ajax Diner, 118 Courthouse Square. It will include music by Kell Kellum and Bark, and readings from noir and crime writers including William Boyle, Michael Farris Smith, Lisa Howorth, David Joy, Tom Franklin, Derrick Harriell, Colin Brightwell, Tobi Ogundiran, Bea Setton, Tyler Keith, Max Hipp and Clair Lamb.

For more information or to RSVP to the authors’ party and welcome lunch, visit https://oxfordconferenceforthebook.com/.