Emily Bernard and literary luminaries return to Aspen
Aspen Words conference back in person after pandemic hiatus
What: ‘The Only Writing is Rewriting’ panel discussion
Who: Authors Emily Bernard, Laura Fraser and Peter Orner
When: Monday, 1:30 p.m.
Where: The Gant
How much: $50 for all Autumn Words talks
More info: A second in-person panel, “The Wrap-Up,” will run Thursday at 4 p.m.
The acclaimed and popular essayist Emily Bernard has been working with the literary nonprofit Aspen Words for almost two years now, but has never before been to Aspen in-person.
Such is the reality of the pandemic — and, Bernard noted in a phone interview, one of the wonders of virtual work — that one could form close bonds and do meaningful service without in-person interactions.
Bernard is making her first visit to Aspen next week, among the literary luminaries here for the Autumn Words writing conference and festival, which begins Sunday and runs through Friday.
Long known as “Aspen Summer Words” and hosted in June, the annual festival moved to the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic and rebranded for 2021 as Aspen Autumn Words. The six-day conference will host eight writing workshops in fiction, essay, poetry, memoir and editing with 76 students here. Along with Bernard, the faculty includes best-selling and high-profile writers including the novelists Luis Alberto Urrea (“House of Broken Angels”), Laura Fraser (“An Italian Affair”) and Rebecca Stead (“When You Reach Me”).
On Monday, Bernard will be on a public panel about revision. It’s one of just two in-person public panels at the festival this year, which also includes the in-person Book Ball fundraiser Tuesday night at the Hotel Jerome with a keynote by novelist John Grisham. In recent years, the festival has hosted one or two panels daily with faculty, but scaled back in this pandemic year and instead hosted a series of virtual panels in the month leading up to Autumn Words.
Bernard led the jury for last year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which was awarded to Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman.” It was Bernard’s first time working with the nonprofit, with which she’s become involved in several capacities.
Her relationship with the organization sprang from a new friendship with executive director Adrienne Brodeur after Bernard reviewed Brodeur’s 2019 memoir, “Wild Game,” for O Magazine, then met her in-person at a book fair. Along with serving on the prize jury and on the faculty at Autumn Words, Bernard is a permanent member of the Aspen Words Creative Council.
A professor at the University of Vermont, Bernard is on leave this semester on a Carnegie Fellowship, so this week marks her first time teaching in-person since before the pandemic. With ample safety measures in place for the conference — including vaccination and testing verification via the ReturnSafe app — she is excited to get back into a workshop.
“To be honest, it’s really crucial that the writers have a chance to get together,” she said in a Zoom interview from South Burlington. “There is just something that happens when you’re in the room — the energy and that magic that happens when you’re in communion.”
The personal essay workshop Bernard is teaching, she noted, is extremely diverse in age — ranging from writers in their 20s to their 80s — and race and background. That kind of diversity is a boon for a group focused on writing their personal stories, she said. Bernard has high hopes for the experience and for what she described as “the privilege to sit and be still … and focus on stories and get closer as human beings.”
“I want nothing less than for all of us to leave transformed and better, as humans,” Bernard added.
Bernard is currently working on a book, tentatively titled “Unfinished Women,” which she said is a series of biographical portraits of eight Black women of the early 20th century. Among them is are the actress Fredi Washington, who was deemed too light-skinned to play Black characters; Gladys Bentley, the lesbian blues singer who pushed the boundaries of gender roles in the 1920s; and Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and an enduring titan of the Harlem Renaissance. Bernard is looking at how and why these progressive figures were stifled by their times.
“Zora Neale Hurston was the first woman to ever get a Guggenheim Fellowship,” she noted. “So how does someone like that end up penniless and dying a pauper?”
The project follows her well-received and widely read 2019 essay collection, “Black is the Body,” which is among a handful of recent nonfiction books that found a new and wider readership in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests that swept across the U.S. It was among the short list of books — Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X Kendi’s “How to Be An Anti-Racist” among them — that filled Black Lives Matter reading lists that circulated widely in summer 2020 and were embraced by white audiences publicly eager to gain deeper understanding about the complexities of race relations in America.
Subtitled “Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine,” Bernard’s collection of connected personal essays delves into aspects of her life as a Black woman in the U.S., marrying a white man, being the victim of a random stabbing attack in the 1990s, adopting children and talking about racism with mostly white students in Vermont in an essay titled “Teaching the N-Word.”
Asked about being a part of the unofficial syllabus for the woke, Bernard said she was grateful to anyone who takes the time to read her work and said she was not interested in prescribing how she should be read. She also noted that the cascading crises of recent years, the pandemic and the invigorated movement for Black lives have clarified her purpose as a writer who works in the relative seclusion of the mountains in Vermont.
“I love the idea of playing a role in this moment,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I was feeling maybe some kind of survivor’s guilt living in this place with very low COVID numbers, which has a lot to do with our advantage of being in this state where I can spend my whole day looking out my window and see maybe five people in a day. … I was thinking ‘What am I doing here in my little fortress? How am I contributing to the healing that needs to happen? We’ve got staggering acts of racial injustice happening right in front of our eyes but here I am sitting in Vermont, surrounded by trees?’”
Then, she said, she read stories about people like an emergency room doctor who — at the height of the coronavirus surge — would read a bit before bed each night.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I can do. I can write something that will give him something to think about, give him an escape,” she said.
And if her writing can contribute to the current freedom movement, Bernard said, she is being of maximum service from her perch in Vermont: “I think my job as a writer is to tell the truth and to testify to what I believe as honestly as possible and try to help bring someone else to do the same. And it’s the same job regardless of what was happening in the world.”
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