Get Yourself to The Believer Festival
What Happens in Vegas is Art
Last spring, The Believer magazine made an unlikely move from San Francisco’s Mission District—where it was founded at McSweeney’s by Heidi Julavits, Ed Park and Vendela Vida—to the heart of Las Vegas, Nevada. The magazine’s new base is the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, which its director Joshua Wolf Shenk describes as “like a PEN Center, if it were hosted by a university, and surrounded by juniper trees and vintage neon.” Vida, noting the resonance between The Believer’s eclectic curiosity and Las Vegas’s wild panoply, said the move was “not an acquisition, but a migration of The Believer to its spiritual home.”
To celebrate the magazine’s revival, and bring its omnivorous, odd, lyrical vision to a live experience, Shenk and Vida co-created the Believer Festival, which, in its first year, included an original (and never since repeated) performance piece by Miranda July, plus spots with Carrie Brownstein, Z.Z. Packer, Sally Wen Mao, Luis Urrea, Dave Eggers, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. (Before reading a new essay, Brownstein said that she liked being in Vegas, because it was “a good place to cry alone in your car.”)
This year’s Believer Festival returns to unlikely parts of Vegas—beginning with an outdoor amphitheater facing into Red Rock Canyon, where there’s no cell phone service, but where there will be howls of coyotes punctuating readings by Leslie Jamison, Jericho Brown, Nick Hornby, Rachel Kushner, and the noted slam poet Javon Johnson, who is also a scholar of African-American studies at UNLV.
The festival’s theme, said its director Libby Flores, is “Desert Songs,” for celebrating the lyric as it manifests in all art forms. The legendary songwriter Aimee Mann will be on hand at Red Rock to make that literal.
“I can’t wait to hear Rachel Kushner read in the middle of the desert,” said Leslie Jamison, who is touring for The Recovering with her three-month-old daughter in tow. “And I’ve loved Aimee Mann’s music since the first time I ever had a feeling in my life. Las Vegas is an endlessly enthralling town—though not for the reasons anyone imagines—and I’m looking forward to introducing my newborn daughter to the frenetic, pulsing, undeniable humanity of this city.”
The festival continues Saturday at Vegas’s lauded indie bookstore, the Writer’s Block; then at a rock club on the original drag of the city, Fremont Street; as well as a 1,100 seat theater, where Academy Award-winner Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, will talk shop with the New York Times bestselling essayist Morgan Jerkins. Tayari Jones, who spent the year at BMI as its Shearing Distinguished Fellow, will also read from An American Marriage, alongside Mohsin Hamid, whose Exit-West just won the first-ever Aspen Words Literary Prize.
Tayari Jones said, among all the excitement of the festival, she’d single out Jericho Brown, for whom she’d be in the front row. “He is one of the finest poets we have,” she said of Brown, who is The Believer’s poetry editor. “He makes words both bow and strong, so it’s perfect that he is reading about music.“
Brown said, for his part, he’s making his first-ever trip to Las Vegas and is deeply curious to see the “infamous city.” “I’m all the way worn out by the thought of hearing Barry Jenkins talk about anything at all,” he said. “Moonlight is my favorite movie, and his other work is absolutely enchanting. And he’s my frat brother! We share a fraternity with Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, Jesse Owens, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson.” In a review of Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning film for Black Nerd Problems, Brown begins, “Moonlight is made of silence.” Morgan Jerkins said, “I’m looking forward to speaking with Barry Jenkins about his artistic trajectory in hopes that his words will serve as an inspiration to others. Also, I’ve never been to Las Vegas so I’m excited to see what the literary community is like out there.”
“I’m excited to be reading with Zinzi Clemmons and Dave Eggers, holy smokes,” said Thi Bui, author of the illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do. Bui is also connecting with The Believer in a live way after drawing its much-lauded February/March cover. “I’m looking forward to hearing Mohsin Hamid and Tayari Jones read, and to hear Barry Jenkins talk about his work! Imagining it’ll feel like having your thoughts anchored in current realities but with your soul getting to fly free.”
”I’m looking forward to every single event,” Vida said. “I cannot believe this year’s line-up, which includes both local Las Vegas talent and writers who are traveling from as far away as Pakistan (Mohsin Hamid) and London (Nick Hornby). For this year’s festival, we focused particular attention on inviting authors who are touring with brand-new titles, so I’m really excited for Rachel Kushner, Meg Wolitzer, Tayari Jones, and Leslie Jamison’s readings. I’ve read all of their new books (The Mars Room, The Female Persuasion, An American Marriage, and The Recovering, respectively) and they’re each incredible and ground-breaking and much needed additions to our current literary canon—I can’t stop telling everyone I know to read them.”
Asked what distinguishes the festival, Shenk said, it’s “as much about the joy and depth of community as it is about performance.” In a note to his community this week, he wrote, “Can I talk for a minute about why we’re doing this in the first place? Can I be honest? Okay, I’ll be honest. I often find the ordinary world dissatisfying. I always want it brighter, deeper, more honest and vulnerable, funnier and more raucous, radically defiant to all that sucks and strictly obedient to the immutable laws that bind us as humans.”
“The word for this thing I’m talking about is art,” Shenk went on. “And while you can take art into the bathtub and you can look at it on your phone, there’s something that happens when you share it with other people over an extended period in common space. What happens, or what can happen, anyway, is the making of a new ordinary. An ordinary that is not. A reality that is spectral. A strange new home and a place where we all feel at home being strange.”
The Believer Festival is free and open to the public. The Saturday evening variety show, hosted by Jean Grae and John Hodgman, and featuring Aparna Nancherla, is a benefit for BMI’s City of Asylum program, which offers refuge to writers who are persecuted in their home country.