Reporting From Inside the Vortex of the Miami Book Fair
Ryan Rivas Proves You Can Go Home Again
“…Miami seemed not a city at all but a tale, a romance of the tropics, a kind of waking dream in which any possibility could and would be accommodated.”
–Joan Didion, Miami
Leaving Miami was like escaping a vortex. Eighteen years of youth behind me, an adolescent jumble of time and memories, it’s no surprise that Didion’s “waking dream” strikes me as more truthful than romantic.
Miami is a weird place to grow up, and leaving the city gave me enough distance to make some sense of it. Or more precisely, leaving the city gave me enough distance to make sense of myself in relation to that specific place at that specific time. Because the city is never one thing, it’s always changing.
You don’t live in Miami so much as Miami happens to you, like stepping onto a carnival ride. Consequently, the people of Miami are constantly asserting themselves upon each other: people selling flowers and soft drinks from the medians of busy streets; drivers making up the rules of the road as they go; South Beach barkers enticing you to try their restaurant; a homeless man on a downtown street randomly asking why you fuckin’ hate me?; or the countless strangers who yelled things at me from passing cars for no apparent reason while I walked around the city as a kid.
Maybe the city itself is one massive assertion. How else could such an audacious vision have emerged along a coastline that, for centuries, rejected all who tried to conquer it?
And here I am once again, sailing into downtown on the Metromover, into a forest of highrises so dense that the Mover carves a path right through a condo before letting me off at Bayside station. I try to stay in the present, despite having made this trip countless times as a teenager, when downtown was my personal skate park, where beneath this very platform I was lectured by a cop on the indecency of public urination. This turns out to be pretty easy. When I descend the escalator and arrive at street level, things are quite different than I remember them. I have arrived in a vortex within the vortex. I’ve been dropped right into the middle of Miami Book Fair International.
For about five square blocks, all the streets are blocked off and lined with tents, tents filled with books by Graywolf and Penguin Random House and McSweeney’s—some being celebrated on panels (10 years of Europa Editions, 60 years of City Lights) and some just there because, duh, it’s Miami Book Fair. There’s also food trucks, a kids area, and a section dedicated to comics. Book TV has set up an outdoor recording studio on one corner. There’s The Porch and The Swamp, two pop-up venues housing a diversity of events among the existing diversity—concerts and conversations and, the night before, an attempt to set a world record for The World’s Smallest Poetry Reading. Miami’s steadfast indie, Books & Books—whose owner, Mitchell Kaplan, is a co-founder of the Fair—has set up shop on several streets to sell the books of the 400-plus authors who are presenting this year. Just off the streets are the buildings that make up Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, boasting an array of architecture ranging from Gehry-esque metallic shapes to brutalist concrete beauties. Miami Dade College is the other founding pillar of the Fair, and most of the readings and panels take place in their buildings.
I arrive on a Friday, though the Fair has been going on since the previous Sunday. In the excessive style Miami is known for—only more delightful in this case because we’re talking about literature—each night leading up to today features a major author event. This year, Patti Smith kicked off the Fair with a reading from M Train. Simultaneously, during this week, there are “pre-Fair” events that include equally major authors like Salman Rushdie. I’m not sure why they make this distinction, but the point is, if you are die-hard, book-loving literati, you should seriously consider hoarding your sick days in order to attend the entire week’s festivities.
I gave myself two days, Friday and Saturday. I’d originally set out to write some kind of captain’s log, chronicling 24 to 48 hours of full immersion in order to somehow communicate the enormity of the Fair, but, despite lasting about that long and taking copious notes, I was confronted with the realization that the result would be incredibly tedious. Not to mention, I couldn’t possibly cover every interesting thing all at once. Miami Book Fair International, after all, is unlike any other literary conference. The level of FOMO generated by MBFI is more on par with a music festival like Coachella. For instance, as I was diligently planning out a schedule of events to report on for this essay, I realized that if I wanted to see Joyce Carol Oates, I would miss Jesse Eisenberg. If I opted for Eisenberg, I’d miss Corey Doctorow. The list of tough choices goes on and on.
But Friday is a good starting point. It’s the first day of the street fair (the wonderful tent city of books described above), and it is also a day that focuses on young readers. While the typical face painting and story time activities were present, possibly the coolest thing I saw all weekend was a press conference where high schoolers were able to be journalists for a day and ask questions of the finalists for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. What more could an aspiring journalist and book lover ask for?
Walking out of the press conference, I found the Fair to be in full swing. Entire classes of school children in matching t-shirts zigzagged through the crowds, all of them holding some sort of long leash and led by a single chaperone. It being Friday, there were also plenty of Miami Dade College students lounging around. I took a seat outside The Swamp venue, where the press conference had just happened, and watched a student on a skateboard harass a campus security guard—oh, nostalgia.
The table was a long one, meant for lots of people, and I started to type some notes when two students sat down across from me. I assume they were college students because, upon observing the event staff setting up an outdoor beer bar, one remarked to the other, “I’ve never drank beer before, have you?” To which his friend replied, “It’s terrible.”
Not long after the students sat down, two women joined the table, mid-conversation, and I overhead one say, “I can never have an affair with anyone because too many people know me.” I started to listen closer as more and more people walked by. I heard someone say, “You just bought that book because the cover is pretty.” It occurred to me that I could sit there for the entirety of the Fair and compose an essay entirely out of overheard snippets of conversation.
I was feeling kind of frantic because I had no idea how to capture the Fair in any kind of coherent way, even after spending plenty of time working out a schedule of interesting events to cover. I typed up notes and random overheard phrases, not knowing what else to write, and alternately checked the Miami Book Fair Instagram to find even more unscheduled surprises. For example, Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants series, had apparently given out $1,000 Books & Books gift cards to a bunch of teachers so they could build up their school libraries. There was much rejoicing, and I wasn’t there for it.
Speaking of surprises, I wasn’t really sure what to expect later that night, when I attended an event called “An Evening with the National Book Award Winners and Finalists.” Would it be a mixer, a salon of sorts, drinks and conversation? No. It would be 24 back-to-back readings, two minutes each, each reading followed by one pointed question for the author. I was skeptical, especially when there was no order to the line-up other than how the authors had arranged themselves in the front row. Would the all-star status of the NBA finalists be enough to carry a two-hour reading? Yes. It was the best 24-person reading I’d ever seen.
By Saturday morning, when most of the hard decisions were to be made, I wrote this down: “What should be taken away from MBFI is that the festival is as diverse and confounding as the city itself. It is a vortex like Miami is. Always changing. Layers upon layers. A mash up of space and time.”
I could recount my experiences on Saturday, minute by minute, but I think it’s best to try to make sense of my vague notes and proclamations, to get across the idea that even a couple of days at the Fair is like a parallel experience of everyday life in Miami. Here goes.
From the center of the street fair, you can look up at the luxury condo that the Metromover cuts through, and look back down to find a homeless man wearing nothing but a Miami Book Fair t-shirt. It is noisy and chaotic, which is at times stressful, but also at times joyful. The Miami barkers come out in the form of authors handing out flyers promoting self-published books. There is the author party, held at a swank hotel overlooking the water, which superimposes literature onto Miami glam, and where a handful of readers (reading in the lobby) transport listeners to Jamaica and India and Armenia and back. Miami is often said to be full of New Yorkers, and at the Fair this year they’ve imported an entire program—Paul Holdengräber’s Live from the New Public Library. You can also go back in time with Stacy Schiff and the witches of Salem, or into a future dystopia with Corey Doctorow and Jen Wang. But maybe most important (and admirable and vital) are the connections and partnerships with Miami organizations that the Fair is dedicated to forging. These events pull Fairgoers from the time warp of panels and readings into the world around them: Reading Queer is an existing literary series that merged with the Fair to elevate its mission of promoting Miami as a vibrant center for queer literature; Luther Campbell (formerly Uncle Luke of 2 Live Crew) has written a book about growing up in the historical African American community only a few miles north of the Fair; Richard Blanco talks US-Cuban relations in one room, while in another M.J. Fievre discusses Haitian Women poets in exile, while in yet another room Edwidge Danticat participates in a conversation connecting Havana and Haiti.
I left the Fair on Saturday, late afternoon, knowing I’d be missing out on a lot, but I still felt satisfied. I walked in a happy haze toward a giant hotel ringed with neon to say goodbye to a friend before I left Miami for a while. One quick corner outside the Fair’s gates and I was in a valley of high-rises, the Metromover humming overhead, cars honked, tires squealing, people shouting, a homeless man asking for change—the typical Miami noise-scape. I mostly kept my eyes to the ground, occasionally looking up to make sure I didn’t run into anybody, until I noticed a space open up on my periphery, a vacant lot of weeds and dirt walled off by three tall buildings and separated from the sidewalk by a chainlink fence. In the center of this lot, half of a stretch limousine jutted from the earth like a javelin. For a moment, I had no idea where I was. A minute ago I was on a shabby street, a minute later feeling AC blasts from swank hotel lobbies, and now, confronted by what turned out to be Nate Page’s art installation, Limo. It was a startling moment (even more striking in a noisy place where it is so hard to be heard) that required me to slow down and think about my surroundings in the middle of a city that tends to move faster than the speed of thought.
I had witnessed an audacious statement, a beautiful interruption, much like the Miami Book Fair itself. In true Miami fashion, the Fair is a bold assertion imposed on the city—literally closing off streets for an entire week and slowing everything down. But unlike the cacophony I experienced growing up, when it often felt like everyone was talking but no one was listening, the Book Fair is an intellectual refuge where the people talking are worth listening to, and even more people come out in droves to hear them.
A vortex is at once attractive and repellent, so maybe Miami Book Fair is not its own vortex, but rather one upside of the overall Miami experience, a small but powerful part of the elusive sprawling mess that is always churning somewhere in the back of my mind, conspiring to suck me back in.