Mitchell Kaplan took a look around in the early 1980s, disheartened by what looked back. His community was on the ropes. “If you remember Miami back then,” he said a while ago, “it was a pretty bleak time back in 1982. The Mariel boatlift had just happened a couple of years before. Even TIME magazine had a cover story entitled Miami: Paradise Lost? with a big question mark. And so it was a source of community pride to try to do something to change that image of Miami in some particular way.”
Kaplan is something of a Renaissance Man in South Florida, what with him being the owner/founder of Book & Books, his lauded indie bookstore chain, and an ardent defender of reader’s privacy rights. But it’s his role as co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International that garners him nationwide praise. As well it should: he and his team have shepherded a small-time authors’ book fair into the nation’s most impressive street festival for book readers and writers, barn one.
Now at age 28, the MBFI is the oldest and largest book fair in the States. Don’t bother comparing them to the much-regarded events in Los Angeles or Chicago: they simply don’t stand up to the challenge. “All those started after ours. And many of them used us as a model in order to pattern their book fairs. But they’re all good and solid, they’re all good,” Kaplan said recently.
They may be good, but the MBFI is the best by any measurement. It’s an eight-day block party that takes over the downtown Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College with every possible event: readings, lectures, book signings, and more, such as antiquarian booths, publisher’s exhibits, vendors, and areas of special interest for children and families. Front and center are hundreds of the most respected, in-demand writers and publishers, both American and international. It’s the headline event for Miami Dade College’s Florida Center for the Literary Arts, which partners with Books & Books as the main sponsors. This fair is unlike any other: the organizers go out of their way to cater to every possible interest.
“I think what might make us a little bit different is the international component. We have programs in Spanish, Creole, and French. We have always kind of programmed it with the idea that we have a big tent, a very diverse and big tent here in Miami. We try to put together programs that reflect that. Something for everyone,” says Kaplan.
It started out in 1984 as Books By The Bay, a simple name for a simple fair. “Well, really, the very first year, we thought grandly back then as well, although it was a two-day fair, we had probably approximately seventy-five to one hundred authors, including James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room) and Heberto Padilla (Las Rosas Audaces, Fuera Del Juego). We had quite a few interesting writers back then as well. We had publishers, approximately 200 publishers, that were showing in the streets.”
The fact that this was produced in Miami was, as Kaplan mentioned, partly a reaction to the harsh spotlight South Florida was in vis-a-vis Mariel, rising crime rates, and that devastating TIME cover story. But partly it was also Miami’s place as a literary gold mine.
Says Kaplan, “We’ve had a tradition of writers living here. What’s happened recently, which is so interesting I think, is that now you have writers who write in all kinds of forms and genres living here. Miami is primarily known as a place for wonderful mystery writers. This goes way back.” One way to nurture all this talent is to showcase it with a fair. The MBFI is held every November, and this year starts on Sunday, November 13th and runs through Sunday, November 20th. One of the most popular events is the Festival of Authors, where upwards of 400 writers will converge on Miami in order to speak with patrons – at least 200,000 over the course of the event. From author’s events to panel discussions and from poetry readings to demonstrations, there will be about 300 events to choose from. The close-out, the Street Fair, takes place Friday, November 18th through Sunday, November 20th and highlights other writers and artists, both new and established, who will be presenting their works and conducting question-and-answer sessions. Street Fair will also showcase at least 200 exhibitors.
The Evening With… series, which is conducted Sunday, November 13th through Friday, November 18th, showcases readings and lectures with headlining authors of every stripe. Tickets are required for Evening With… events, which take place within tents or inside MDC’s rooms. Years past offered speeches by musician Patti Smith (Just Kids), movie maker John Waters (Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste), novelist Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides), and former Vice President Al Gore (Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis).
In the IberoAmerican Authors program, Spanish-language writers from around the world will be featured, including Peruvian television journalist Jaime Bayly (Morirás Mañana: El Escritor Sale a Matar), poet/author Gioconda Belli from Nicaragua (Sobre La Grama, La Mujer Habitada), and novelist Javier Sierra from Spain (The Secret Supper, La Dama Azul). Other authors from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe are also expected to attend the Festival of Authors.
Families can be entertained together at events geared specifically toward children and teens. The highly popular Children’s Alley returns during the Street Fair. Children’s Alley is aimed toward kids ages 4 through 10 with storytelling time, theater performances, and arts and crafts lessons. The Wizard of Oz will be presented at Children’s Alley alongside lessons in eco-friendly living and other topics.
Also returning is the popular Comix Galaxy project. The Comix Galaxy celebrates the history of comic books and graphic novels in American literature and offers panels, demonstrations for educators, hands-on lessons for kids and teens, games, and more. Within Comix Galaxy is Kids Comic Con, which encourages youngsters to draw and write in the presence of professional writers and illustrators.
Also during Street Fair, at least 250 publishers and booksellers will exhibit and sell books. Antiquarian Alley will showcase vendors with signed first editions, original manuscripts, antique maps and postcards, and other rarities.
The MBFI continues its focus on talent from overseas. Says Kaplan, “This year we’re highlighting China. There will be a pavilion section where there will be Chinese culture highlighted. We’re going to have authors coming to give readings and talks who are Chinese. Novelist Yu Hua, the first Chinese winner of the 2002 James Joyce Award, will lead discussion. We’re highlighting a country every year. Last year it was Mexico.”
This year, authors as diverse as artist/activist Harry Belafonte (My Song: A Memoir), former United States Senator Bob Graham (Intelligence Matters: The CIA, The FBI, Saudi Arabia, and The Failure of America’s War on Terror), and Booker Prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient, The Cat’s Table) will be offering their works. The former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996) will head a creative writing workshop. So will Pablo Medina, an essayist, novelist, and poet (Highway of Blazing Cars, Cubop City Blues).
And if you think the Book Fair might be nothing but stuffy readings from stuffy writers, imagine what went on in years passed when things really got going: Hunter Thompson sloshed Wild Turkey all over himself; The Miami Herald’s Dave Barry and the Rock Bottom Remainders slogged their way through the classic Louie Louie, which caused that year’s guest singer, humorist Art Buchwald, grief as he tried to figure out the lyrics. Another year saw band mate Carl Hiaasen bring his guitar teacher onstage during the performance. Novelist Anne Rice spoke to a group of vampires… in a downtown church.
Miami’s reputation as a literary haven continues to grow, thanks in part to the MBFI. “The beauty of the fair is really all the surprises,” said Mitchell Kaplan, “the people you didn’t know from who you discover. And I think that’s what people are going to find.”