Milford festival offers thought-provoking conversation in turbulent times

Milford festival offers thought-provoking conversation in turbulent times

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  • Suzanne Braun Levine and Alan Alda in Conversation (Photo: Lynne Bookey, An Eye For Details Photography)

  • The teal tee-shirted volunteers led by Barbara Whitney (center, black sweater) (Photo: John Beardman)


— The Third Milford Readers and Writers Festival was held the weekend of Sept. 28-29, and while no one thought it could possibly be better than either of the first two, (which were superb), this one went beyond all expectations by providing inspirational and thought-provoking conversation, especially amidst a week of national politics tearing the country apart.

This year there was even a two-hour lunch break (based on last year’s feedback) from the back-to-back main stage events with delicious sandwiches being offered for sale in the main tent. There were about 25 volunteers (brilliantly organized by Barbara Whitney). The little army of teal t-shirted people set up furniture in the tent, arranged plants and stools, answered inquiries, directed people to the theater, ushered and brought microphones to audience members who asked questions. They politely and warmly attended to all an any issues. The result is that the actual logistics went off without a hitch.

The Festival opened on Friday night with a showing of the film To Kill a Mocking Bird. Mary Badham, who played Scout in the original movie spoke about the film and also the atmosphere in our country today. She talked about the banning of the book in various schools and libraries throughout the county. “Most of those people who banned it hadn’t even read it. This book has all of life’s lessons that obviously we have not learned, so it’s critical that we teach it in the schools.” she said.

The spectrum of gender identityOn Saturday morning, the opening conversation was an insightful interview of Feminist author, Susan Faludi by veteran journalist Carol Jenkins. The talk was about gender, and gender identity which Faludi says, “is really on a spectrum and is only one aspect of who we are."

They talked about her book, In the Darkroom, the story of her father’s transformation to being a transgender woman at the age of 76. They also talked about her first book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, a classic in Feminist literature. Carol Jenkins pointed out that this book written in 1991 was like a prescient warning of exactly what’s happening today in America

The questions from the audience were about women’s identity and also about how we define manhood. The specter of the Kavanaugh hearing was like the 500-pound gorilla in the room and galvanized almost every session in the Festival.

Jeffrey Stocker, director of The American Readers Theatre in Milford said he was so glad that people could express different points of view and that the Festival was a great forum for bringing our community together.

Jenni Hamill, a prominent member of the community raised some interesting points in the Q and A following this session. As the mother of three teenage sons soon-to-be men, she pointed out that her sons are listening to all of this in the media and they are absorbing this stuff with their peers; the Me-too movement, sexual inequality, and the white male backlash. They wonder if some day they could be considered victims too or be accused by anyone.

Hamill said the session was very uplifting and made her feel we should have more of these conversations. Then perhaps we wouldn’t feel like we are so far apart as a country, she said.

Writing about warThe second panel on Saturday morning, “Words Won’t Die-The Brave New World of Publishing,” was an exciting, informative discussion of the publishing industry. Jane Friedman, former CEO of Harper Collins, shared her extensive experience in traditional publishing as well as digital publishing, Brooke Warner, owner of She Reads Press talked about the importance of editorial content and the freedom to protect it in a hybrid press format where the author shares some of the editorial costs. Unlike self-publishing, authors’ manuscripts are first vetted before acceptance.

Julie Barton, told about her experience with her book, Dog Medicine, How My Dog Saved Me from Myself and how it became a New York Times best seller. Friedman pointed out that there are many ways to get into publishing and to get your book published.

Frances FitzGerald, Phil Klay, and moderator Lucien Truscott IV, all agreed in their panel Writing About War that it had a great deal to do with language. There is what the government says or wants them to say and then there is reality. Truscott gave the example of Donald Rumsfeld saying there was no insurgency when those on the ground saw hundreds of dead bodies in front of their eyes. FitzGerald talked about how writing about war was totally consuming. Phil Klay said of the government doublespeak in writing about war, “It’s covering stuff that’s not happening and not covering stuff that is happening.”

Listen deeplyThe highlight of the Festival was the conversation about communication between Alan Alda and Suzanne Braun Levine, co-founder of RAW. Alda’s remarks were hilarious and Braun and the audience were laughing almost nonstop. His timing and pithy responses made the session a tremendous success. Alda talked about the importance of listening and deep listening. He said, “It impedes conversation of what you are listening to if you are thinking about the next question you are going to ask.” He continued, “If I know I could learn something, then I could listen deeply.” Alda talked about using improvisation techniques to help teach communication. His new podcast, Clear and Vivid gives great examples of conversing with different people.

The Sunday morning session moderated by Sean Strub with Judge Andrew Napolitano and Admiral Joseph Sestak was another fascinating conversation. These two close friends who have very different political ideas (Napolitano is a libertarian and contributor to Fox News, and Sestak was a former Democratic Senator) stressed the importance of civility in public discussion, something we do not have now. Napolitano said emphatically, “There is a difference between a power holder and a true leader.” He said power holders only care about themselves but a true leader understands the needs of others.

The second main stage session on Sunday was a conversation with three New Yorker cartoonists moderated by Carol McMannes, board member of the Festival.

The cartoons were almost as funny as the repartee of the cartoonists proving that in order to do funny and meaningful cartoons, you have to be funny and smart.

One of the most popular free sessions was Women of our Words, curated by Amy Ferris and moderated by Judy White. There were supposed to be seven women on the panel, but Tina Alexis Allen, couldn’t come from Los Angeles because of a gig and the other, Angela Giles, was in a car accident as she was driving to the Festival. This panel was dedicated to her.

One of the most interesting things about this outstanding group of women was the layers of rich talent and the breadth and depth of their accomplishments. They were playwrights, novelists, memoirists, essayist, therapists, — sometimes all at the same time. And they were all mothers. The most intriguing thing about this panel was that a woman named

U-Meleni Mhlaba-Adebo, a Zimbabwean American poet stepped in at the last minute to fill one of the empty places. Her book Soul Psalms: Poems, is filled with powerful, lyrical poems, which can also be sung. They explore family, love, and acceptance. She sang one of the poems in Zulu and the audience was awe-struck by its beauty and power. She says,” We need more women to stand up against women who are permissive.”

All in all, this year’s Readers and Writer’s Festival was a resounding success with its diversity of interesting and thought-provoking conversations. There was only one small suggestion from an audience member, Karl Merchant, who said of the questions from the audience, “So few people know how to ask a question. Maybe there should be a short instruction to remind people that time is short, questions don’t need a preamble and it is not about you, but the person you are asking.”

Karl’s suggestion notwithstanding, the Festival was professional, profound, and fabulous.

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