By Lucy Gaines and Rebecca Lauck Cleary
Among literature enthusiasts, it’s no secret that Oxford has long been a magnet for writers. On March 29-31, their numbers will multiply as more than 30 of the nation’s leading and emerging authors, poets, scholars and artists gather for the annual Oxford Conference for the Book.
Across the University of Mississippi campus and the city’s historic downtown Square, three days of panels, discussions and events will transform William Faulkner’s hometown into a literary playground of cutting-edge conversation. Sponsored by the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the 29th iteration of the conference is bigger than ever, with help from national sponsors and partners across town and campus.
After COVID-19 and weather warnings interrupted the conference over the past three years, this year features multiple partnerships with a range of local organizations and communities in new, engaging ways. Art and music events add to this year’s diverse lineup of book discussions and scholarly panels, all of which are free and open to the public.
“This year’s conference might just be the most expansive and wide-ranging Oxford Conference for the Book yet,” said Jimmy Thomas, conference director. “We’ve broadened our vision to include cultural and historic tours, visual arts and music performances, along with readings and conversations on the written word.
“We’ll hold sessions in a number of new venues in downtown Oxford and across the university campus. This is really is a community event with nationwide appeal.”
Besides the three-day affair, an OCB co-sponsored, pre-conference event will honor a new edition of Hubert Creekmore’s “The Welcome” (University Press of Mississippi, 2023) in the author’s nearby hometown of Water Valley on March 24. Philip Gordon, author of the edition’s introduction, will speak at 6 p.m. at Violet Valley Books, 303 Main St., with a reception at Bozart’s Gallery to follow.
Also new this year, the University of Mississippi Museum and the Campus Slavery Research Group will offer historical and cultural context by guiding free tours on March 29. The tours precede the annual authors’ welcome party at Memory House, which is a ticketed event.
Free live music concludes each evening, beginning with author and singer-songwriter Charlie Parr at Proud Larry’s on March 29. Parr will perform music from his album “Last of the Better Days Ahead,” inspired by his novel of the same name.
The “Thacker Mountain Radio” show is always a Thursday highlight, and this year will feature Nic Brown, author of “Bang, Bang, Crash,” at 6 p.m. March 30 at the Graduate Hotel Oxford, 400 North Lamar Blvd. And on March 31, “Noir at the Bar” takes place at Ajax Diner, 118 Courthouse Square, as Ace Atkins discusses crime fiction with authors Megan Abbott, S.A. Cosby, Eli Cranor and Tyler Keith, a Southern studies alumnus who will perform with Teardrop City afterward.
The themes of movement and identity take front-row seats this year. The March 30 sessions begin with a discussion on “Family, Migration and Home,” featuring Anjali Enjeti, author of “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change”; Alejandro Verela, author of “The Town of Babylon”; and Sheila Sundar, UM visiting assistant professor of English and author of the forthcoming novel “Habitations.”
A welcome lunch follows at 11 a.m., which is free with registration encouraged, hosted by Friends of the Library at the J.D. Williams Library. Following lunch is one of the more anticipated panels presented by the National Book Foundation, in which National Book Award-honored authors Jonathan Escoffery and Deesha Philyaw will join podcaster moderator Jerid P. Woods.
“The Oxford Conference for the Book plays an important role in the center’s relationship with the campus community and the town of Oxford,” said Katie McKee, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “I’m especially looking forward to hearing Celia Naylor talk about her book ‘Unsilencing Slavery: Telling Truths about Rose Hall Plantation, Jamaica,’ with Jodi Skipper.
“The book is the first in a new editing partnership between the center and the University of Georgia Press, and we’re delighted to welcome Dr. Naylor to our campus.”
Naylor’s session with Skipper, UM associate professor of anthropology and Southern studies, is set for 1 p.m. in the Overby Center Auditorium.
Poetry writers and fans will enjoy the late afternoon event at the Southside Gallery, 150 Courthouse Square, hosted by Ole Miss professor, poet and writer Beth Ann Fennelly. The past poet laureate of Mississippi, Fennelly will moderate a panel with poets Tarfia Faizullah, James Hoch and Mahogany L. Browne.
Cathy and Fred Fussell’s literature-inspired quilts in the exhibition Southern Lit 101 will fill the gallery walls. David Rae Morris’s photography of his father, writer Willie Morris, will also be on display.
Morris and Wayne Flynt join in for the “Conversations with Friends and Family” panel, which kicks off the March 31 schedule at 9 a.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 113 South Ninth St.
Deesha Philyaw, the Grisham Writer-in-Residence and UM visiting professor, will assume the moderator’s chair at 10:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s for a genre-spanning panel with poet Khalisa Rae, nonfiction author Danté Stewart and novelist Chantal James.
A lunch and talk with Mahogany Browne, set for noon at the Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, 401 Bramlett Blvd., is free with registration.
At 2:45 p.m., Robert Rea, editor of the Southwest Review, moderates the “Books on the Border” session, featuring Mexican authors Juliàn Herbert who wrote “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” and Yuri Herrera, who penned “Ten Planets.”
The Children’s Book Festival is also set for March 31 at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for Performing Arts. Pat Zietlow Miller will speak to area first graders about her book “In Our Garden” and Shelia Turnage will speak to area fifth graders about her “Three Times Lucky.” The Children’s Book Festival serves more than 1,200 area first graders and fifth graders from schools in Lafayette County and Oxford.
Committees made up of local school librarians, teachers and representatives from the Lafayette County Literacy Council, Junior Auxiliary and Square Books Jr. choose the books each year. This year, the new Elaine Hoffman Scott Memorial Endowment and Memorial Fund also is a large contributor.
The OCB conclusion at 4 p.m. features a book signing and readings for the Willie Morris Awards in Southern Writing, where the 2023 winners in fiction, poetry and nonfiction will be announced at Off Square Books, 160 Courthouse Square.
Works by conference authors will be available for purchase via Square Books. Discounted hotel rooms for those traveling to Oxford are available at the Inn at Ole Miss and the Graduate Hotel. Updates are available at http://oxfordconferenceforthebook.com/, Facebook and Instagram @OxfordConferencefortheBook, and Twitter @OxConfBook. For questions, contact conference director Jimmy Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 29th Oxford Conference for the Book is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Square Books, the College of Liberal Arts, the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, the UM Department of Writing and Rhetoric, the Friends of the UM Library, the UM Lecture Series Fund, Lafayette County Literacy Council, Junior Auxiliary of Oxford, Visit Oxford, Proud Larry’s, Ajax Diner, Southside Gallery, Violet Valley Bookstore, Southwest Review and “Thacker Mountain Radio.” The conference is partially funded by the Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, the National Book Foundation, the R&B Feder Charitable Foundation for the Beaux Arts and the Mississippi Humanities Council.