VINCENNES, France -- I am one of about five dozen invitees to the biennial Festival America book fair just outside Paris. Toni Morrison is the guest of honor at the event, which brings together authors from the Americas. Jennifer Egan is here too, along with Nick Flynn, Gary Shteyngart and many other writers. All of us share the distinction of having our works translated into French.
At Thursday's opening ceremony, we listened to short essays written by authors in all four of the festival's languages: in English from Vendela Vida (author of "The Lovers"), in Portuguese from the Brazilian writer Bernardo Carvalho, in Spanish from the Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda, and in French from the Quebec author Louis Hamelin.
"What do 'More Notes on the Death of the American Dream' by Hunter S. Thompson and 'The First Man' by Camus have in common, apart from the space they share on my bedside table?" Hamelin asked. "Maybe nothing, apart from the silence they create in me. ... Silence is the essential condition for languages to resonate inside us. It seems to me the great American spaces also ooze this type of silence."
The star of the show was Morrison, the Nobel laureate who on Friday addressed about 500 people at Vincennes City Hall, speaking through an interpreter about her new novel, "Home," the story of a veteran returning to the U.S. after the Korean War.
"When he gets back home, the battlefield in the U.S. is almost as bad as the one in Korea," she said.
Morrison responded to a host of questions from a panel of French authors and critics, including the standard, "What are your literary influences?" She listed three: William Faulkner ("Reading him, I could tell he was affected by black culture"), James Baldwin ("He had a language that was assertive, eloquent and political, but not devoid of love") and Gabriel García Márquez ("I learned from him that ghosts and magic can be part of a political narrative").
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