Culture, art, history and more on tap at Festival of Books at USC

 Culture, art, history and more on tap at Festival of Books at USC
Krista Bremer is the author of "My Accidental Jihad." (Briana Brough / Briana Brough Photography)

Krista Bremer's cross-cultural journey began on a North Carolina jogging path, where the one-time California surfer girl met a scientist from Libya who romanced her and swept her away.

Bremer, one of the authors at this weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC, chronicled that experience in a memoir titled "My Accidental Jihad." The "accident" refers to an unexpected pregnancy; "jihad" (Arabic for "effort" or "struggle") is her way of describing the "effort" of her marriage and of all marriages in general.


"Every relationship is bicultural, simply because it contains two people," the author said in an interview. "Even if you marry someone from your hometown, you arrive at this place where your mate seems impossibly foreign to you."

Many of the authors who are scheduled to appear at the festival share Bremer's vision of finding a universal truth in a seemingly exotic or odd story. Their books tell tales about shifting identities and cultural conflict in all sorts of genres, from futuristic dystopian novels and gender-bending young adult fiction to works such as Bremer's.

On a Saturday panel, Bremer will discuss her family's adventures — her adolescent daughter has at various times shown interest in Islam, Nirvana and dyeing her hair pink — alongside two other memoirists: Anchee Min, whose book "The Cooked Seed," tells the story of her arrival in the U.S. in the aftermath of China's Cultural Revolution, and Reyna Grande, the author of "The Distance Between Us."

In her book, Grande reveals the largely unseen back story of immigrant Los Angeles — and her deep, childhood desire to return to Mexico. She remembers nights when "Mexico was in the whistle of the midnight train traveling on the tracks that run parallel to Figueroa Street. I'd awaken to the sound of the train's whistle, and my body would fill with longing."

Two of California's great contemporary novelists, writers who've dissected our state's increasingly complex ethnic quilt, will share one stage on Saturday: Susan Straight (who will also be honored Friday night at the Los Angeles Times Book Awards with the Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement) and Lisa See, whose most recent novel, "China Dolls," tells the story of the "Chop-suey Circuit" of Asian American performers in 1930s and '40s California.

"They really broke the mold for what a Chinese or an Asian American woman could be," See said. The film industry offered them work only as extras, or in bit roles as maids and "dragon ladies." Onstage and in traveling shows, they created the China doll acts, which were so successful they eventually became an ethnic stereotype.

"I wanted to look at that stereotype and how it came about and how it was used and how you could embrace it as well," See continued. The novelist said she based her book on interviews with several circuit performers (many of whom are now nonagenarians), including Mai Tai Tsing (for whom the famous drink is named.)

"This is a woman who cut a seriously wide swath," See said. "She was a wild woman. And she supported her entire family with her dancing."

The festival's roster of fiction writers also includes such noted luminaries as T.C. Boyle and Sandra Cisneros, rising talents like the Lebanese American writer Rabih Alameddine, and first-time authors such as the short story writer Jamie Quatro and the Zimbabwe-born novelist NoViolet Bulawayo.

Non-fiction writers in the lineup include historian A. Scott Berg, the author of a new biography of Woodrow Wilson, and scientist Jared Diamond, who will discuss his book "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?"

On Saturday, Times Editor Davan Maharaj will host a discussion with two bestselling writers who've tackled controversial topics: Lawrence Wright, the author of "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief"; and Reza Aslan, the author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."

Aslan gained widespread publicity last summer for a Fox News interview in which a reporter questioned why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus Christ. Aslan, who was raised Muslim, later converted to Christianity as a California teenager and then converted back to Islam.

Two authors on two separate panels — Steven W. Hackel and Gregory Orfalea — have written books about the 18th century Spanish friar Junipero Serra, the man who founded nine of the Spanish missions in California. For Orfalea, Serra "was, in the best sense of the word, crazy." And for Hackel, Serra was not saintly, even though the Catholic Church granted him the near-saintly status of "beatified" some two centuries after his death. But both authors would agree that under Serra, the way of life of the native peoples of California began to disappear, and California became a place of perpetual, and dramatic, social change.

The idea that we're living in a time of too much change and conflict has helped inspired the growing body of dystopian YA literature. Veronica Roth, author of the "Divergent" trilogy and one of the top sellers in the genre, will be onstage Sunday.


In Roth's novels, the world is divided not into ethnic groups but something akin to mood tribes: Dauntless (those who are brave), Amity (peaceful), Erudite (intelligent), Abnegation (selfless), and Candor (those who can't help but be honest.)

Another YA panel, scheduled for Saturday, is "It's the End of the World As We Know It." Participants includes T Cooper, the co-author (with his wife, Allison Glock-Cooper) of "Changers Book One: Drew," in which the protagonist, Ethan, wakes up on the first day of high school inside the body of a girl named Drew. Other stages and panels at the festival will be dedicated to children's books, cooking, fantasy literature, Spanish-language books, poetry and graphic novels.

Besides the readings and panel discussions, the festival includes several other new activities, including an Artists' Row in which artists from various genres will create works on-site, and Saturday night's Festival After Dark, which will feature a live staging of "Wits," the public radio show that brings together comedians, actors and musicians.

Admission to the festival, which kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday with L.A. Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein, USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett and the USC Trojan Marching Band, is free, and some 150,000 people are expected to attend.

Festival of Books

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: USC campus
Price: Free ($1 service fee for panel tickets reserved online)