The AJC Decatur Book Festival keynote address began pleasantly enough Friday night at Emory’s Schwartz Center. AJC editor Kevin Riley welcomed the crowd. Former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey read a moving poem written for the occasion. And Daren Wang, the festival’s director and co-founder, got a little weepy on the occasion of the festival’s 10th year.
The main event, a conversation between authors Roxane Gay (“An Untamed State,” “Bad Feminist”) and keynote speaker Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying,” “Fear of Dying”) started out well enough, too. But about three-quarters of the way through, the issue of whether the feminist movement had left behind women of color created a palpable divide between the two women, both self-proclaimed feminists, albeit from different generations and cultural backgrounds. (Jong, 73, is Jewish; Gay, 30, is Haitian-American.)
Jong insisted the movement had always been inclusive, and when Gay tried to offer a dissenting opinion, Jong talked over her and took on a defensive tone, at which point Gay clammed up. The awkward exchange sent a murmur through the audience and a tension fell over the room.
Then, during the audience Q&A session, a woman asked if the authors had been influenced by Mae West or Moms Mabley. Gay responded with a dry, “No,” while Jong expressed admiration for Mae West, an actress with a sexually aggressive persona who was popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“What about Moms Mabley?,” the woman, who refused to approach the mic up front, shouted from the back of the room.
Jong wasn’t familiar with the African-American comedian and star of black vaudeville. “I’ll have to look her up,” Jong said. At that point the audience’s murmurs turned to vocal grumblings and the tension of the room ratcheted up a few more degrees.
The keynote was a hot topic of conversation at the festival on Saturday. The general consensus seemed to be that Gay handled herself with grace, and Jong was not only tone deaf to the nuances of the issue, but she wouldn’t entertain an opposing opinion. And the audience was left carrying the weight of all that went unsaid.