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Racial justice, gender, feminism, immigration on Wisconsin Book Festival menu

Racial justice, gender, feminism, immigration on Wisconsin Book Festival menu

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni, 77, once called the "Poet of the Black Revolution," says she highly recommends old age. "It’s fun," she wrote when she was 71.

The lineup for this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival was released Thursday and it came as a big relief for festival director Conor Moran to let his secrets out.

It’s the day the festival “stops living in my head and people get to see what I’ve been working on for five months,” Moran said.

It’s the day he gets to announce that poet Nikki Giovanni is appearing, even though he’s known since May.

Giovanni “appearing” is a bit of misnomer because the free festival, running Oct. 15-17, is taking place online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Wisconsin Book Festival has grown from its inception in 2002, becoming a year-round celebration that in past years has been highlighted by a four-day fall weekend, which this year is being condensed into three days.

Giovanni, 77, once called the “Poet of the Black Revolution,” says on her website she highly recommends old age. “It’s fun,” she wrote when she was 71.

The Virginia Tech professor, who’s making her book festival appearance on Oct. 15, is the author of three New York Times bestsellers and has been awarded an unprecedented seven NAACP Image Awards. She’s also been nominated for a Grammy and has been a finalist for the National Book Award.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, Giovanni delivered a chant-poem to memorialize the 32 victims.

"Make Me  Rain"

In her new book, "Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose," Nikki Giovanni "unapologetically declares her pride in her black heritage, while exploring the enduring impact of the twin sins of racism and white nationalism," according to HarperCollins Publishers. Giovanni will be featured on the first day of this year's online Wisconsin Book Festival, Oct. 15-17.

In her new book, “Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose,” she “unapologetically declares her pride in her black heritage, while exploring the enduring impact of the twin sins of racism and white nationalism,” according to HarperCollins Publishers.

This year, besides getting Giovanni’s insights into racial justice, the festival is hosting Booker prize nominees Kiley Reid and Brandon Taylor. The full schedule is available at

“We have conversations about gender issues and white supremacy and feminism and immigration, all sorts of different things. And those are all wrapped up in these incredibly timely and great books,” Moran said.

“Terry Tempest Williams, who was here years ago, is going to be the ending keynote of the fall celebration,” he said. “Her books are personal essays about climate and about life and about aging ... all wrapped up in one thing.”

In the weeks following the cancellation of in-person appearances, Moran said he quickly transitioned to “this new world.” Since April 4, the festival has done about 20 online events, including some this summer that weren’t on the schedule.

Moran said the festival is attracting about the same, if not slightly larger, audiences as it has seen or would expect to see in person. He’s also able to track where people are through the Crowdcast platform the festival is using to live-stream its events.

The audience is still coming mostly from Madison and surrounding areas, which Moran appreciates since that’s the group he’s trying to reach with his programming.

Attendance is up about 15% over last year. Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House, appeared via Crowdcast in June in what became the biggest event the festival’s ever done.

With 1,668 people, Abrams’ appearance beat the festival’s previous largest event featuring Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) with about 1,100 people in 2017. The first 600 people to request Abrams’ new book, “Our Time Is Now,” got a free copy of it since Abrams’ appearance was the 2020 Cheryl Rosen Weston Memorial Lecture, and Rosen Weston left a bequest that covered the cost of the books.

In a 25-hour period, the festival presented Abrams and Salman Rushdie (“The Satanic Verses”) and hosted its “Lunch for Libraries” event with food writer Mark Bittman, drawing a total of 2,500 people. “It was absolutely astonishing,” Moran said.

While the fall festival is scaled back to 16 events, this year it’s not programming against itself as its done in the past, forcing festival-goers to choose between three, four or five events happening at the same time. Moran always tried to avoid putting the same type of subject matter in the same time slot, but book lovers still often had to make tough choices.

This year, with the presidential election coming up, Moran knows he has a “tight little window of time to have people’s attention.”

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