Water in the desert

The world’s largest literature festival heads to Boulder

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Courtesy of JLF

In 2011 Jessie Friedman and her husband Jules Levinson were returning to Boulder after travelling for more than 50 hours from New Delhi. Not having slept, the couple was in a state of delirium when Friedman had a eureka moment.

“We were in the car,” Friedman says. “I nudged Jules, and I said, ‘We have to do it. We have to do it here.’ And he goes, ‘Huh?’ He had no idea what I was talking about. ‘The literature festival! We have to bring it to Boulder.’” 

The festival Friedman was referring to is the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival ( JLF). Founded in Jaipur, India in 2006, the festival has grown to be the largest literature festival in the world. And it’s heading to Boulder for its first American reincarnation Sept. 18-20 at the Boulder Public Library. More than 60 local, national and international authors, writers and poets are currently confirmed, including Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates. There will be panels, music, workshops and performances. Plus, it’s free.

JLF began as an offshoot from the Jaipur Heritage Festival, says Sanjoy Roy, the managing director for JLF. As the heritage festival ended, they wanted to keep what was then a small part of the festival alive. Thus JLF was born.

“It’s a festivity more than a festival, and that’s the unusual nature of it,” he says. “It’s a festival celebrating the mind, and celebrating ideas, and celebrating stories and celebrating everything that people in this A.D.D. environment we live in need to celebrate.”

The first year the festival reached 7,000 attendees, the next year 14,000, and it kept exploding until last year they had over 270,000. Roy says they had no idea that the festival would garner this kind of growth, but he attributes it to having the right ingredients.

“Much of it was great programming, incredible authors, being in this particular city of Jaipur — that lends to the romance of literature and the passion about being alive — the color, the great hospitality, democratic access and the sheer vibrancy of the audiences who come,” Roy says. “It has a larger than life reputation. And each person who’s gone to the festival comes back with 10 people the next year.”

Among those festival goers were Levinson and Friedman, who practically stumbled across the festival. Levinson, a Buddhist scholar, was attending a translator’s conference in India, and Friedman, a psychotherapist and historian, had noticed that a few prominent authors were also speaking at a literature festival in Jaipur a few days after the conference. They decided to pop in, neither knowing what they were in for.

“We were coming out of this extraordinary [translator’s conference], and we were just blown away, moved and stunned [by JLF],” Friedman says. “We would pass each other in this crowd of 200,000 people going to the next session, and we couldn’t believe what was happening here. It was fabulous. There was some depth of human beings coming together and having deep, important conversation. …

“Nobody realized it, but it’s like suddenly you’ve found that water in the desert, and you didn’t even know what your thirst was.”

It was after that trip in 2011, that Friedman and Levinson, and fellow local JLF fan Maruta Kalnins, knew they had to bring it to Boulder.

“[The festival] is kind of ordinary and kind of amazing all at the same time,” Levinson says. “Beyond that, you can hear us try to desperately say what it is, but you can’t really know until you see it. That’s why we’re bringing it here.”

Last May, Friedman emailed Roy and started the process to hold the festival in Boulder. Luckily, Roy and organizers had been wanting to bring it to America for some time. After interest from New York, Chicago, California and others, Roy says they chose Boulder because it was the best of any festival city for many reasons: its size, infrastructure, accessibility, local proximity and mainly, its people.

“When I arrived here, despite the obvious beauty of Boulder, it was about the people I met, who were well traveled, who were well read and very much enthused about engaging about the other,” Roy says. “That isn’t necessarily what you find in most American cities. … Boulder is concerned with engaging with the rest of the world and is aware of the world’s many problems.”

Considering this is the festival’s first time in America, Roy says they don’t know how many people will attend — from a few thousand to several thousand. But he’s hoping for a big turnout and expects to see some fans of Jaipur’s event head to the Front Range.

Of course, Boulder’s no stranger to intellectual festivals. But Roy, Levinson and Friedman say the Jaipur festival is unique.

“It’s not like professional conferences or a book fair. It’s a different thing,” Levinson says. “It’s not a portal for the publishers or the book selling industries. It’s deep conversation between remarkable people.”

And the list of former JLF attendees includes numerous notable writers and public figures like Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama. But the focus of the festival is stimulating that discourse between these remarkable people.

“The idea here was not so much to read from a book,” Roy says. “But it was to look at what that book was about — the commonalities of themes — and dis cuss that. It was to discuss the broader issue of what are sometimes lost. … And these are themes that whether you talk about them in India or Africa or America, you’ll see these to be common themes about humanity. It’s about today, it’s about the past, it’s about tradition, it’s about ideas that continue to generate new thoughts, new content, new discoveries, new challenges of everything we experience on planet Earth.”

The festival organizers work to create a mixture of ideas, cultures and perspectives. Roy says he hopes that the subject matter of the festival doesn’t deter people. In reality, the festival is presenting age-old topics through a lens to make you look differently at the world.

“As soon you say literature to some people, they think it’s a little highfalutin,” Roy says. “It’s not. It’s storytelling. It’s human beings talking to each other about some of the most meaningful and wonderful things and doing it in this world where it’s been transformed by a different kind of imagination. And yet it’s also a way of getting under the skin … and inside that magic box as writers and readers that we can’t do in real life. We can get out of some of these ruts that we’re in, and we’re free to think in ways that we couldn’t do most of the time.”

Another notable aspect of the festival is its cost: none. Accessibility was very important to the organizers, who didn’t want to horde information, especially from those who need it most.

Roy tells the story of being at the Jaipur festival five years ago when, because of the expanding crowd size, they had to put in security.

“It was 7:30 in the morning, and I was standing around to see if everything was working,” Roy says. “A man and a boy came up, and they were stopped because they didn’t look like they ‘belonged.’ And because I was standing there, I went up and asked if I could help. The father said, ‘I sleep on the street across the hospital down the street, and I know I’ll never be able to send my son to school or buy him a book. But I thought if he could hear a story, it might change his life forever. I heard that this is where they tell the best stories.’ And that, in a sense, just proved the importance of knowledge being disseminated democratically. In any society where there is inequity, you need to allow knowledge to be accessible in order to build equity.

“That was one of the guiding principles,” he says. “Knowledge is what will bring about the change. It’s not about a handout. It’s not about charity. It’s about getting them to believe through the power of ideas, and that can be the most transformative thing in an individual.”

It’s the hope literature inspires that makes it so important, Roy says. It’s through literature people are forced to think about and create the possibility for a better future.

“Mankind and humanity has to exist on the hope of a better tomorrow,” Roy says. “There will always be the Hiroshimas, Nagasakis, the Boston bombers, etc. wanting to eliminate, in whatever way they can, the possibility of tomorrow.

“But with authors and stories, you escape into it,” he says. “Not the way you do in a film. When you read a book, it’s your mind and a book. It’s your translations of how the author has visualized that meadow or that mountaintop. It’s really your mind being captivated and being allowed to roam free and unhindered.”

The plan is for the festival to be an annual occurrence and Roy wants to make it clear that JLF at Boulder is not a copycat of the Jaipur event. It wouldn’t work exactly the same way in Boulder because attending the festival is an immersive event with its own local flavor.

“Each experience has to be different,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to recreate an experience, which is a reason why Woodstock, for example, was never recreated after that. People tried, but you can’t. It’s the magic of the moment.”

The key is to capture Boulder’s essence, Roy says. Using Boulder Library is a good start, and in the future they hope to expand in the open space around the library and provide bike rides, hikes, healthy eating — all of which are staples of Boulder’s culture.

“We’re going to try the best we can and add more and more as the years go by,” Levinson says. “Rome wasn’t built in day and neither was the Jaipur Literature Festival. So we’ll start where we can.”