The Boulder Public Library hosts one of the most extraordinary literature festivals in the world, an event University of Colorado Boulder officials hope faculty and students will love and learn from.
The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (ZEE JLF) is a five-day festival hosted in Jaipur, India, and is considered the world’s largest literature festival, drawing an estimated 500,000 people in five days, according to ZEE JLF@Boulder Organizer Jessie Friedman.
In the span of about a decade, the Jaipur festival (sponsored primarily by the mammoth Asian company ZEE Entertainment) went from its Indian founding to inspire more than 200 similar festivals across Asia, Africa and Europe, including some in nations in which freedom of expression creates more than a little danger. When the founders of the festival sought an American site, they found Friedman and her husband, Jules Levinson, pitching Boulder.
“My husband and I stumbled upon it in India in 2011, and we had this outrageous idea of bringing it to Boulder,” said Friedman, who had found the festival while accompanying her husband to a translation conference in Sarnath, India.
“At the literature festival, there was this stunning joy as if people were at a rock concert, while at the same time people were experiencing deep emotion from these discussions (between writers). It was truly an astonishing experience.”
Other cities from Boston to Berkeley were also trying to get the festival, but after Indian Producer Sanjoy Roy found out Boulder was interested, then “two weeks later he was sitting in our living room,” Friedman said. The festival is now in its fourth year in Boulder, and while Roy and co-directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale largely curate the free event, they also look to organizers such as Friedman and Levinson to add local authors and voices.
Friedman said one of the joys of the festivals is that it is not about book sales, or punditry on current events, but rather about bringing writers from diverse backgrounds, interests and disciplines together to explore the human condition.
“There has always been a natural fit between the festival and the campus. ... We would like to create a pattern of student involvement here that will be repeated for some time to come.”
“From Buddhist thought and astrophysics to human geography, women’s issues and racism, non-fiction, fiction or poetry, our goal is to create panels of diverse writers in conversation with one another,” she said.
“This gives people a very different perspective—a discussion of topics among writers that people aren’t going to hear in in other places—and that’s one of the things that is moving about it,” said Friedman, who runs Aloka Psychotherapy and Life Coaching when not fundraising and organizing the festival.
“It’s so hard to step outside of the world that we have to function in, so when something brings us out of it into a larger perspective, even for a moment, it’s very moving, very emotional.”
Tim Oakes, a geography professor at CU Boulder and the director of the Center for Asian Studies, said making those experiences available for students is why the Center for Asian Studies initially provided funding support for the festival. While funds were not available this year, he still believes that the center should be a conduit for the festival, and he noted that many other areas of study could benefit, as well.
“There has always been a natural fit between the festival and the campus, and Interim Dean Jim White believes that the campus needs to be very much a part of the community,” Oakes said. “We would like to create a pattern of student involvement here that will be repeated for some time to come.”
In India, student involvement in the literature festival is extremely high, and people under the age of 30 account for more than 60 percent of the attendees, Levinson said. Unfortunately, the Boulder event has not been as successful attracting students, even though the festival site—the Boulder Public Library—is just a stone’s throw from student homes and the campus itself.
“These are artificial boundaries,” Levinson said. “We’ve got to get the word out: They just need to give into gravity and they’ll be there.”
This year’s festival features 65 authors, seven workshop presenters and five musicians in 41 sessions and will be held from Sept. 21 to 23 at various locations at the Boulder Library, 1001 Arapahoe Ave. Music precedes most of the daily activities, which occur from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on Friday, 10 to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. There will also be a concert on Saturday evening. The entire festival is free to attend.
This year’s presenters include Pulitzer Prize winner Margot Jefferson; renowned forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, author of the Bones mystery novels; Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan; and distinguished Kenyan scholar, writer, and Nobel nominee Ngugi wa Thiong’o. To view all the different presentations, visit: https://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/boulder/