By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
More than a full year into the new reality of pandemic living, Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures has upped their game in order to serve literary Western Pennsylvania with a stunning line-up of writers as part of their Ten Evenings Series. The just announced 2021/2022 season presents local readers with opportunities to engage with writers who inform, entertain, transform and reimagine the spaces we occupy. Even when those spaces are virtual.
“There have been so many incredible books this past year that personally got me through the challenge and isolation of the pandemic. I think I’ll always reflect on these books differently than other books I’ve read in my life. I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way and I am just thrilled to present so many of these phenomenal authors this coming year,” Stephanie Flom told the Current via email. It was a difficult year for all arts organizations, but Flom, the Executive Director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, was buoyed by the response of her team and of the audience.
“We never could have imagined that we’d be presenting virtually throughout last season. And yet our resilient staff pulled it off and our audience was eager and grateful to continue to hear from the authors,” she said.
The folks at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures learned a lot through feeling their way through their first virtual year; they overcame unexpected challenges, but also experienced moments of real connection, curiosity and compassion.
“The biggest surprise of the past year were the virtual high school visits. There was such an intimacy when the authors and the students (often in their bedrooms) are eye to eye on their zoom screen. We heard from more than one author that the student questions were among the best they’ve had,” according to Flom.
Ten Evenings will kick off in the fall with Brit Bennett, author of ‘The Vanishing Half,’ a searing novel about the cost of racial passing. The best-selling novel probes all of our conceptions and misconceptions about race, identity and place while telling a family story.
Lawrence Wright brings his gift for investigating the major events of our times to the present moment with his book, ‘The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID.’ Wright is the author of numerous books, including ‘The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,’ a comprehensive work about the failures of intelligence and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism that lead to the 9/11 attacks.
‘Hamnet’ was on every literary maven’s bookshelf, night stand or wish list this year. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel re-imagines the life and premature death of Shakespeare’s young son, Hamnet. This novel of a marriage reeling from grief while struggling through a pandemic feels exquisitely germane to this moment in our own time.
When Isabel Wilkerson published her masterwork, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,’ in 2010, she knocked everybody sideways. She brings that same prodigious talent to her 2020 release, ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,’ described by the New York Times as ‘an instant American classic.’ It is just that.
With ‘Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,’ Robin Kimmerer blends poetry and prose, botany and environmental advocacy into a wholly mesmerizing collection of essays. Kimmerer is a trained botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her illuminates the synergistic marriage of humans and the planet we occupy in a way that makes all things feel possible. She has said, “If we think about our responsibilities as gratitude, giving back and being activated by love for the world, that’s a powerful motivator.”
For many of us, books are as essential to surviving the pandemic as masks and hand sanitizer. They provide a way to live in the world while sheltering at home. Reading has always allowed us to explore with our minds, even if we’re firmly seated at home. It feels more indispensable than ever to connect through the written world.
The programming for the 2021/2022 season is an all-star lineup of the most talked about books and the most essential voices. Like most of us, Flom still keeps the fire burning towards that day when we go off-line and back into physical spaces together.
“My hope is that we can return to in-person lectures in 2022. I’ve literally been dreaming about it; there is a true euphoria, a triumphant joy, resonating throughout the Music Hall,” she said.
Ten Evenings Lineup for 2021/2022
- Brit Bennett, author of ‘The Vanishing Half’ — Monday, September 20, 2021
- Charles Yu, author of ‘Interior Chinatown’ — Monday, October 18, 2021
- Lawrence Wright, author of ‘The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID’ — Monday, November 8, 2021
- Maggie O’Farrell, author of ‘Hamnet’ — Monday, November 22, 2021
- Yaa Gyasi, author of ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ — Monday, December 6, 2021
- Douglas Stuart, author of ‘Shuggie Bain’ — Monday, January 24, 2022
- Ayad Akhtar, author of ‘Homeland Elegies’ — Monday, February 21, 2022
- George Saunders, author of ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ — Monday, March 21, 2022
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ — Monday, April 11, 2022
- Isabel Wilkerson, author of ‘Caste’ — Monday, May 9, 2022