Bronx Book Festival latest in borough’s renewed push for literary prowess

The Bronx has a rich literary tradition, with classics such as E.L. Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate” and Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” set in a borough that’s been home to everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Mary Higgins Clark.

But the borough itself is not traditionally known as a hot spot for local bibliophiles, in the fashion of areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Yet over the past few years, Bronx locals have begun writing a new chapter in that story.

From growing book club meetups to an annual book fair — now in its sixth year — the Bronx has pushed its way to the front of the city’s literary stage.

Charlie Vázquez, deputy director of the Bronx Council on the Arts, runs the organization’s writer center and said the growth originated on a grass roots level.

“It’s much more organic here,” he said. “It’s fostered over the years, and I think people are really discovering the community.”

The borough’s book community achieved a milestone last week, with the full funding of a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign to launch a Bronx Book Festival in May.

The two-day event will be similar to its counterparts around the city, such as Book Con in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Book Festival, and will take place in Fordham Plaza and some Bronx public schools.

Saraciea J. Fennell, 29, a publicist who works in the publishing industry, spearheaded the Kickstarter. She said the borough suffered a serious loss when the Baychester Barnes & Noble, the only major bookstore in the Bronx, closed two years ago. To make matters worse, the lifelong Bronx resident said the absence of suitable venues has meant few authors come to the borough for readings or other events.

“I started booking events for authors and publishers, but then I realized no author has ever come to the Bronx,” she said. “That got me to thinking, ‘Why, after all of these years, can’t the Bronx have something like [a book festival]?’”

The festival begins on May 18 with “The Bronx is Reading,” an event that will unfold at various schools. It will include appearances from authors such as Sayantani DasGupta (“The Serpent’s Secret”) and Tracey Baptiste (“The Jumbies”), who will meet with students and talk about their writing experiences first hand.

The next day, the book festival’s main event will take place outdoors at Fordham Plaza. Though Fennell is still ironing out the details, she promised panels, readings and additional meet-and-greets.

“Being outdoors will get the community involved,” she said.

Vázquez said the timing of the Bronx Book Festival couldn’t be better. It will kick off one week after the sixth annual Bronx Book Fair at the Bronx Library Center in Fordham.

The fair will have its own panels, readings and workshops from writers such as Tiffany Papageorge.

“The thing with these events, which is different from the writing groups, it highlights the works and talent here to the general public,” he said.

The pending opening of The Lit. Bar — a new bookstore in Mott Haven — stands as another major development in this renaissance.

Noëlle Santos, who has been working to bring the store to life for four years, said the brick-and-mortar space hopes to fill the void left by the Barnes & Noble closure.

“People are looking to connect in their community without being boxed in,” said Santos, who’s slated to speak at both the Bronx Book Fair and Bronx Book Festival. “I see this taking off. I see a lot of inspiration going from this.”

Literary experts agreed.

Olivia Loksing Moy, assistant professor of English at Lehman College, pointed to the Bronx’s rich history of writers-in-residence and noted that the borough’s diversity makes it an ideal setting for a story.

It’s crucial, she said, that aspiring Bronx writers find a place where they are encouraged to pursue their craft, without having to hop a subway or cross a river.

“There is a lot of talk about reviving the Bronx, and the literary scene is very important to that,” she said.