In the sun-drenched parking lot behind Dixwell Plaza, a tale of young travelers journeying through ancient Mayan jungles burst forth from the speakers. The story belonged to Connecticut author Anna Nyakana, reading an excerpt from Niyah Zuri and The Mayan Eclipse. As she read, words sailing through the air, she managed to keep the attention of the crowd that moments before was dancing to 1980s R&B.
Hearing stories was what they were there for. It was the first day of the second annual Elm City LIT Fest, and if Saturday was any indication, there will be many more to come. Events took place between the plaza, home to the old Stetson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, and People Get Ready Books on Whalley Avenue nearby. Read more about the work that went into LIT Fest, including its team, here.
LIT Fest Founder IfeMichelle Gardin. Team members also include coordinators Sha McAllister and Emalie Mayo, and Julius Stone.
Though it was the second edition of the event, the past weekend marked the first in-person festival, and the first to bring in Black businesses and artists outside of literature. Last year, the first LIT Fest was an all-virtual affair due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For founder and co-coordinator IfeMichelle Gardin, the in-person experience made it feel like year one all over again.
“Our first years being virtual opened us up to a global audience because we broadcasted online,” she said Saturday. “The challenges of that were not being able to have vendors and there being no in-person interactions with authors.”
This year’s event provided opportunities for in-person vendors, author talks, outdoor performances and real time book sales and signings as the festival took advantage of a world now outside of lockdown.
The festival’s mission statement is to “celebrate literature, literary arts, and literary artists of the African Diaspora, for everyone,” said Gardin. Saturday, that celebration came alive with a moving ancestral call and drum performance by members of Fair Haven’s Bregamos Community Theater.
Not only was the performance a welcome pick me up—events got underway at 10 a.m. Saturday, after all—but it was a reminder that the African diaspora extends beyond the boundaries people typically consider Black or African American. The Bregamos drummers hail from largely Latinx and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
WYBC’s Darryl Huckaby and DJ Dooley-O were constant fixtures onstage in between various acts. They welcomed New Haven’s own Isaac Bloodworth, whose performance Curled told the story of the importance of Black hair. On stage, Bloodworth told a story that evolved from a simple hairstyling session between grandmother and child and evolved into a supernatural display of power.
Artist Isaac Bloodworth.
The artist said that he was inspired by his own experience: he was forced to cut his hair earlier in life, while attending a charter school, and still sees similar stories in the news. His story hit home with the largely Black audience, which featured a wide variety of gorgeous hairstyles, from high-top fades to thick locs that flowed past the waist.
Bloodworth later said that his interest in puppeteering began during a summer spent in UConn’s Mentor Connection program, where he went on to earn a BFA in Puppet Arts. It has only grown since then.
There were nearly a dozen vendors, including Ashleigh Huckabey of Empath Vintage and artist Jesse Wolf. Huckabey, who helped Gardin organize the vendor fair, sells all manner of vintage items from clothes to vinyl records. Wolf is a visual artist and muralist who sold paintings at the event and has contributed to various murals around the city. In addition to selling his work, Wolf said he was most excited to be among the people and soak in the positive vibes.
Ashleigh Huckabey of Empath Vintage. In addition to selling, she helped Gardin coordinate fellow vendors for the event.
Back on stage, Nyakana made a big splash with an ebullient reading of the book. Nyakana, whose latest Niyah Zuri book was released Sept. 13, said she wanted to write books that help children “unlock themselves” by first helping them to know themselves and their history.
She hopes to make an impact around the world by “connecting the dots” and showing children the ways in which we are ultimately more alike than different, she said. Her Niyah Zuri books are such a big hit that they will soon be adapted into an animated series and have gained her a spot on Connecticut Magazine’s 40 Under 40 list.
Sha McAllister, co-coordinator of the festival, met Gardin when they both went to see Nikki Giovanni speak at Yale in 2019. McAllister and Gardin both separately expressed a desire to make their festival into a “true destination event,” with McAllister adding that they sought to make it “a time when people are coming into New Haven to visit the festival while also creating something that locals can take ownership of.”
The importance of local talent, and local engagement and involvement was a frequent talking point among organizers, vendors and attendees alike. When asked what inspired her to create the festival, Gardin spoke of her visits to large literature festivals in other cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but also of a desire to create a festival on par with New Haven’s famed International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
She added that though there are many events that take place in the city, many of them represent and celebrate Yale, but not New Haven.
“New Haven has a lot of arts celebrations, but we need something for the community,” she said. “Something that celebrates and educates about the richness of local resources.”
Justin Hernandez, who works at BLOOM.
Justin Hernandez said he also sees the importance of community and local talent. Hernandez was a vendor at the festival representing Bloom, a newly-opened lifestyle boutique and wellness center in the Westville neighborhood. At the Bloom table, attendees could purchase plants, teas, fragrances, and many other enticing items. Most popular on Saturday though, were Hernandez’ delicious artisanal mocktails—a refreshing respite from the midday sun.
Hernandez came to work for Bloom in what he sees as an act of pure serendipity. Shortly after it opened, he walked in believing it was a flower shop. He browsed and chatted with the store’s owner, Alisha Crutchfield-McLean, who expressed a need for more help around the store. He had just recently left his previous job. The rest is history.
Hernandez described Bloom as a “community space reimagined” that promotes health, wellness, and local involvement. The plan is for it to be much more than a store, but more like a hub for activity within the Westville neighborhood.
Eamon Linehan of Baobab Tree Studios. The studios, which operate under the direction of Kevin Ewing, have been a longtime partner of LIT Fest's work.
A few blocks from the parking lot, there were more LIT fest events taking place at People Get Ready Books. Despite opening just months before the pandemic hit, the bookstore has become something of a community center, known for hosting book talks, film screenings, youth programming and upcoming comedy nights. Over the weekend, attendees could turn up at PGR and sit in on panel discussions, listen to readings from various authors, and take in a speech from keynote speaker Lucy Hurston.
One such event was Saturday’s “Authors of the African Diaspora” panel, which featured readings and interviews with journalist and author Nicole Blades (Have You Met Nora?), Jael Richardson, and Deesha Philyaw (The Secret Lives of Church Ladies). In the space, the conversation ranged from writing schedules and character naming conventions to character inspirations and the viability of short stories in the literature market. It was moderated by Lisa D. Gray, an author who hails from New Haven.
As the festival expands, Gardin said she’s excited for it to grow, but endeavors to always “keep it in the community, and keep it local.”
So far, so good.
Learn more about Elm City LIT Fest at their website.