Column | Lit

Woodlawn’s New Book Fair

Asadah Kirkland discusses her new creation, the Soulful Chicago Book Fair

Javier Suarez

The creator of the Soulful Chicago Book Fair, Asadah Kirkland, is a go-getter extraordinaire. A New York transplant, Kirkland’s always worked in the literary world, from managing a bookstore to writing, but the idea for the fair began with a random conversation at a café she frequents. Local entrepreneurs were discussing putting together a book fair in Woodlawn, a community not known for culture. Kirkland decided she would take the conversation from idea to reality and created the Soulful Chicago Book Fair, which will be held Saturday, July 16 on 61st Street between Cottage Grove Avenue and King Drive.

When asked why she chose to host the book fair in Woodlawn, Kirkland said she knew nothing about neighborhoods or their perceptions in Chicago, but she does know Woodlawn well, and saw the potential that existed amidst the vacant lots and boarded up buildings. She said she initially received a number of warnings about locating the fair in Woodlawn, most of them related to gangs. But because of her presence in the community and the goodwill she has established, Kirkland has good rapport with the residents, especially younger people. She says the neighborhood sees the positive efforts she’s making, and that if young people see positivity, they will act positively. “But if they are treated like they are in a war zone, we should expect them to act accordingly,” warns Kirkland. “People are accustomed to seeing cop cars and the like, but this area is actually a hub of creative activity, and people were just waiting for something big to happen.”

Kirkland began her research for the fair by attending last year’s Printers Row Lit Fest. She noted the number of booksellers, but saw few actual authors. In particular, she found there existed a lack of Black authors, perhaps in part because of the prohibitive cost of renting a table. Suspecting it was time for a different sort of book fair, Kirkland gathered more than nineteen pages of names, corresponding to Black authors who were either at Printers Row or last October’s Authors Showcase at the Woodson Library in Washington Heights. Armed with that list, she had the basis for the Soulful Chicago Book Fair.

After choosing the Woodlawn community as the site for the fair, she went about getting signatures of approval from both the alderman and the watch commander. Kirkland knew there would be no major obstacles from the city; she says she operates with certainty, on God’s plan. And generally she’s been right: the city has been cooperative and responsive to the planning. The city did shorten the length of the fair down 61st Street, but also widened it, allowing her to create space for a stage, a food court, and over one hundred tables for Black authors. She also contacted the owner of a vacant gas station on 61st and St. Lawrence who agreed to allow Kirkland and a local artist create a mural on the side of the building. The Community Investment Corporation (CIC), an organization that lends funds to credit-starved communities, has come on board to aid in this endeavor. The gas station will be designated a visual arts park, allowing visual artists to show and sell their work.

One of the many factors differentiating the Soulful Chicago Book Fair from other book fairs in the city is its focus on authors: Kirkland has decided that, apart from food vendors in the designated food court area, there will be no vendors who are not authors. Fair attendees will be unable to purchase purses or jewelry or anything other than books. Says Kirkland, “I don’t want someone walking up to an author’s table and saying ‘I would buy your book, but I just bought this bag.’”

Kirkland has also created a cross-generational event, sponsoring an essay contest for young people who interview their oldest living relatives. Cash prizes for the winning essays will be given during a special ceremony headed by historian, author, professor, and elder statesman Timuel Black. Kirkland says this is a way of passing the torch from the elder griots in the Black community to the next generation of griots and writers.

Author tables will be sectioned by genre to make it easier for attendees to purchase books based on their interests. Those genres include children’s books, where Kirkland’s daughter, a new author, will be selling books from her series; fiction; nonfiction; poetry; fantasy; science fiction; and the like. There will be a wide variety of books for purchase and wide opportunity to meet writers.

The fair will open with a float of elders led to the stage by young drummers. There will be an opening ceremony, culminating in the elders granting their permission for the fair to begin. The ceremony is a celebratory event commemorating the centennial of the migration of Blacks from the south to Chicago. There will be a number of performers, including Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eric Roberson; Kuumba Lynx, a youth hip-hop performance art group; vocalist Maggie Brown, daughter of legendary singer-songwriter Oscar Brown, Jr.; Blah Blah Blah, a ballroom rock group; and the David Boykin Trio, a well-known jazz group. “I’m really looking forward to the performances. We are going to rock out!” Kirkland gushes. “In addition, there will be workshops covering topics like publishing and handling writer’s block, so there will be something of interest to published and unpublished authors alike.”

The fair has attracted a number of sponsors in addition to CIC. Kirkland has received funding from Northwestern University Press, KaZoom Digital Publishing, Currency Exchange Café, the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, and the Preservation of Affordable Housing in Woodlawn. She has also been meeting with members of the clergy to include them in the creation of the fair. In order to capitalize on the grassroots nature of the fair, Kirkland created the 20/20 Vision Campaign, which allows people to give twenty dollars for the fair.

Kirkland envisions the Soulful Chicago Book Fair as an annual event on par with Printers Row. She recognizes there are not many opportunities for Black authors to reach the public, and thinks the Soulful Chicago Book Fair fills this void. The fair has received applications for booths from local authors and authors across the United States. She says people are already planning on participating in next year’s fair and offering suggestion on who next year’s performers should be.

Given all this attention, Kirkland says she feels blessed and amazed for the opportunity to help established and new authors. She also says there’s been a great deal of cooperation from the Black bookstores in the city, and sees the book fair has a partnership to assist authors and bookstores. “It seems I have always worked in the literary field in one form or another,” says Kirkland. “This is an opportunity for me to assist authors who are generally not part of the mainstream publishing world and don’t get the attention they need or deserve.”

The Soulful Chicago Book Fair will be held Saturday, July 16 from 10am–8pm on 61st Street between Cottage Grove Avenue and King Drive. Street parking is available and the neighborhood is easily accessible by public transportation, including the Green Line train.

For more information on authors, performances, or sponsorship opportunities, check the website at soulfulchicagobookfair.com. Feel free to like the book fair on Facebook at facebook.com/soulful-chicago-book-fair

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