Seven years ago, Alex George founded the Unbound Book Festival with the mission of bringing together readers and writers to create diverse communities, exposing participants to new ideas and authors. Since then, it has grown to become a nationally recognized literary festival, right in the heart of Missouri.
Unbound brings together authors of world-class renown to talk about their books, work and lives. The event takes place over a weekend in Columbia, but in 2020, the festival was canceled about six weeks before it was scheduled. The cancellation was particularly hard on Unbound’s team of volunteer staff because they work year-round, tirelessly planning the event. In 2021, the decision was made to go completely virtual and, “the content was unbelievably good,” George says. “Doing it that way brought home to all of us that technology is wonderful, but it doesn’t replicate being there in person — being part of the crowd, the collective experience. There’s nothing like being there in the moment. These are unique events that can’t be repeated.”
This year, the Unbound Book Festival is making a fully in-person (and perhaps emotional) return with a new location in downtown Columbia from April 21-24. (Previous festivals were held on the Stephens College campus.) “The quality of this year’s panels is fabulous,” George says. “We have at least two Pulitzer Prize winners and authors who were on (former President Barack) Obama’s reading list this year.”
The festival will feature programming for writers and readers of all ages. Here are just a few of the featured authors:
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American novelist and professor at the University of Southern California whose novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, among other awards. He has published nonfiction and short stories, as well as a children’s book written in collaboration with his 6-year-old son, Ellison. Nguyen joins Unbound as the festival’s keynote author.
Jenny Lawson is a bestselling author and humorist who is also known online or her personal blog, The Bloggess, which features dark humor and honest insight on mental illness. Her blog has won many awards.
Patrick Rosal is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of five books of poetry who has earned fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Senior Research Program. Rosal also is the inaugural co-director of the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is the bestselling author of Friday Black, a collection of short stories exploring themes surrounding black identity. In 2018, he was selected by novelist Colson Whitehead as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees.
Marcia Chatelain is a Mizzou alumna and professor at Georgetown University who received the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2021 for her book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, which examines the relationship among black politicians, civil rights organizations, communities and the fast-food industry.
Sequoia Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and author of the award-winning short story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. He teaches creative writing at St. Olaf College and the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA program. His recently published novel, How High We Go in the Dark, was an immediate national bestseller.
While some details of the upcoming panels are still being worked out, here are a few of the planned events set for April 23:
Tiger Hotel Ballroom, 10–11:15 a.m.
Panelists: Emily Nemens, Emily Rutter, Andrea Williams
Moderator: Gabe Fried, MU Department of English
Baseball is often hailed as the most literary of sports. Countless writers have taken up the national pastime in compelling, revealing and moving ways. The lineup of this all-star panel includes three authors whose recent books, whether fiction or nonfiction, offer fresh, surprising insights into baseball and its connection to the American Dream — its optimism, plausibility and complexity.
Big Ragtag, 10–11:15 a.m.
Panelists: Malaka Gharib, Maia Kobabe, Kristen Radtke
Moderator: Ron Austin
Since the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, graphic (i.e. illustrated) memoirs have soared in popularity, not to mention critical acclaim. This panel assembles three writers who have created graphic memoirs, and asks them to discuss the possibilities and challenges of autobiographical literature that is both verbal and visual.
Take This Job
Tiger Hotel Ballroom, 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m.
Panelists: Marcia Chatelain, Kim Kelly, Hilary Leichter
Moderator: Keona Ervin, MU Department of History, affiliate faculty of black studies, women’s and gender studies, and peace studies
There is a resurgence of labor organizing across the United States. Through strikes and unionization efforts, workers from Amazon to Starbucks are pushing labor, capitalism and economic power to the center of public debate. Our panelists will discuss how work — past and present — shapes their writing.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Katy Ballroom, 11:45 a.m.–1 p.m.
Panelists: Ames Hawkins, Barbara Heller, Julie Schumacher, Corey Van Landingham
Moderator: Alexandra Socarides, MU College of English
The purposeful culture of letter-writing — the private thrill of drafting, posting and receiving, and opening letters — has largely been subsumed by instantaneous (and impulsive) digital means. In their work and on this panel, these four authors convey how letter-writing still holds a special cultural and social significance for us in the age of the instant message.
Those Were the Days
Katy Ballroom, 3:15–4:30 p.m.
Panelists: David Berry, Eric Nguyen, Caki Wilkinson
Moderator: Donald Quist
On the one hand, the word “nostalgia” stirs up commercial-ready memories and fond attachments to antiquated things. On the other hand, it conjures up associations with unquestioned loyalty to tradition. These three writers (a poet, a novelist and an essayist) explore the complexities and poignancy of nostalgia in life and literature.
Tiger Hotel Ballroom, 3:15–4:30 p.m.
Panelists: Angela Hume, Vincent Ialenti, Sequoia Nagamatsu
Moderator: Soren Larsen
Human life may be but a blip on the geological timescale, but it is also all that we will ever know of the cosmos. In this panel, three authors will speak to what it means to write literature in an era in which humans are having a devastating influence on the health of the planet.
Katy Ballroom, 5–6:15 p.m.
Panelists: Herb Boyd, francine j. harris, M.L. Liebler
Moderator: Stephanie Williams, Wayne State University Press
Arguably, no other city is as emblematic of the promise of urban life in the United States than Detroit, with its outsized influence over national culture, art, economics and politics. Without glorifying or vilifying it, the three writers on this panel will consider the ways that Detroit’s complicated past and present informs their writing.
Stories of the Fantastic
Tiger Hotel Ballroom, 5–6:15 p.m.
Panelists: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Brenda Peynado, Alexander Weinstein
Moderators: Christie Yant & John Joseph Adams
In literature, the border between real and unreal has always been flexible. Some writers crouch firmly on one side or the other. This panel brings together three writers who dance on that border and sing out their short stories grounded in a reality close to our own, but delightfully (or horrifically) askew.
Find more information at unboundbookfestival.com.