"Can literature be a force for change?" Those are the words novelist Russell Banks used to open his lecture last Thursday at Kleinhans Music Hall. Banks was the first speaker of the Babel 2012-13 speaker series, sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center. The series aims to bring the best writers from around the world to Buffalo to create global conversation. Banks, the first American writer to be featured in the series, presented an excellent, thought-provoking talk.
Born in Newton, Mass., Banks has written more than 10 novels, in addition to story collections and poetry. Banks is most recognized for his work examining American family life, economic struggles and racism. Two of Banks' works have been adapted for feature-length films. Additionally, many of his works are set in upstate New York, where Banks lived for a period of time. He served as New York State's official author from 2004 to 2008.
At last week's event, Banks was eloquently introduced by Just Buffalo's Artistic Director Barbara Cole.
Rather than discussing major themes in his work, Banks chose to talk about the relationship between literature and politics. He highlighted the fact that few novels are a significant force for social change. Such novels, he said, were often written to please the public.
"Poets, playwrights and novelists stop being poets, playwrights and novelists when they run for office," Banks said.
He kept his talk humorous, asking the audience to imagine a world where the country was run by a poet laureate.
During the question-and-answer period, Banks heard questions ranging from specific plot elements to "What is the ideal reader?" He shared a story about a letter he received from a woman, asking if one of his books was about her. That woman was an ideal reader, he said.
One question that was popular was why Banks writes about certain places. "Certain areas have resonance and power for me," he said. "As in a dream, everything seemed significant."
Many Western New York readers can relate to Banks' work because some of it takes place close to home.
The Babel speaker series also provides an excellent opportunity for teens. Not only can students attend these lectures for a discounted rate, but Just Buffalo has partnered with two schools in the city – City Honors and Buffalo Seminary. Through these partnerships, students attending these schools get to experience "Book Talks" with the Babel speakers at their schools.
Banks' lecture was intriguing, and audience members of all ages and walks of life were able to relate to his writing and message.