Despite the adage, there are usually more than two sides to every story. And in the case of the never-ending saga that is Jersey City, there are at least 250,000 stories, narratives, and lives that unfold each day.
Recently, residents were treated to a collection of readings from 28 local emerging wordsmiths and performers who shared their unique stories during the fifth annual A Tale of Our City writers’ festival. Held in Van Vorst Park on Sept. 22, the festival featured a day-long line-up of JC-nurtured poets, novelists, short story writers, lyricists, performance artists, and musicians under the park gazebo. The free festival exposed residents to some of the best work currently being created by emerging writers living in Jersey City.
The work, which was read or performed by the writers themselves, included poems, monologues, excerpts from novels, nonfiction, performance pieces, and songs.
“This year, we had a very eclectic group. It was very inspiring,” said A Tale of Our City Chairwoman Sonia Araujo, who also serves as the assistant director of the Jersey City Free Public Library. “What we want to do is we want to encourage people to come out and support artists and writers in all mediums. Writers want people to know what they wrote and so that’s really the goal of the festival.”
‘This really was a celebration of the writer.’ – Dujuana Sharese
Among the authors selected to read this year were Kenza Ashley, Peter Healy, Robert Woolsey, Zakee Howze, Shamina Allen, and Jane Pedler, among others.
Most of the writers who participate in A Tale of Our City have self-published their work, but a few are published by major houses and others read from completed manuscripts they hope to shop through an agent and get published through traditional channels.
Off the page
For the first time in the festival’s five-year history, A Tale of Our City included readings from people who’ve taken their writing off the page. Performance artist Dujuana Sharese, who has been a popular draw at the Groove on Grove music series held each summer in Grove Plaza, performed for the first time at A Tale of Our City. Sharese, a politically-oriented spoken word artist, writes stories that are set to music and are performed, rather than read.
“My poems vary. So, I like to give people little pieces of me,” said Sharese, who performed four selections for A Tale of Our City. “I’m sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes political. By the time I got onstage it was the end of the day and there were very few people there. But they responded right on time. This really was a celebration of the writer.”
Sharese performed with drummer Roland Afro Roland.
Three more traditional musical acts – Javier Orellana, Debra Devi, and Tom’s Dream – were also included in the festival line-up.
“What we did this year, which we’ve never done [before], is we incorporated performers. To us, that’s just another form of writing,” said Araujo. “We wanted to share writers who were not just writing in a book, but also writers who were writing in other genres and formats, too.”
Another writer, Nancy Mendez-Booth – who has written what she calls a “collection of linked short stories” that are posted to her blog – read the story, “Lucky.”
“My collection is not yet published,” Mendez-Booth said. “At the festival I focused on trying to get increased readership to my blog to build an audience for myself.”
Through building an audience she said she hopes to eventually get a publishing deal. Still, Mendez-Booth recognizes the importance of events like A Tale of Our City and applauds the organizer for including a broader group of writers than in the past.
“This year’s festival kind of reflects the reality of the writing life today,” she said. “There are so many more options available today. It’s very hard for writers to go the traditional route of getting an agent, and getting a publisher. And the publishing industry has been pretty much decimated over the past few years. So, in order for writing to be relevant, and for the libraries to stay relevant, they have to respond to the realities and acknowledge that books are done differently now. There are different venues and for writers.”
‘A nice detour’
A few residents who attended A Tale of Our City said they had never heard of the festival, but happened to be in the area while it was taking place and wandered into Van Vorst Park to have a listen.
“I didn’t really know what it was. I was just out on my way to the post office and came in to listen for a while,” said Brian Grier, who said he decided to walk through Van Vorst Park after seeing a crowd of people gathered. “I was just curious. But I heard some interesting stuff. It was a nice detour.”
Grier estimated he stayed in the park for an hour or more listening to various writers read from their work.
Kel Mullins and Michele Kirklander said they made a similar detour into the park while walking their dog on their way to get a bite to eat.
“This is pretty cool,” said Mullins, who has lived in Jersey City for the past few years but had not been to the event. “I’ve never seen this before,” Mullins said. “I head [Theresa Borrelli] read. I might check out her book online.”
Borrelli, whose work is known throughout Hudson County, read from her self-published book, “I Am Myself: A Woman Growing Up with Tourette Syndrome.”
Kirklander said she was impressed with the excerpt from “Perfected by Girls,” read earlier in the day by published novelist Alfred C. Martino, who writes for teens.
“This is like Jersey City’s own literary marathon,” said Kirklander. “It’s great to find all these unexpected gifts and surprises in our backyard.”
Grier, Mullins, and Kirklander were all delighted to discover that A Tale of Our City will return next fall.
“I want this to be on everybody’s mind each September,” said Araujo. “We need the community – the arts community, and the general community – to support not only the library, but also our performers and artists. When next September gets here, I want everybody to think, ‘I have to be there!’ ”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.