By Sara Balabanlilar
I belong to a group of Texans for whom the state is shaped by its literary identity.
Weird. To be perfectly honest, neither Houston nor Dallas seems like the stereotype of a literary city. But damn if both places don’t try to defy that stereotype. As a dorky, devoted, lifelong reader and English Literature major in college, I was able to take part in John Pluecker and Jen Hofer’s Blaffer Museum pop-up/class/installation of Antena, a language justice project. I took an interdisciplinary art class with writer Lacy Johnson. My partner and I started a book project selling, and talking about, speculative fiction and queerness. As a Brazos Bookstore employee, I was able to chat books with Bryan Washington (author of Lot, which itself grapples with the city of Houston), Kate and Phuc of Bloomsday Literary, a glorious rotation of visiting authors, and my coworkers (when we weren’t, you know, cleaning glitter off the floor from story time or unboxing hundreds of crates of books). Books weren’t separate from my experience as a Houstonian; they were deeply ingrained in my experience, and their presence moved in and out of the city regularly, stretched its boundaries and my imagination of what Houston could be.
And Dallas? What can I say? My first experience with the Dallas literary world was going to Houston’s Brazos Bookstore and finding Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, a queer, Oulipian love story translated from French and put out by a mysterious small publisher located in North Texas. My next experience with the Dallas literary world was being employed by that publisher.
Fitting, then, that my very first experience in Dallas as a prospective resident was with a bookstore. My partner and I decided to embark on an apartment hunt about a month before moving across the state, so we booked a hotel and headed up 45 North. After some dubious freeway experiences (note: Dallas drivers are much worse than Houston drivers, and no one can convince me otherwise), we drove into the treed, shady Oak Cliff area and straight to Wild Detectives, a bookstore/bar. Nothing will brighten a day like a glass of wine and a book — or in our case, a bottle of wine and several books. Two hours later, we were in the nearby neighborhood of Deep Ellum to hang out in Deep Vellum Books & Publishing, my new workplace, with publisher Will Evans.
Maybe because it’s the first experience I had here, but the bookstores in Dallas really feel like home. Deep Vellum, Wild Detectives, and Interabang triangulate around downtown Dallas to form hubs for many kinds of reader. And readers there are. Recently, Deep Vellum Publishing put out three chapbooks by amazing Dallas poets Fatima-Ayan, Malika Hirsi, Mike Soto, and Edyka Chilomé. Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs sponsored a launch event, and the support was tremendous. Deep Vellum Books was so packed that we had to leave the doors open; attendees couldn’t fit inside, and spilled out onto Commerce Street. Our bookstore manager, Cristina, runs a book club featuring amazing women writers from indie presses, and month after month new readers walk out carrying these radical books I could never have imagined would be Dallas bestsellers.
What bonds these two cities, after all, then, is a growing love for their literary citizens. It’s a complicated relationship – neither city spends enough on its writers and artists; neither city is well-known for its devotion to literature. It’s hard to make people care about books sometimes in a state that’s just trying to fill potholes and keep open carry legal, and I’m still not over how much glitter I cleaned up at the bookstore, but Texas is big: there’s plenty of room for growth and weirdness and reading or writing outside the lines.
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