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    Saints and Sinners 2020: The Festival That Wasn’t

    By Michele Karlsberg–

    Michele Karlsberg: The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival (SAS Fest) was founded in 2003 as a new initiative designed to be an innovative way to reach the LGBTQ community with information about HIV/AIDS, particularly disseminating prevention messages via writers and others, as well as other important topics. It was also formed to bring the LGBTQ literary community together to celebrate their field. This year, writer Gar McVey-Russell was planning on covering the SAS Fest, but, well, ya know COVID-19. When SAS was canceled, Gar rose to the occasion of covering the festival that did not happen. 

    Gar McVey-Russell:

    “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.”— Audre Lorde

    What a thrill the 17th Annual Saints and Sinners LGBTQ Literary Festival in New Orleans would have been. As always, SAS Executive Director Paul J. Willis assembled an exciting program full of great discussions and lively entertainment. The conference, the crown jewel of the queer lit calendar, was scheduled for March 27–29, my birthday weekend. I would have spent it in the seductively queer French Quarter with some of the finest queer literary minds of our time, munching beignets during the day and sipping bourbon while listening to world-class jazz at night.

    Gar McVey-Russell

    So many wonderful writers, whom I’ve read and admired, were scheduled to attend:

    • Legendary lesbian authors Elana Dykewomon, Judith Katz, and Irena Klepfisz, speaking with Michele Karlsberg about Jewish Literature and activism;
    • Award winning poet and playwright Jewelle Gomez leading a workshop on poetry;
    • Noted poet and memoirist Saeed Jones teaching a masterclass on writing memoirs;
    • Historical novelists Henry Alley, Paula Martinac, Russ Lopez, and Felice Picano speaking about their craft;
    • Podcasters and broadcasters Elizabeth Andersen, Wayne Goodman (on whose Queer Wordspodcast I have appeared), Candice Huber, and David Swatling speaking about their work;
    • A sampling of other celebrated writers, such as Edmund White, Leona Beasly, Eric Andrews-Katz, J.M. Redmann and Michael H. Ward.

    The Festival holds a Fiction Contest every year, and my short story, Tom of Boalt Hall, was selected by judge Don Weise as a finalist. I would have read from the story along with finalists Ariade Blayde, Morgan Rae Hufstader, Miah Jeffra, runner-up Lewis DeSimone, and winner Matthew Cherry. I also was to appear on a panel about short story writing with Anita Dolman, Jeff Mann, Gary Eldon Peter, and Andrew Holleran. 

    None of this came to pass. The dramatic and terrifying spread of COVID-19 cancelled SAS as it has many other events across the country. The pandemic has created a crisis in the arts community, and SAS is sadly not immune. Cancelling the Festival means a loss of attendance revenue and the potential loss of grant revenue, the lifeblood of any arts organization. SAS lives for this one great event every year, so missing a year will undoubtedly cause much hardship.

    Furthermore, many writers and artists have no health insurance and limited access to healthcare, putting members of this community at risk. Our society’s inequities become clearer than ever during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Writers have a special obligation to speak out about these inequities with our poetry, essays, articles, short stories, and novels. Our voices have the power to reach individuals, providing hope and comfort, and inspiring the need for change. Especially during times of crisis, the arts must be part of the conversation.

    With our voices united, I know SAS will not stay silent for long.

    Gar McVey Russell’s first novel, “Sin Against the Race” (Gamr books, 2017) was listed on “The Advocate’s” Best Books We Read in 2018: LGBTQ Novels. His short story, “Tom of Boalt Hall,” was a finalist in the Saints and Sinners LGBTQ Festival Fiction Open and appears in their 2020 anthology. His fiction has also appeared in “Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS” (1993) and “Harrington Gay Mens Fiction Quarterly” (vol. 7, Num. 3, 2005). His non-fiction has appeared in “Chill Magazine” and The Good Men Project. He publishes a blog, “the gar spot.” He is married and lives in Oakland, where he listens to a lot of jazz.

    Michele Karlsberg Marketing and Management specializes in publicity for the LGBTQ+ community. This year, Karlsberg celebrates 32 years of successful book campaigns. For more information:

    Published on April 9, 2020