Sapphic fiction isn’t necessarily known for its high quality, Gulfport author Alison Solomon says.
“Lesbian literature doesn’t always have a good name for itself, unfortunately,” she explains, adding that of course there are many talented lesbian authors. Readers just need to know where to find them.
It’s one of the reasons she launched ReadOut in 2017, a festival of lesbian literature, through the Gulfport Public Library’s award-winning LGBTQ Resource Center. Solomon, chair of the ReadOut Committee, invited a slate of lesbian writers, many of them from Florida, to share their work and their creative process at the event.
Solomon explains that Gulfport, with a reputation as a lesbian haven, is the ideal location for ReadOut. Not only is the lesbian community “very involved,” many of them are also writers and avid readers.
Turnout was high at the inaugural ReadOut and three years later it’s still going strong. This year’s festival runs Jan. 31 through Feb. 2 at the library, and includes a series of events.
The curated line-up features writers from across the country, as well as local favorites. Attending authors scheduled to attend include Lilia Bruce, RJ Samuel, Sarah Glenn, Becky Harmon, Riley Scott, Renee McKenzie, Becky Bohan, MB Austin, Leslie Lawrence, Meredith Doench, Robin Becker, Edie Daly, Lynn Miller, Lynn Carr, Erin Zak, Stefani Deoul, Catherine Malorisi, Ellen Levy, Fay Jacobs, Tina Michele, Magnolia Robbins and Elle E. Ire.
“We really have got some excellent authors this year, quite a few with academic backgrounds,” Solomon says. “The majority of the authors are new, but there are a few returning favorites as well … I think it’s a great way for lesbian readers to get exposed to a whole bunch of new authors they may not know about and, also, new genres.”
The ReadOut committee’s goal this year was to present a more diverse event. “We’re doing this during Black History Month, so we certainly hope that we might have a more diverse audience than we have in the past,” she says.
The group invited Tampa author Sheree L. Greer to serve as ReadOut’s keynote speaker. A St. Petersburg College professor, she is also the founder of Kitchen Table Literary Arts Center, which is dedicated to supporting the voices of black women and women of color writers.
“My biggest hope is that we see a really diverse collection of writers and readers come out,” a press release from Greer reads. Her keynote presentation, which she’ll deliver Feb. 1 from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m., is entitled “Why Our Stories Matter.”
“If I could put it in a tag line, I’d say ‘Queer people do more than Pride parades,’” the release adds. “You know, we get coverage that one day of the year when we fill the street, but we also do a lot of important things that contribute to the community. We are every facet of the community. We are in every industry, working alongside you, every day, and we do more than just fill up the streets in parades. This is a chance to see another side of our talents and our strengths that we bring to the community.”
Greer will also lead a free writing workshop on Feb. 2 at 9 a.m., “You Are the Protagonist: Using Your Experiences to Create Compelling Fiction and Non-fiction.” Sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council, it will feature a variety of exercises including memory mining, exploratory free writing and reflection-based revision.
Participants will be asked to “deeply consider the power of their own personal challenges and triumphs in crafting compelling fiction and nonfiction,” Greer shares.
ReadOut begins Jan. 31 from 3-5 p.m., with an afternoon tea featuring a panel of romance writers reading their work. Later that evening, from 7-8:30 p.m., Greer and other authors will meet with readers at a wine-and-cheese event.
Following Greer’s keynote presentation Feb. 1, authors will read from their work and answer audience questions from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and 1:30-4 p.m. In between readings, ReadOut will provide a free buffet lunch from Pia’s Trattoria in Gulfport.
Readers will also be able to purchase their favorite authors’ books from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 1. The New York-based dancer-poet duo Nia & Ness will subsequently take the stage at the Catherine Hickman Theater at 8 p.m. They’ll perform their full-length piece “Home.”
Ness says it invites the audience “to be a fly on the wall and listen to our very intimate and deep conversations, which have to do with our being an out, black lesbian couple. All the things that we experience: the good, the bad and everything in between.”
Tickets to see Nia & Ness are $20 for early-access seating and $15 for general admission. “Our work is about our lives, so it’s about being black, lesbian women, but everyone can find their own story in it. They can find aspects of themselves within our work.”
“We thought their performance was a good complement to ReadOut,” Solomon says. “People have been blown away by their performance. From everything we’ve heard, it’s a very powerful and emotional show.”
ReadOut has previously welcomed around 200 readers and writers, and Solomon expects a similar turnout this year. The festival draws from beyond the lesbian community, Solomon says, but individuals of all genders and sexual orientations attend simply because they’re interested in quality writing. “I think it’s important to expose people who are LGBTQ to a whole genre they may not be familiar with,” she explains.
With a packed schedule, there’s something of interest for all readers. “People can come to any part of the conference they want,” Solomon says. “There’s something for everyone.”
ReadOut 2020 will be held Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at the Gulfport Public Library, located at 5501 28th Ave. S. in Gulfport. Nia & Ness will perform at the Catherine Hickman Theater, located at 5501 27th Ave. S. For more information about events, registration and tickets, visit GulfportReadOut2020.bpt.me and NiaAndNess.bpt.me.