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In its 40th year, the Key West Literary Seminar brings a focus on Black literature

Mark Hedden
Key West Literary Seminar
Kevin Young and Rowan Ricardo Phillips discuss poetry and the Key West Literary Seminar in January 2019. Young will deliver the keynote address of the 2023 seminar, which opens Jan. 12, 2023.

For 40 years, America’s best writers head to the Florida Keys in January for the Key West Literary Seminar.

The theme of this year's event, which runs Jan. 12-15, is Singing America, a Celebration of Black Literature. The seminar invites Pulitzer prize winners and bestselling authors to take deep dives into writing and what it means to history and culture.

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“We bring writers onto the stage but people who come for it are readers — especially the people on stage," said Arlo Haskell, the seminar's director since 2015. "They’re first and foremost readers. I think everybody identifies as readers and that’s who we’re trying to bring here."

This year, the event is dedicated to the work of Black writers, and the recognition couldn't be more timely, said Lori Reed, a board member of the literary seminar and chairwoman of this year's event.

"Other cultures are being erased and put aside in school libraries and in curriculum," Reed said. "It seems historical contributions are being minimized. There's been a conscious effort to keep these things from our children."

Gwen Filosa
Since 2022, the Key West Literary Seminar has been held outdoors at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater in Key West, Florida.

Authors such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin have been celebrated for decades, she said. But newer generations of Black writers are also at the top of American literature.

"This event will familiarize a lot of people who don't normally read Black literature," Reed said. "And they will understand more about it and be willing to say, 'That's not going to happen in my school library."

Two dozen writers are on the roster. They include fiction writer Deesha Philyaw, whose short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, among other awards.

Another writer appearing this year is Jacqueline Woodson, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. The book won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and the NAACP Image Award.

Kevin Young, poetry editor at The New Yorker, will deliver the keynote address Thursday. The author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, Young is also the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

This year, the seminar also has a special musical guest, the Florida Memorial University’s Ambassador Chorale, from South Florida’s only historically Black university. The group was founded by members of the Bethlehem Baptist Association in 1879 in Live Oak, Fla.

Certain seminar events are open to the public with free admission. But most of the schedule is for the 500 people who registered this year, paying $675 to get into all onstage events and the opening night reception.

"Forty years of the seminar shows the life of letters is really alive and well in Key West. It's always had this magical charm that has drawn writers here."
Seminar director Arlo Haskell

The seminar gives twenty full scholarships to teachers and librarians from across the country, financial help for writers to attend workshops and a free writing program for Keys high school students.

Diversity at the seminar is nothing new, Reed said, noting that several writers on this year’s program —including Jericho Brown, Deesha Philyaw and Kevin Young — are returning guests. Young has made several appearances.

“The seminar has never drawn color lines,” said Reed who has worked for many years at Key West nonprofits and currently works part time at Books & Books.

Past seminars have revolved around themes such as Writers of the Caribbean and Literature in the Age of AIDS, in 1997.

Other years zeroed in on journalism, mystery and crime fiction, short stories, poetry sports writing, Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, film, children's literature and travel writing.

Reed, 68, a lifelong avid reader, didn't shy away from saying she was the logical choice to chair this year's event. Haskell came up with the theme, she said, and reached out to her for direction.

"I'm the only Black member of the board [of the seminar]," she said. “It lends credibility when you have someone chair who can relate and become personally involved."

This year's reading list reminded her of the power literature has.

"It's really possible to lose yourself in a book, but it's not always possible to find yourself," Reed said. "And I found myself in a lot of books I read in the last eight months."

A fitting home for the seminar

Key West is a fitting home for the seminar, created by David and Lynn Kaufelt in 1983, and originally held in the local library on Fleming Street. Literary legends have long sought out Key West as a muse and a home.

The Old Town mansion that was home to Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s, 907 Whitehead St., is a top tourist attraction for tours. Tennessee Williams, Shel Silverstein, Elizabeth Bishop and Truman Capote also lived and wrote here.

Michael Blades
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Tom Perrotta discuss their work at the 2022 Key West Literary Seminar.

Judy Blume, made famous by her young adult novels, such as Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Blubber, made Key West her home years ago. She also runs the local Books & Books bookstore downtown.

Meg Cabot, famous for The Princess Diaries series, lives in Key West. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a New York-based journalist and novelist, is a frequent visitor and seminar attendee.

"Forty years of the seminar shows the life of letters is really alive and well in Key West," said Haskell. "It's always had this magical charm that has drawn writers here."

Haskell, 45, a poet, has been professionally involved with the seminar since 2008, but his childhood was steeped in the event. His mother, Monica Haskell, was the seminar's first executive director and held the job for a decade.

“I really grew up with the seminar," Arlo Haskell said, recalling his mother working on the event in her home office.

For years, the seminar's home was the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street. But since last year, the seminar has been held outdoors at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater at Truman Waterfront Park.