Back to the Desert and Neon Lights

Dispatches from The Believer Fest

Our aims with The Believer Festival are relatively humble. We’re not trying to change the world (although if that happens? Neat!). We’re just happy to have an excuse to spend a few days celebrating our favorite writers, artists, and thinkers against the beautiful and unconventional psychedelic trip of a backdrop that is Las Vegas. It’s a flattering surprise when people outside the city take note of what we’re doing. In last weekend’s New York Times, John Williams wrote a glowing report of what we’ve been up to out here, stating that we “have kindled an already present bookish community into a steadier flame.” Though we’ve been talking off the ears of anyone who would listen for years about the greatness of our adopted home, we’re excited to have more people pay attention. Read Williams’s profile here, and then scroll down to check out reflections on the festival from our editors and local writers.

We’ll also be devoting an upcoming issue to La Frontera, which was the theme of this year’s festival. You can make sure you don’t miss that issue by subscribing to the magazine here, and get updates for next year’s festival as soon as they’re announced by subscribing to the Black Mountain Institute’s mailing list here. Whew! Happy reading.

Thursday Evening

The Light

Photo by Ryan Schude 

A few weeks ago, I was over a friend’s house in Las Vegas and asked an ill-conceived, Mezcal-fueled question. (Haven’t we all?) My friend and her partner own an impressive, if nascent, collection of neon signs. They recently bought a red-hot rectangle that hangs out near their kidney-shaped pool; it features the word “DIP” in the center of the square, framed by cascading diagonal lines. It’s like a mirage. In the slightly surreal, sign-lit evening light, I angled my head a few degrees, squinted, and asked, “What is that kind of light… like, incandescence?” My friend’s partner responded with a more sensible answer: “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘glow.’” 

On the 25th of April, I was reminded again of that conversation, and glow, and searching for something I didn’t know but wanted to figure out, and trying to find words to capture the stark, ineffable imagery unfolding in front of me. “The Light,” the opening event of this year’s Believer Festival prompted an extended meditation on mystery, geopolitical borders, internecine struggle, death, memory, splendor, and the Las Vegas that lives in writers’ hearts. The evening featured Hanif Abdurraqib; Natalie Diaz; 2018 Believer Book Award winners Catherine Barnett, Rita Bullwinkel, and Meghan O’Gieblyn; Mira Jacob; Kiese Laymon; José Orduña; and Craig Winslow. The Neon Museum’s Ne10 workshop served as the venue. It houses their hidden collection of discarded signs, and, the juxtaposition of these signs with live readings felt especially complementary. There was something intimate about the satellite space. It felt like a place that was available for human reverie and loss, like a room where spirits that need to be called on could live, or hover just over the action. 

Death is only one way to be dearly departed, and I think of my departed loved ones all the time. Diaz’s poem, about police targeting young men of color, made me want to retreat behind a few of the big letters propped up against the warehouse walls and cry. Abdurraqib’s piece about spades made me want to play. Barnett read a work about her father, a gambler, and I thought of my relatives. Laymon’s reading, from Heavy, was site-specific, heart-wrenching, and characteristically complex. Jacob, who would go on to bring the house down again during a Crossfade Lab jam with Thao Nguyen and Josh Kun Saturday afternoon, read a moving selection from her new book Good Talk about her father, who passed away. Orduña delivered a three-part salvo that was the sinew binding all of that experiential muscle together. After the event, I asked Abdurraqib if we could get a spades game going, and then proceeded to ask all of the black writers I knew if they’d be down to play. I was sparked, I was ready, I was ignited. 

Outside of Ne10, I noticed the words “The Believer Festival” splayed against the gate near the building’s entrance. Each letter came from a different typeface, and the resulting words resembled those from a ransom note. That metaphor is not entirely off for what happened that night: I feel like the night took hold of my imagination. I’m not quite sure I’ve captured how splendid and moving everything was, but suffice it to say…glow, glow, glow, glow. 

—Niela Orr, Interviews Editor

Friday Evening

The Canyon

Photo by Ryan Schude

As I drove west toward Red Rock National Conservation Area for the Believer Festival’s second event, The Canyon, I felt clear headed. There is a particular magic to be felt while out in the desert at golden hour. An hour earlier, I had been standing in the lobby of the El Cortez hotel, as the festival performers—many of whose experience of Vegas was thus far limited to the cigarette smoke and gaudy multicolor carpeting of downtown casinos—waited to board onto a shuttle bus to Red Rock. But now they were leaving the city, just like me. We were heading toward open space, in search of something different. 

After we arrived at the outdoor amphitheater, poet Sin á Tes Souhaits introduced the night’s events and welcomed the guests who had come from near and far. He spoke of the desert as a place for reckoning: “Our mythologies name the desert as a place of challenge and epiphany, a place where the hero journeys to face God, nature, or their own spirit. There’s a magic in the desert we can all sense even if we can’t point to it or name it.”

The modifiers that people often associate with the desert—desolate, arid, isolated, uninhabitable—seemed to be in direct contradiction with the scene I saw before me: a flourishing community sharing a liminal space before a gorgeous sunset. In the distance, I could see the rusted red sandstone mountains. Onstage, before me, Thao Nguyen opened the evening with a plucky tune on the banjo, whose contemplative lyrics reflected on pain and longing. The song set the tone for the night’s performances, which featured striking, challenging work that asked the audience to confront identity and the barriers that hinder personal growth.

This was especially true when Ahmed Naji took the stage, accompanied by Hanif Abdurraqib, who read the English translation of Naji’s piece recounting his time in an Egyptian prison. Naji began by reading the text in the original Arabic. I sat next to my father, an Iraqi immigrant who isn’t usually one to turn up to literary events or readings of this sort. When I told him about The Canyon however, he was immediately drawn to the idea of it. Before Naji began reading in Arabic, he gave the disclaimer “most of you, maybe all of you, do not understand Arabic.” But my father and I did understand, and for a moment, in a place that does not usually accommodate for or consider my father’s native language, he heard it spoken aloud in the context of a powerful and compelling story.

The remainder of the night continued with readings by Lolita Hernandez, Eryn Green, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Valeria Luiselli, each of whom read work that captivated the crowd through their visceral explorations of identity, and of the borders that have complicated their relationships to the world and to themselves. By the time the sun drew closer to the horizon and Reggie Watts took the stage, the crowd was ready to feed off Watts’s irreverent humor and improvised musical stylings. 

As the sun finally set, and those who gathered together dispersed and faded out into the dark night, I felt the magic of that transitional moment. All around me I could sense the collective heartache and inquisition and delight. 

At home, still reveling in the glow of the night, my father thanked me for inviting him—in stepping into my world for a night, he also found a piece of his own. Even if only for a brief moment, in the canyon we shared and saw and understood one another. It was real, and God, it was beautiful. 

—Summer Thomad, Writer

Saturday Morning

The Courtroom

Photo by Ryan Schude

The room is dark as we enter, so dark we don’t recognize at first that it was once a federal courtroom. Two women dressed in loose black clothes are sitting face to face on folding chairs. One speaks, then the other. It appears to be an interrogation. But after each question they read comes another question, leaving no time for answers. We take our seats on the benches surrounding them and as our eyes adjust to the dim light we recognize Natalie Diaz, a poet, and Valeria Luiselli, a novelist and essayist.

Luiselli: “Why did you come to the United States?”

Diaz: “Who was going to hurt you?”

Luiselli: “Do you speak English?”

Diaz: “How can you be sure they were going to hurt you?”

The questions are taken from a list used by U.S. asylum officers during credible fear interviews, a crucial step in gaining asylum for men, women, and children crossing the border. Only migrants whose return to their country of origin is deemed to be a risk to their safety are granted permission to stay. Passing the credibility test depends on many things apart from fearing for one’s life: it requires aptitude at telling a story, an emotional performance recognizable as fear and distress, and above all, the belief of the officer. “Are you afraid of having a credible fear of death, or of not being believed that you have a credible fear of death?” Diaz and Luiselli enunciate carefully, deliberately. “Do you understand what was just read to you?” Diaz looks toward us. Her questions begin to shift in emphasis, subtly implicating the audience. “Do they understand what was just read to them? Then why are they still sitting here?”

Change of scene. Diaz and Luiselli stand and turn to face the audience directly. The listing continues. This time Diaz reads reports of migrant bodies found near the border. “Cause of death: exposure. Condition of body: fully fleshed.” Diaz’s voice, clear, steady, and relentless, gives equal weight to every detail. In between each case Luiselli reads imagined narratives of these crossings, taken from her recent novel Lost Children Archive. She describes the migrants’ hopes, their preparations, their sufferings, their belongings that are eventually itemized and stored in clear plastic bags by the officials who find them.

Diaz and Luiselli are activists as well as writers. Every choice in the performance is made to instruct. We hear a musical interlude in the darkness—it is poetry in Spanish written by girls in detention in the Bronx, transformed into song by a singer sitting among us, in the audience. Detention centers are not all on the outskirts of the country, Diaz reminds us; they exist everywhere, they are in front of us. Asylum cases are decided in Las Vegas every day. It’s hard to understand the complexities of asylum law, Luiselli says, but if we don’t educate ourselves we can’t know what’s happening. We must be attentive, and present.

We hear the music once again, the melody sweet and hopeful. Then: the lights come on. We see for the first time that we are in a courtroom. Diaz and Luiselli have left the stage. We wait for something more to happen, but nothing does. After a minute an older couple in the first row stands, looks around. The man shrugs. They make their way out. Gradually, the rest of us realize that the performance is over. No one claps. It feels uncomfortable not to clap—maybe that is the point. The night before, Reggie Watts had performed. At the end, people smiled, applauded, whistled, then they checked their phones and talked of getting dinner, free to think of other things. In the courtroom we are not allowed such a clean break between what we saw and the life we would continue outside. Unsettled, we file to the exit in silence. Do they understand what was just read to them? Then why are they still sitting here?

—Camille Bromley, Features Editor

Saturday Afternoon

The Art People

Photo by Ryan Schude

On the main stage at Believer Fest’s Sixth and Bonneville bazaar, “The Art People” podcast held a live taping, a first-ever for the young show. Host Justin Favela (a.k.a. FavyFav, Las Vegas-based artist and co-host of the podcast “Latinos Who Lunch”) invited fellow artists Francisco Donoso and Ramiro Gomez to join him in a conversation about art, identity, and being queer creators of color.

Favela, who was born and raised in Las Vegas, started by laying down some ground rules: “It always really upsets me when they say there’s no culture here,” he said, to murmurs of assent in the room. I found myself nodding along—as a fellow resident of the 702, I know what people think about the culture of Las Vegas, and how limited these views often are. Favela’s goal, he said, is to “highlight the culture here, not bring the culture.”

Favela went on to discuss the installation he and Donoso were invited to create for the festival at The Lucy, the multiuse literary arts space where the bazaar was being held. The installation, titled “Orbit,” consisted of colorful swaths of fluttering paper hung high up on the exterior of the complex—“eyebrows” for the building, they joked. 

“When I heard that the theme [of the festival] was La Frontera, I gotta be honest…” Favela trailed off and you could feel the unease in the room. “A lot of Latinx artists capitalize on trauma for white consumption,” he explained, adding, “White guilt is real, y’all!” to laughter in the room. It’s important, Favela continued, for artists of color to make art that is not about their biography or their trauma. “For a person of color to make art about nothing—[that’s] a political act.” This was the animating idea behind their abstract installation at The Lucy.

Earlier in the day, I had caught glimpses of “Orbit,” positioned just high enough to be out of my line of sight while on the premises of the complex. Though I couldn’t see the vivid pinks and yellows as I walked through the bazaar, I heard their soft rustle, a whispery suggestion of festivity and things not quite seen.

Conversely, observing the live recording of “The Art People” gave me a chance to see something that I normally only hear—the otherwise disembodied voices of Favela, Gomez, and Donoso were there in the flesh. This experience produced the same kind of satisfaction I get from putting a face to a name: I saw the sweet grin that accompanies Favela’s familiar laugh, the obvious camaraderie between the three, and the way that Gomez sits up so straight, with impeccable posture, like someone posing for a portrait. They seemed at ease that day, comfortable, perhaps, that we were seeing them exactly as they wanted to be seen–as themselves. 

—Sonja Swanson, Writer

Saturday Afternoon

The Crossfade Lab

Illustration by Kristen Radtke

America is just like Canada, except in all the many ways it’s not. I’m usually asked about these differences whenever I visit the States from my home in Toronto. Growing up right next door, raised by Conde Nast magazines and Hollywood movies, it’s easy to believe that there is no difference, that our borders are so porous as to be almost forgettable—until I find myself in the middle of that other country and am thrown into an uncanny valley. “America is just like Canada, except with everything turned up to the max,” is how I usually put it.

Nowhere did this feel clearer than the Mob Museum, where I spent some time after Valeria Luiselli and Natalie Diaz’s wrenching performance at The Courtroom and before the rest of the day’s events at The Lucy. The museum as a whole was a mess of contradictions, equally glamorizing notorious gangsters and surveillance-heavy law enforcement. After snaking my way past tourists taking photos in a fake electric chair, I ended up in the gift shop, where I was confronted with keychains made out of real bullets (inscribed with your name!), infant onesies that proclaimed “I just did nine months on the inside,” t-shirts blaring the names of Capone and Gotti, and mass produced magnets that said “Well behaved women rarely make history.” The only thing not for sale was the current list of the FBI’s ten most wanted, taped to the wall by the cashier. I bought a pair of oversized rhinestone studded sunglasses that made me feel like a moll. My old pair had broken earlier in the trip and, I reasoned, I needed these.

Crossfade, hosted by Josh Kun at Sixth and Bonneville later that day, confronted the question of what it means to be American. “We are not single inputs, we are samples,” Kun said, introducing the conversation. Writer Mira Jacob read from her graphic memoir, and musician Thao Nguyen performed a folk song, and then the pair sat down to chat, interrupted by the frequent reverb that came from Nguyen’s modified mics.

Nguyen’s song, “We The Common (For Valerie Bolden),” was informed by her work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and again, fresh from my visit to the Mob Museum, I was reminded by how much of America’s identity is built around mass incarceration and the people forgotten within. Mass erasure is a recurring theme. “I didn’t want to be reduced to that,” said Nguyen, recalling how her early creative output with obviously Appalachian-inspired roots was classified as “Vietnamese Bluegrass,” before reflecting on how she now revels in the specificity of her experience. 

“I think of all the girls I left behind trying to be a person,” said Jacob. She teared up while reading the final excerpt from her book, an open letter to her son who is growing up brown in Trump’s America, in a family with white grandparents who voted Republican. The reverb on the mic, still accidentally turned, caused her words to echo in the room. Then Thao Nguyen played her music again, inviting the room of strangers to sing the chorus with her, and it felt, to me, like a truly American moment.

—Anna Fitzpatrick, Social Media Editor

Saturday Afternoon

Jill Soloway in conversation with Janaya Khan

Photo by Josh Hawkins

The writer and producer Jill Soloway — of Transparent and I Love Dick fame — began her conversation with Black Lives Matter activist Janaya Khan with a joke about the speakers’ non-binary gender identities. “If you walk out afterwards and say to your friend, ‘I really liked them,” and they’re like ‘I really liked them too,’ and you say ‘No I only liked Janaya …” The crowd chuckled, but Solloway had a sharp observation about non-binary identity tucked into her Borscht Belt-esque humor. “The confusion is the point, isn’t it? The awkwardness can sometimes be the point.”

The conversation between these two activists and artists — a Jewish person and a member of the African diaspora — proceeded with a bit of awkwardness. Soloway and Khan are, after all, people from different racial and political backgrounds. Yet they came together to navigate a delicate political question: How did black and Jewish feminist political solidarity around the Women’s March sour, and how can we use that souring as a case study for a left political agenda? For them, this conversation was about going to the uncomfortable border between the communities that make up the political left, and creating a space in which our discomfort around different values and perspectives can become productive conversation towards a broad agenda.

“Isn’t that when we grow?” Khan asked. “When we’re uncomfortable, when we’re doing something new?”

It was exhilarating to watch as Soloway and Khan navigated this uncertain terrain with insight and panache, trying to move beyond the binary logic of call out culture. “The demand to denounce creates a binary line that gets drawn, that invites conflict and forces communities apart, forces movements apart,” Soloway observed. Khan went a step further. “We are exceptional across the political left at coming together against … We’re not so good at coming together for something,” she said. Their conversation sought common ground by asking what goals we are not willing to negotiate away, and what we will do to maintain them.

Above all, though they asked those in attendance to hold fast to the hard work of solidarity, despite the confusion it can create. Using as an example the uproar over Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory’s refusal to denounce the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, they asked the audience to imagine building movements flexible enough to encompass divergent experiences.

“If you only keep … in mind that [the Nation of Islam] is homophobic and anti-Semitic, it’s a really easy thing to denounce them,” Khan said. “Does it change anything if we know that ten years ago, when the father of Mallory’s child was killed … the women in the NOI took her in, and gave her a family and a community and helped her put the pieces of her broken life back together? Is it so easy then to call for a denouncing? Are we so fragile in out commitment to each other that that’s all it takes for an exodus to occur?”

I felt and heard a murmur run through the crowd at Khan’s question. It was a hard question, one I pondered for days after the conversation. Neither Khan nor Soloway offered an answer, but if their goal was to plant the seeds of thoughtful conversation, they succeeded.

Ismail Muhammad, Reviews Editor

Saturday Afternoon

The Organist Live

Photo by Josh Hawkins

The Organist, a podcast from KCRW and McSweeney’s, is more like a wise friend than it is a bunch of digital audio files, uploaded to the internet. What’s wise about this particular friend is his honesty. He’ll talk to you about how even the most deserving poets don’t make money, how difficult it can be to make art, and how redeeming. He’ll tell you death is coming, but life is worth living. He’ll get much more specific than this, because he’s not a metaphorical friend, but an artfully crafted podcast, produced with care. “You don’t really hear people talk that way,” was how Organist co-producer Ross Simonini put it, specifically about an episode on the finances of poet Bernadette Mayer, when he introduced Organist Live, at this Saturday afternoon event in Las Vegas.

Andrew Leland, host of The Organist, talked with Tommy Orange, author of There, There. The two immediately got into it. Orange admitted his discomfort at public speaking. “How sick are you of talking about your book?” Leland asked. “How unhappy are you right now?” Orange delivered: “I think there’s visual sweat on my forehead,” he said. The conversation moved to Orange’s discussion of white American confidence. How in the book, a bearded white guy with thick glasses felt the need to “dumb-white-guy-splain” a Gertrude Stein quote to another character who understood it better. There followed a discussion about the need to “write [race] in,” and how clumsy it felt for Orange. In MFAs, he was told that if he was writing about a character and didn’t tag his race, he was automatically considered white. “Now it’s like, you don’t want to be a white man,” said Orange. “I’m not mad about it.”

In typical Organist fashion, audio clips broke up the conversation. The first was Orange’s uncle singing a Native American church song, what Orange grew up listening to with his dad. The second was from A Tribe Called Red, a group of First Nation producers who mix electronic music and music from powwows. Third was a clip of Orange’s father reading There, There in English, and then a translation in Cheyenne. Last was Orange’s parents singing a Christian hymn, translated into Cheyenne. “A beautiful representation of the distorted reality in which I grew up,” Orange said. There were more than a few tears in the room when the event ended. Within the next year or so, the conversation is going to show up as a digital audio file on the internet, available to stream wherever you can find podcasts. You’d be wise to watch out for it.

—Hayden Bennett, Deputy Editor

Saturday Night


Photo by Ryan Schude

“If it weren’t for us, this shit would be so fucking boring,” Janaya Khan said onstage at the Believer Festival’s Saturday night finale. The Black Lives Matter Canada cofounder was speaking of their fellow gender-nonconforming, binary-rejecting panelists—which included Masha Gessen and Transparent creator Jill Soloway and their piano-playing sibling Faith—but you could be forgiven for thinking it was also a reference to the weekend’s entire slate of performers.

Literary festivals aren’t known for their excitement. The best one can generally hope for is a particularly engaging reader or panelist (or else a particularly enraging one). But for three days in the Nevada desert, convention center-y dullness was all but eradicated by a series of consistently arresting performances from Reggie Watts, Valeria Luiselli, Natalie Diaz, Hanif Abdurraqib, Thao Nguyen, and a host of other luminaries, who lit up a diverse and delightful series of venues across greater Las Vegas, including the funky Neon Museum studio, the ominous courtroom of the Mob Museum, and the majestic Red Rock Canyon amphitheater.

This particular event, Uproar!—produced by Soloway’s organization 50/50 by 2020, which aims to increase women and LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood—had been billed as a “night of music, comedy, and revolution from the vanguard of intersectional power.” In practice it felt part-cabaret, part-gender studies seminar, most perfectly encapsulated by a sequined Jari Jones singing “intersectional healing” to the Marvin Gaye melody.

But beneath the fun were darker currents, a reminder of What It Means to Be Alive in 2019. On Friday night Abdurraqib read Black Mountain Institute City of Asylum Fellow Ahmed Naji’s powerful dispatches from an Egyptian jail, where he served two years for “infringing public decency.” The next morning Luiselli and Diaz performed a searing recreation of the dehumanizing interrogation women asylum seekers receive from government officials at the US/Mexico border after walking one, two, three weeks in the desert.

“Living in this country is an experience of overwhelming constant anxiety,” Gessen, a writer for the New Yorker, told the crowd at Ham Hall. “It has become much more anxious under Trump, but it was already extremely anxious-provoking because we have no certainty and because thinking about the future is a totally frightening experience.”

She continued. “We need a story about the future that is a future in which society is just, in which we are interested in equality, in which we don’t just hear politicians talk about policy, but we hear them talk about what it would be like to wake up in twenty years in a country that is just and equal and on which the next morning will be better than this one.”

Soloway thanked her and the crowd clapped, seeming to appreciate both the seriousness and the hope. And then the show went on.

—James Yeh, Features Editor

More Reads

Lesbian Cattle Dogs Stroll Through Memories

Lydia Conklin

An Interview with Derek Davis

Jim Knipfel

Road Trip: CAConrad

Ali Liebegott