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With Nikole Hannah-Jones on its roster, Dallas Literary Fest strives to meet the cultural moment

Nikole Hannah-Jones won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2017. She is a tenured faculty member at Howard University.
The New York Times
Nikole Hannah-Jones won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2017. She is a tenured faculty member at Howard University.

The Dallas Literary Festival is only in its second year, but director Sanderia Faye Smith hopes a mix of prominent writers of color and local authors will energize the city’s literary community and the general public.

Faye Smith, a Dallas author and educator, said she sought out “culture changers” as she compiled the list of speakers for the four-day festival starting Friday through March 22.

She said the inclusion of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and New York Times columnist Charles Blow speaks to a major thread she sees in the literary world.

Woman sitting in library
Hillsman Jackson
Sanderia Faye Smith is the executive director of the Dallas Literary Festival.

“I know African American fiction writers have begun to reimagine history, and that’s what [Nikole Hannah-Jones and Charles Blow] have done as well,” Faye Smith said. “It’s always been primarily told from a white male point of view. They’re the ones writing the books and telling us our history.”

Hannah-Jones’ work on The 1619 Project garnered widespread acclaim, and criticism, for its reevaluation of slavery’s legacy in the United States. Blow’s latest book, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW: A Black Power Manifesto, similarly reconsiders the history and impact of the Great Migration, the historic exodus of Black Americans from the South.

Faye Smith said witnessing the tumult of the past few years informed the talking points for this year’s festival.

“Starting with the first festival in 2021, we had just gone through a year of the pandemic,” she said. “We had seen George Floyd be murdered on TV and then Breonna Taylor. Things that African Americans and people of color have been talking about like police brutality and inequality showed up. I thought that in my small role that we needed to talk about it.”

The festival, presented by Southern Methodist University, is an offshoot of the now-defunct SMU Literary Festival. Spanning from 1975 to the late 90s, the original event attracted literary giants like Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. Faye Smith wants to ensure the latest iteration resonates with the North Texas community and speaks to the current cultural moment.

“[SMU] asked me to revive the old festival,” Faye Smith said. “I wanted everybody to have their thumb print on the festival, not for it to be like this festival just coming from SMU.”

She sought input from several organizations from the Dallas Public Library system and the South Dallas Cultural Center to Deep Vellum Books and the African American Museum.

In fact, the event’s headliner was not chosen by Faye Smith but by the student senate at SMU.

“I sent them a list of people, and they said Nikole Hannah-Jones, hands down,” she said. “The students selected her unanimously. That blew me away.”

The festival also spotlights writers like DaMaris B. Hill, author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing. Dallas-based authors like Ben Fountain, Kathleen Kent, and Rosalyn Story are among the local writers represented at the event.

Faye-Smith said it was important that the festival cater to the regional literary scene.

“I realized that we pay a lot of attention to what New York has to say and very little attention to what Dallas has to say,” Faye-Smith said. “And we have some amazing authors here.”

Also of note for North Texans is a panel on The Accommodation, Jim Schutze’s examination of the history of racism in Dallas. While not explicitly banned, the book was dropped by Schutze’s publisher right before publication due to pressure against releasing an ‘anti-Dallas book,’ according to the author.

Faye Smith said the conversation between Jim Schutze and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price on March 20 is salient given the wave of proposed book bans in Texas. NBC News reported on a wave of formal requests by parents to school districts to remove library books about race, gender and sexuality.

“There seems to be a new force behind banning books,” she said. “I don’t understand why we aren’t all out in the streets. Books were my refuge growing up in a small community. I could go any place with a book … Think about what we’re saying to young people. You can’t travel through a book. You can’t go out of your circumstances.” 

The festival will also touch on mental health, self-publishing and the importance of bookstores.

The Dallas Literary Festival runs through March 22. Event programming is free. Register and find a schedule at

Got a tip? Email Miguel Perez at You can follow him on Twitter @quillindie.

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Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.