The Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest free book festival of its kind, is returning to Boulder

Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival
Namita Gokhali, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorjii Wangmo Wangchuk, and William Dalrymple, at a previous Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder.

André Aciman calls himself an “almost writer.” Despite having penned bestselling works of fiction and memoir like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Out of Egypt,” the 71-year-old author emphasizes the adverb to capture the shades of uncertainty coloring our lives.

“I don't think any belief is so anchored in reality or truth, and ‘almost’ gives it that extra hesitation, which is part of my identity,” Aciman said. “Without doubt, I am nothing.” 

Such ideas wind through Aciman’s latest essay collection, “Homo Irrealis” — released in paperback earlier this year — and will take center stage when the celebrated, Egyptian-born Italian-American writer appears at the Colorado stop of the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Boulder Public Library’s Main Branch, Sept. 16-18.

More than 60 novelists, poets, artists and change-makers from around the world will come together for the annual traveling literary event that began nearly two decades ago in Rajasthan, India. Boulder is one of just three stops in the U.S. for this year’s festival.

“I was blown over when I first went to the city of Jaipur in India for the festival,” Aciman said. “There must have been about 2,000 people of all kinds listening to me converse about my book. It's another world, opening writers to different populations of extremely welcoming and educated people. Who can say no to that?”

But transporting this other world to Boulder took some doing, according to JLF Colorado Executive Director Jessie Friedman. Like Aciman, the local psychotherapist was inspired by her experience at the Indian festival in 2014, basking in the intellect of literary heavyweights like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Orhan Pamuk

When Friedman arrived back on the Front Range after her visit, she knew she wanted to bring the event to her home in the foothills. 

Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival
David Sanford, left, a festival attendee, getting a book signed by former India Ambassador to the U.S., Navtej Sarna.

“I figured Boulder was a perfect place because of our openness, our intellectual nature and our curiosity,” she said. “But making it happen here was really a circus — a good circus. Nobody really knew what was happening or what this was.”

Nearly a decade later, the event billed as “the largest free literary festival in the world” will mark its seventh stop in Boulder this fall, with a bevy of free talks, workshops, performances and more. The three-day salon will bring together writers from around the world to discuss their work alongside the most urgent issues of the day — from polarization to peacebuilding, and points in between

"These conversations touch so deeply on the human condition and what we're doing here," Friedman said.

‘Boulder fights above its weight class’

Boulder might feel like the center of the universe to some residents, but the foothills hamlet with a population just over 100,000 wasn’t on the radar of JLF organizers until Friedman reached out to Teamwork Arts Director Sanjoy K. Roy to make the case that it should host the first U.S. expansion of his organization’s flagship literary event.

Fresh off her JLF experience in India, Friedman put together what she calls a “deeply researched presentation” on why her hometown would be the perfect site. But hopes dimmed when she learned directors of organizations like The Getty in Los Angeles and Colorado’s own Aspen Institute — not to mention Chicago power players Oprah and former Mayor Richard Daley — were lobbying to host the expanding literary event in their respective cities.

“I didn’t think we had a chance,” she said. “But two weeks later, Sanjoy was in my living room. We took him on a tour of Boulder and he fell in love.”

Boulder was suddenly poised to become the first U.S. location to host the massive festival, but a question of location remained. When Boulder Public Library Director David Farnan got wind that JLF was narrowing its sights on the city, he saw the opportunity to make a case for the library and invited organizers for a tour of the 92,000-square-foot facility in the heart of downtown.

“It was really about the idea of bringing a world-renowned literature festival to Boulder,” Farnan said. “I found a lot of support within the city, including the mayor at the time, Matt Appelbaum. Everybody was excited about the prospect of the Boulder Public Library being the venue for the Jaipur Literature Festival.”

That excitement would compound the following year, when the library was named 2016 Colorado Library of the Year by the Colorado Association of Libraries due in part to what Friedman calls Farnan’s “visionary” approach in bringing programming like JLF. 

Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival
The Jaipur Literature Festival will return to the Boulder Public Library’s Main Branch Sept. 16-18.

“The mayor told me, ‘Boulder always fights above its weight class.’ And I thought that was an interesting way of looking at it,” Farnan said. “When Boulder Public Library became a venue for the Jaipur Literature Festival, we were definitely way above our weight class.” 

This year, Boulder will be one of three U.S. stops for the international festival, alongside Houston and New York City. Visitors can expect what Farnan calls a “total transformation” of the library’s second floor into a 400-seat performance space. 

But for Friedman, whose own vision helped bring the festival to Boulder nearly a decade ago, the real transformation happens in the lives of audience members after the last speaker steps off stage.  

“People usually leave knowing more about a topic they didn’t know much about before, or with a new understanding of events in other parts of the world,” she said. “I think people will be very moved by what happens here.”

In addition to André Aciman, this year’s participating artists will range from homegrown talent like Aurora poet laureate Ahja Fox to Indian journalist and former diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi — a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi — who will present the Colorado premiere of the film “Ahimsa Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless by director Ramesh Sharma during a ticketed fundraiser gala on September 16.