Literary Death Match

Roy Wood, Jr. and Akilah Hughes listen to Ashley C. Ford as Carson Kressley and Heben Nigatu take notes during Literary Death Match at the Bell House.

By Andrew Andrews

For the past decade, Literary Death Match has traversed the globe (70 cities to date!) to pit writers against each other in a reading series like no other. First, a panel of comedians-cum-judges evaluate two pairs of authors on literary merit, performance and intangibles, choosing a winner from each duo. Those finalists must then compete to the death in the Literary Death Match finale, at which point the loser’s body is dragged off the stage with the winner receiving all future royalties from the loser’s published works.

OK, so maybe that’s not exactly what happens. The finale is not actually to the death—not even figuratively. Actually, the finale isn’t even the same from one event to the next, but it consistently has nothing to do with death, or even with literary merit. Think “pin the mustache on Hemingway” for an idea of what it takes to be declared the victor.

For LDM’s return to Brooklyn, host Adrian Todd Zuniga cast author Porochista Khakpour against writer Ashley C. Ford in the first round. After Ford conveyed the insecurities of being in a relationship with someone who’s grown up more worldly than oneself (“you’ll never see the world together because he’ll always be showing you where he’s already been”), Khakpour recalled an Iranian protest in which a nearby stranger set himself on fire among the crowd.

Tasked with evaluating each reading on its literary merit, guest judge Heben Nigatu related Ford’s story to her own personal experience expecting to meet her soul mate on Amtrak, while likening Khakpour’s tale to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Performance judge Carson Kressley (“I never talk about what I’m really judging”) lightened the mood with a few quips about wardrobe (“metallic shoes are on-trend at Gowanus”), intangibles judge Akilah Hughes commented on the reflective nature of eyeglasses, and super-intangibles judge Roy Wood, Jr. (who “came to America from Alabama in the 90s”) filled the room with laughs by suggesting that the show be renamed So You Think You Can Read.

While the judges deliberated (before declaring Ford the winner), Zuniga entertained the audience with a few sound bites about Margaret Atwood, including a six-word story he considers particularly relevant today: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.”

Award-winning authors Daniel Alarcón and Min Jin Lee battled in round two, with the former humorously recalling his unwanted sexual fantasies about Peruvian dental assistants, and the latter reading from her story about Koreans living in Japan during the 1970s. Nigatu related the first story to Junot Díaz and the second to “the twitter conversation about whether it’s OK to punch a Nazi.” Kressley commended Alarcón’s masterful use of the word flummoxed and Lee’s “full-on acting.” Hughes (“I’m even drunker now; alcohol is crazy like that!”) wondered if Alarcón narrated Poe’s Hey Pretty and dubbed Lee “our beautiful East Asian Olivia Pope.” Wood, with perhaps the most powerful comment of the evening, said that he would have to read Lee’s book in segments “to allow his emotions to settle back down.” Hear, hear! The audience was similarly moved, and in the end, Lee was victorious. Perhaps it was unfair to pit Alarcón’s comedy against Lee’s drama, but it’s not like a Pulitzer was at stake!

In the final round of this installment, titled American Psycho or American President, all of the presenters and judges were divided into two teams, each tasked with identifying whether a quote is attributed to Patrick Bateman or Donald Trump. The contest came to a standstill when Zuniga couldn’t remember who said “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street… one part wants me to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right,” but the interwebs came to the rescue!

It’s surprising just how successfully Literary Death Match combines a serious reading series with a humorous comedy show, and brings to mind the old joke about going to a fight where a hockey game broke out. We’re not sure, though, if we went to a reading series that turned into a comedy show, or vice-versa. Check it out for yourself the next time LDM comes to town, and tell us what you think! 3

Andrew Andrews attended Literary Death Match at The Bell House in Brooklyn on Tuesday, January 24, 2017 @ 8:05pm to write this review.