Karen Decou relocated to South Florida from Pennsylvania in 1993 – and immediately felt the loss of the expansive wealth of cultural institutions that had been at her fingertips as someone living in the City of Brotherly Love and just 90 minutes from Manhattan. But when a new friend and fellow Philly transplant introduced her to Miami Book Fair, she began to feel at home.
What’s your favorite Book Fair memory?
There’s quite a few, but one that stands out is when Susan Rice was here – at the time she was the United States ambassador to the United Nations – and when she took questions from the audience, mine was one of just three selected.
Yes, I was like, I can’t believe they chose my question! But I do have to say that it was a damn good question. [laughs] Another was seeing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and hearing her tell her story to a 5-year-old girl in the audience. She asked a question about being diabetic and told Sotomayor that she was afraid of needles, and I was so moved by how tender and thoughtful and caring her response was. She told this little girl that she was afraid too, but that needles were what keeps her healthy and makes her strong, and they were why she was able to be in that room with her. Oh my God, she was so kind; I was in tears.
Has the Fair introduced you to an author you now follow?
David Cay Johnston. When we’re at Book Fair we never leave Chapman – we just sit there like statues on Saturday and Sunday and never get up. [laughs] But my husband knew of Johnston and wanted to see him; he was speaking on a panel. So we left Chapman and went to the panel and this guy was amazing, absolutely amazing. He’s just such an astute speaker and so knowledgeable about politics. That was a really good surprise.
Who do you Book Fair with aside from your husband?
I have a group of friends that I go with every year. One moved to California and when she left she said “Other than missing all my friends, I’m really gonna miss Book Fair.”
If you could see anyone at MBF, who would that be and why?
Michelle Obama. For one, she was an exemplary first lady, through all the obstacles and the name-calling and all those things she had to endure. And I read her book and found her to be open, raw, honest, and someone who doesn’t hold back. I admire her intelligence and accomplishments, and I admire her as a mother. She would definitely be my pick.
Did you see Barack Obama when he was at Book Fair?
Yes! I saw him and Biden and James Comey – everybody. I was at the 2008 inauguration.
No way! How did that happen?
My son-in-law’s brother was a top Obama aide and got us VIP passes, so it was up close and personal – really up close and personal! When he sent me the tickets he also sent along a little pin and told me, “Karen, make sure you wear this pin on your coat where people can see it,” and I just didn’t give it another thought. But then we were in D.C. standing in line outside waiting to get into the Eastern Inaugural Ball at Union Station and it was freezing. I think it was the coldest day on record – the wind was whipping all around – and I went up to a police officer who was sort of corralling people and said, “I have this pin, but I’m not quite sure what it means.” He took one look at it, asked me how many people were in my party and said, “Come with me.” And in we went! I had no idea. [laughs] It was so exciting.
You’re stranded on a deserted island – which three books would keep your spirits up and save your sanity?
Messages From the Masters by Brian Weiss. It’s about people who have passed on who reach out to you and send you messages. I lost my father when I was 10 years old; I’m now 74 and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. The book is a really soothing, calming, beautiful journey. After I read it I went out and bought 25 copies; when someone I know loses a loved one I give them one. It’s so healing. That’s really the only book I’d need.
Interview by Elisa Chemayne Agostinho.