Radical Hope: The Bay Area Book Festival in Four Acts
How to Have a Politically Engaged Literary Festival
On June 2, the summery Friday night before the opening of the third-annual Bay Area Book Festival, the penthouse of UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium was filled with literary stars from 26 countries. Walter Mosley, who had flown in from DUMBO, joked about the post-Trump election mood: “Just think of him as Wile E. Coyote.” Krys Lee, whose novel How I Became North Korean captures the displacement of North Koreans who have fled to the South, had flown in from Seoul. She was just meeting Berkeley-based Elizabeth Rosner. The two were slated to talk about how trauma is passed on within families on Saturday. (Rosner’s Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, drawing upon her background as a child of two Holocaust survivors, is coming in the fall.)
Visitors took selfies on the wraparound balcony as the sun setting over the Pacific backlit the western views from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond. I spotted Brad Gooch, biographer of Frank O’Hara, Flannery O’Connor and now here to discuss his life of Rumi, and memorist Dani Shapiro and her former student, One Story editor Hannah Tinti (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley). The two have a 20-year literary friendship they were to discuss on Saturday morning. There was novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas, raised in Quayaquil, just named to the Hay Festival’s once-a-decade list of best young Latin American writers. And a clutch of Nordic Noir authors.
Lining up for rare roast beef inside was English author Geoff Dyer, up from Los Angeles, a multiple award winner for his fiction and essays (including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition), O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison (A Small Indiscretion), and NaNoWriMo exective director Grant Faulkner, just back from visiting his folks in Iowa. KQED Forum host Michael Krasny was gearing up to talk comedy (what else? His new book is Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means). His interlocutor? Litcamp founder and novelist Janis Cooke Newman, who was flying back from vacation in India only hours before his Saturday event.
There was talk of book tours. Lee Kravetz, whose new book Strange Contagions, about the tragic suicide clusters at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, was about the go on the road in late June. Kevin Smokler had flown in from Albuquerque at the tail end of his tour for Brat Pack America to introduce revered film critic David Thomson’s discussion, “Our Trump, Our Television, Our Bad Luck.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Vanessa Hua, a Rona Jaffe award winner whose first story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, came out recently, was comparing heights with novelists Naomi Williams (Landfalls), Krys Lee, and Aimee Phan (The Reeducation of Cherry Truong) and short-story author Yalitza Ferreras, and talking about the benefits of sitting in coach when you’re short. (At barely over five feet myself, I could relate.)
I spotted fellow members of the BABF program steering committee: Graywolf editor Ethan Nosowsky, Peter Richardson, who has written books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Nation editor Carey McWilliams, and who was prepping to moderate a panel on ways in which the radical cultural change ushered in by the Summer of Love mirrors today (his panel included San Francisco Chronicle columnist and Salon founder David Talbot), and novelist Aya de Leon, who teaches at UC Berkeley and was scheduled to moderate a conversation about women writing about the body the next morning with cultural critic/author Roxane Gay, novelist Sarai Walker (Dietland), and Sonya Renee Taylor, poetry slam champion and founder of The Body is Not An Apology movement. (Missing that night but still in the literary swim: Stephen Sparks was hosting poet Layli Long Soldier at his new Point Reyes Books in Marin County; Brooke Warner was flying back from Book Expo in New York.)
Between dinner and dessert, Cherilyn Parsons, the BABF founder and executive director, took the floor. “We are thrilled to be a festival that honors social change and literary activism,” she said, emphasizing the focus of this third annual festival—a theme born in the days after the election, and aligned with Berkeley’s activist roots.
“At no time in our recent history has journalism been more important,” added columnist Leah Garchik, representing the San Francisco Chronicle, a festival sponsor. Cheers all around.
Berkeley is a great place for coffee, with strong caffeinated drinks on every corner to fuel the festival’s first day—a day filled with a sense of urgency.
First up on the Alta Stage at Freight and Salvage, the festival’s main stage (named for the soon to launch Alta, a Journal of Northern California) was “Witness and Testimony: The Past and Present of Native America.” Moderator Greg Sarris, a novelist, Sonoma State University professor and tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, juxtaposed the lines in T. J. Stiles’s Pulitzer award-winning Custer biography about “the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when [in 1862] thirty-eight Sioux were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota” and Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier’s poem “38,” which covers the same event. (Long Soldier read the last two pages of the poem, which notes that the thirty-eight Lakota men were executed by hanging under orders from President Abraham Lincoln on the day after Christmas, the same week President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.) “In your poetry, you call up the past (history) as it plays out in the present, specifically for your Lakota people,” Sarris noted. And then the conversation turned to Standing Rock.
Saturday midmorning I moderated a panel celebrating the centenary of Mexico’s legendary author Juan Rulfo, a writer who influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who compared him to Sophocles), and ushered in the Latin American boom. In the audience: Juan Carlos Rulfo, the author’s son, whose documentary about his father had been screened the night before as part of the companion film festival at the Pacific Film Archive. Novelist Guadalupe Nettel (The Body Where I Was Born), who is based in Mexico City, and Cristina Rivera-Garza, an award-winning writer, translator and University of Houston professor, described reading Rulfo’s classic novel Pedro Paramo in high school—an assigned book which seemed more appealing once it was banned, and richer in influence upon rereading multiple times. “Landscape becomes a character in Rulfo’s work,” said Nettel. She’s the new director of the magazine Revista de la Universidad de Mexico, and brought copies of her first issue, celebrating Juan Rulfo, for the audience. “Rulfo gives voice to the rural people, those who have had no voice,” said Rivera-Garza.
She described her recent visit to a Juan Rulfo birthday celebration at a Zapotec village in the highlands of Oaxaca where Rulfo had set one of his better known short stories. Enrique Chagoya, a painter, printmaker and Stanford art professor, talked about the pre-Columbian roots of Rulfo’s seamless mingling of life and death. Chagoya created “ghostly illustrations” for a hand-made edition of Pedro Paramo just published by San Francisco’s Arion Press. Mauro Javier Cardenas described how Rulfo’s fragmentary cinematic structure inspired him as he was working on his first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again. Aura Xilonen, whose first novel The Gringo Champion, won the 2015 Premio Mauricia Achar (an award for which Rivera-Garza was a judge) pointed to the visual power of Rulfo’s language. She was passionate in deploring the corruption and violence in present-day Mexico before she read a pertinent section from Pedro Paramo.
After lunch, I went to hear Oakland-based novelist Michael David Lukas (The Oracle of Stamboul) interview Brad Gooch. Gooch’s stories of his incredible research for his biography, Rumi’s Secret—learning Farsi, traveling 2,500 miles to every place Rumi lived in the 13th century, from Tajikistan to Turkey, translating his poems and prose—kept the session on Rumi’s life speeding along. Gooch also read some of Rumi’s poetry (in his own translations) and pointed out the parallels between the tumultuous era in which Rumi lived as an immigrant and our own times.
Back at the Alta Stage, a spillover crowd awaited cultural critic/fiction writer/force of nature Roxane Gay. Rafia Zakaria, her host, noted that the protagonists of the short stories in Gay’s new collection, Difficult Women, are all “racked by secret desires and seething rage.”
“I’m very comfortable with rage,” Gay said. “I feel a lot of it. And yet I’m able to function in society.”
Of her memoir Hunger, due within days, she said, “This book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me… I was a skinny child and then I was assaulted at age 12, and I began to gain weight. I thought I was going to hell. My parents knew something was wrong, they didn’t know what.”
“When did your parents learn about the assault?” asked The New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish, leading off the question session. “Not until Bad Feminist was published in 2014,” Gay said.
In one of the afternoon’s final sessions, the question of truth, lies and totalitarianism in Russia and the U.S. got a thorough examination from award-winning Russian-American journalist and LGBTQ activist Masha Gessen, the “Trumputin critic” and author of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. “My imagination was catastrophically trained” by “25 years of looking at the worst aspects of humanity,” she explained at one point. And, she concluded, “Russia is hopeless, scorched earth.”
“Reading is an inherently hopeful act,” said Oakland-based Uruguayan-American writer Carolina De Robertis as she faced a full house at the Alta Stage gathered for an inspirational Saturday night #RadicalHope event. That’s the title of a new anthology she conceived shortly after the presidential election and launched last month. (Vulture called it “the book version of a Justice League of superheroes: a collection of writers to guide us through tumultuous political times.”)
“After Trump was elected, my four-year-old daughter said, ‘We’re not beautiful to him,’” De Robertis said. “She’s multiracial and she has two moms. What could we do?” She asked novelists, poets, political thinkers, and activists to create love letters in response to our times. The essays in the anthology were written between the election and the inauguration. Nine of the authors were on hand to talk about staying sane, awake, and engaged in dangerous times: Jeff Chang (We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes On Race and Resegregation), Aya de Leon (Poetry for the People at UC Berkeley, feminist heist novels including The Boss), Parnaz Foroutan (The Girl from the Garden), Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), Katie Kitamura (A Separation), Cherrie Moraga (This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color), Achy Obejas (The Tower of the Antilles), Meredith Russo (If I Was Your Girl), and Kate Schatz (Rad American Women A-Z). As the conversation evolved, hope indeed filled the air. Some snippets:
On staying sane:
Aya de Leon: “I can only metabolize so much toxicity. A low dose of news helps keep the metabolism healthy.”
Kate Schatz: “I’ve discovered I don’t need to listen to NPR all day. I can stick to the headlines on my phone.”
On staying awake:
Katie Kitamura: “Writers are good at documenting the minute shifts, how things are being taken away from us. Things have already changed so much since January.”
Cherrie Moraga: “It is the dissidence of the artist that is the only thing I trust.”
On staying engaged:
Karen Joy Fowler: “I wrote my letter to the water protectors at Standing Rock. As long as they were standing up, I couldn’t sit down.”
Meredith Russo: “My relationship with my son is the locus of all my political resistance.”
Jeff Chang: “Art is being seen as a healing process to help us grapple with change. This is a moment rich with possibility. We are the majority.”
Achy Obejas: “This administration has a special and unique power. They manage to make us forget the scandal that happened three days ago. The power of literature is that it bears witness. It tells the truth that’s not in the history books.”
Parnaz Foroutan “We live in a magnificent moment. Everything is clear. It’s clear what truth is, and light is clear and knowledge is clear and compassion is clear. And the lack of these things is clear, too. There’s this joyful burst of energy, because we know what needs to be done.”
By Sunday morning #BayBookFest was trending on Twitter. Ten am brought a discussion of what happens when everyday reality feels like science fiction, with Cory Doctorow (Walkaway), Meg Elison (The Book of Etta), Zachary Mason (Void Star), and moderator Analee Newitz (Autonomous) touching upon post-apocalytic work, 1984, techno thrillers, the moral duty or writers and more. Later, Doctorow and Newitz joined John Scalzi (Collapsing Empire) and Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky) to talk sci fi and the resistance, and Anders offered up a challenge to the audience: “It is an act of resistance to imagine a different world.”
“Everything is filtered through the fact I’m Cuban,” said Achy Obejas at the Talking Cuba! panel. Obejas’s new collection, The Tower of the Antilles, is filled with haunting stories of Cubans displaced from their island home. Cristina Garcia, born in the New York, also finds herself writing about the land her parents left behind, in her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, and more recently in King of Cuba, in which she satirizes Fidel. (A play is in the works, with Marga Gomez playing Castro in a recent staged reading.) Even Garcia’s new novel, Here in Berlin, coming out in the October, has a Cuban character. A family connection to the island inspired Rachel Kushner’s novel, Telex to Cuba. “My mother and her sisters lived in a town in Oriente Province,” she said. It was a United Fruit Company compound, near where Fidel and Raul Castro grew up. All three writers (and moderator Joshua Jelly-Schapiro) agreed about the answer to the question, What’s going to happen to U.S.-Cuba relations under the new administration? No one knows.
Fiction writers Vanessa Hua, Krys Lee and Guadalupe Nettel took the Alta Stage Sunday morning to talk of their experiences as journalists. The three were powerful witnesses describing the dangers and challenges of reporting on immigrants, crossing borders, protecting the identities of vulnerable sources, and, in the case of Krys Lee, discussing the torture of North Korean refugees jailed in China.
At midday, under bright sunlight, the “Race and Resistance,” panel sponsored by The Nation was so packed that people spilled out far onto the lawn on both sides of the San Francisco Chronicle stage in the park. They listened to rousing words on how to advance racial justice in today’s America from Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, Democracy in Color founder Steve Phillips, novelist/essayist Walter Mosley, and Joan Walsh and Mark Hertsgaard from The Nation.
Back on the Alta Stage, Berkeley literary couple Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman shared insights into the new anthology they edited, The Kingdom of Olives and Ash. To mark the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, they had invited writers to bear witness. Joining them onstage: contributors Fida Jiryas and Rachel Kushner, and Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, which gathers and publishes eyewitness accounts of soldiers from the territories. Waldman described a visit to Hebron where she experienced “checkpoints like cattle chutes designed to humiliate, to evoke feelings of despair, a sense of horror.” Jiryas, born in Palestine, educated in the U.K., described feeling like a “fourth-class citizen” and recited a list of continuing assaults to freedom being imposed by Israeli law. “One can only wonder at the sadistic ingenuity with which Israel has woven an airtight system around us to suffocate every aspect of our lives,” she writes in her essay.
Later that afternoon, in a session on “Living in Two Worlds,” Minneapolis-based Lesley Nneka Arimah explained that she included a short story about Facebook use in her first collection, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, to make it clear to those who didn’t know Africa how prevalent social media is in Nigeria. Pajtim Statovci, author of My Cat Yugoslavia, whose family immigrated to Finland from Kosovo, noted “Sometimes our negative experiences don’t make us stronger. Sometimes they make us weaker and sad and pathetic.” Carolina de Robertis described the origins of her novel The Gods of Tango in her family history (a great grandmother immigrated to Buenos Aires from a tiny village in Italy in 1917), the meaning of tango (“Immigrants made this music to survive; there’s a lot of pain—nostalgia, sexual longing, but also deeper, about being an immigrant”) and how her narrator passed as a man to become a tango musician. She made a key point: “Culture is not static; we can shift culture and push it open with the narratives that we live and write.”
As the festival moved toward its conclusion Sunday. T. Geronimo Johnson (Welcome to Braggsville) talked about the value of satire in fiction. And at five, Berkeley’s dual Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles interviewed Scott Turow, “master of the legal thriller,” about his new novel Testimony, his legal career, their activism on behalf of authors with the Authors Guild (Turow is a past president, Stiles on the council member), and Turow’s five years in the Bay Area. From 1970 to 1975, Turow was a creative writing graduate student and Jones lecturer at Stanford, where he “fell into a community of young writers” and went through that familiar rite of passage—unpublished novels.
The sun was beginning to set as an audience gathered for the final moment of the festival, a “radicallybrief” reading sponsored by Litcamp and promising a two-minute limit per writer. The line for beer at the Cornerstone on Shattuck stretched out the door as the reading began. Berkeleyside founder and author Frances Dinkelspiel (Tangled Vines) led off with a bit on covering a recent pro-Trump rally on the streets of Berkeley, Cristina Garcia killed it with a monologue from her novel King of Cuba, Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen) offered a dossier called “Anonymous Sources” about the behavior of a familiar sounding mean boy, Scott James, New York Times San Francisco columnist and novelist (as Kemble Scott) wrote about a dog named Doris and a presumptuous dog walker. As the stories swirled by, the two-minute limit was enforced by partially soaking NaNoWriMo executive editor and author Grant Faulkner, who intentionally went on for at least six minutes. Before long, all the #radicallybrief readers had finished.
And then it was time for the intensity to dissipate as tens of thousands of writers and readers returned to “ordinary life” in the time of Trump.