“We’re All Ecstatic to Be Back”
The University Club atop Memorial Stadium in the Berkeley hills, with its dazzling three-bridge view of the San Francisco Bay, was layered in dramatic fog just after sunset on Friday evening, May 6, as the Bay Area Book Festival launched.
At the opening-night gala, the crowd was buzzing with the exhilaration of meeting in person after several years of virtual contact by the time executive director Cherilyn Parsons, who founded the festival in 2015, offered an opening night toast along with Norah Piehl, the festival’s new director of literary programs, formerly ED at the Boston Book Festival.
This year’s festival celebrated some 230 authors, including poet, writer and editor of The New York Times Magazine‘s poetry column Victoria Chang (Obit, The Trees Witness Everything, now working on a new book of ekphrastic poems inspired by the work of Agnes Martin), NoViolet Bulawayo (Glory), Pulitzer Prize winning poet Forrest Gander (Twice Alive: an Ecology of Intimacies), Gabriela Garcia (Of Women and Salt), Roberto Lovato (his Unforgetting just made the 2022 shortlist of the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing); Deborah A. Miranda (Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir has just been reissued in a tenth anniversary edition), Rebecca Solnit (Orwell’s Roses, a National Book Critics Circle finalist), Sam Quinones (National Book Critics Circle winner for Dreamland), Maw Shein Win (Storage Unit for the Spirit House), Mexico City’s Jazmina Barrera (Linea Negra, translated by Christina MacSweeney, who was part of a stellar translation panel), Norway’s Jan Grue (I Live a Life Like Yours), Canadian Eliza Reid, first lady of Iceland (Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women, and Finland’s Mia Kankimäki (The Women I Think About at Night).
The Bay Area literari clustered on the outdoor glass deck included author and Berkeleyside founder Frances Dinkelspiel, Graywolf Press editorial director Ethan Nosowsky, Janis Cooke Newman, founder of the Lit Camp writers’ conference and the newly opened Page Street writing community; Grant Faulkner, executive editor of NaNoWriMo; Jasmin Darznik (The Bohemians), Marie Mockett (American Harvest, a 2021 Northern Californian Book Award winner for General Nonfiction), who had just won a Fulbright to Japan; Scott James (Trial by Fire), and Susanne Pari, whose novel In the Time of Our History, due out in December, had just made the Publishers Lunch Buzz Books Fall list.
California-based authors with books just out or on the verge who cheered each other on: Chronicle columnist and fiction writer Vanessa Hua (Forbidden City), whose launch within days was filled with “Braid Brigade” supporters; Kirstin Chen, whose novel Counterfeit, due out in June, was optioned by Sony in a heated auction; Lee Kravetz (The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.), still doing bicoastal touring for his novel, published in early March; Peter Richardson, who spoke of the subject of his Savage Journey, Hunter S. Thompson’s propensity for finishing his manuscripts at San Francisco’s Seal Rock Inn fueled by speed. Plus Los Angeles-based Susan Straight, whose new novel Mecca spurred the Los Angeles Times to call her the “bard of overlooked California,” and Geoff Dyer, whose typically erudite memoir-essay The Last Days of Roger Federer, about the experience of approaching late middle-age, was due out within days.
Though some authors, such as Rebecca Solnit, decided to skip the gala out of COVID caution, overall the party’s mood could only be characterized as giddy. Festival director Parsons said, “After such a long haul to get here, we’re all ecstatic to be back.”
Later I asked Parsons how much COVID put a damper on the festival. “We had a few speaker cancellations because the author had contracted COVID or was directly exposed. But we had to fully cancel only one event. For others, we zoomed in authors, like Emily Rapp Black, or rejiggered. Everyone—the authors, staff, volunteers, audience—really followed the strict rules we’d set up. Honestly what I loved best about the entire festival this year was the vibe of warmth and joy—more than any festival except the first one. The attitude was, ‘let’s just roll with everything, we’re so happy to be here!’”
From California to Oman
The festival’s opener on Saturday morning at Freight and Salvage was a weekend highlight. Greg Sarris, novelist, professor, and tribal chief of Graton Rancheria, author of the new memoir Becoming Story: A Journey Among Seasons, Places, Trees, and Ancestors, and Obi Kaufmann, whose Coasts of California: A Field Atlas, has just been published, adding to his multi-volume project on the state’s natural wonders, guided their audience through a vision of California’s past, present, and future, underscoring the ways in which restoring indigenous traditions can offer a way forward in the midst of catastrophic climate change.
Sarris spoke of the importance of maintaining connections among people and with the landscape. “We have to be careful the bad news doesn’t rob us of the possibility of a full present,” he noted. The tightly woven essays in Becoming Story reveal his complex search for identity. Sarris described how he was adopted by a white family at birth, lived in various foster homes in Santa Rosa, and discovered his Pomo and Coast Miwok heritage in his twenties, a time when he also learning tribal traditions and customs from Pomo basket weaver and healer Mabel McKay. Sarris writes of the landscape as story, of humans existing within a web of connection, not separate from and in control of the natural world. His indigenous ancestors maintained a balance with the land, the rivers, oceans and creeks, the fish and animals, the trees and plants, for millenia. Storytelling was essential.
Today he’s in his fifteenth term as Graton tribal chief, and, he mentions, his tribe’s focus is on social justice and environmental stewardship. (Graton recently donated millions to ensure all California Indians, whether federally recognized or not, can go to University of California tuition-free.)“The attitude was, ‘let’s just roll with everything, we’re so happy to be here!’”
East Bay native Obi Kaufmann, the son of an astrophysicist and a psychologist, covers 1,200 miles of coastline in the latest in his illustrated field atlas series. When asked by an audience member what could he do to help, Kaufmann said, “Join your local land trust.” He mentioned recent successes in restoring land bridges for mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains.
Also on Saturday morning, at The Marsh Berkeley on Alston Way, a panel tracing the East Bay heritage of the Black Panther party, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale at Merritt College in Oakland in 1966, featured YA authors Kekla Magoon, author of the National Book Award finalist Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People and the father-daughter team of Jetta Martin and Berkeley professor Waldo Martin Jr., co-authors of Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party.
At the Brower Center’s Goldman Theater, John Freeman, Knopf executive editor, literary critic, poet, and editor of Freeman’s, took the stage with Jokha Alharthi, who had flown to the festival from Oman (beating out Japan, Chile, and other international author destinations for the longest journey this year). Growing up far outside the capital, Muscat, Alharthi read García Márquez, Dickens, Hemingway, Victor-Marie Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Maurice Leblanc, Margaret Mitchell and many others (including Arab authors) during school before going to university. She went on to receive a Ph.D. in Classical Arabic Literature from the University of Edinburgh and to became the first Omani woman to have her work published into English, translated by Marilyn Booth. Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Her new novel, Bitter Orange Tree, also translated by Booth, which Alharthi discussed in her second festival event (on Mother’s Day), explores the deep cross-generational emotional ties that Zuhur, an Omani student at a British university, has with a woman old enough to be her grandmother—a woman born after World War I in Oman, “a difficult time for a lonely woman living in poverty who tried to keep her dignity.” Her new novel unfolds in nonlinear time. “I’m always interested in jumping back and forth, and seeing the past from different angles,” she notes.
An audience mostly composed of aspiring writers looking for community filed into the Goldman Theater next to hear insights from Roberto Lovato, who founded the Rooted & Written initiative at the Writers’ Grotto to mentor and support writers of color; Grant Faulkner, executive director of NaNoWriMo; blogger and novelist Rebecca Phelps, with tips on connecting on social storytelling platform Wattpad, and author Janis Cooke Newman, the Lit Camp founder, who recently launched Page Street, a co-working space in San Francisco. “What’s important to me about the communities I found is that they’re open to writers who have not yet published,” Newman noted. “It’s my experience that once you publish a book, it’s easier to find your literary community. You appear at festivals, your publisher and agent introduce you to people. But when you’re starting out and really need community, it’s much more difficult to find one.”
“Write Your Story”
At the Festival welcome center at BART Plaza, dozens of poets, including Tony Aldarondo, Donté Clark, Cassandra Dallett, and Lucille Lang Day, read on-stage at Poetry in the Streets, a two-day reading with a responsive audience filling the seats. Around the corner, as a reminder that poetry is in Berkeley’s DNA. there’s a plaque with iconic local author Maxine Hong Kingston’s poem “Spring Peas spring harvest of snow peas,” which begins, “They’re taller than me. / I taste and eat as I pick along, / choose the flat big ones and baby ones, / and leave the bulging pods for shelling or seed.”
Civic Center Park overflowed with tents, some 150 exhibitors, at the outdoor bookfair. Thousands of attendees listened to spoken word performances, readings, panels, and music (including the Grammy-winning Alphabet Rockers) on four stages. Attendees checked out exhibits by local publishers and bookstores, plus lined up for author signings and a La Cocina food court. Half-Price Books gave out free children’s and YA books. Plenty of fun for readers of all ages.
Word Power Stage was home to a series of readings by the YA writers, beginning at 12:15 on Saturday with “Write Your Story”—new work from a workshop for young women of color, ages twelve to eighteen, under the auspices of Oakland-based Cinnamongirl, Inc. Readers from the first and second year of the program celebrated their anthology, I Am the Dream.
Next up, eight middle- and high-school Native students from Sonoma County’s Graton Writing Project read powerful essays (soon to be published in an anthology) about the transformations that came with COVID. They wrote of quarantine lockdowns that made them miss friends and be unable to participate in tribal activities, but also grow closer to family and treasure their loved ones.
On the nearby Chronicle stage the audience for “Two-minute Reads: The Plot Twist: Stories of the Startling, the Unforeseen, and the Flat-out Surprising,” heard eighteen readers in an hour. Stand-up comics Keli Dailey and Dhaya Lakshminarayanan kept the action flowing, with writer Emily Cooke ready on-stage with a supersoaker to wet down anyone who went over two minutes. (No one did.) The often comic original stories included Dailey’s “Twisting the Plot” and work from novelist Ryan Sloan, co-host of Babylon Salon, Jesus Sierra from The Writers Grotto, and Silicon Valley Metro Newspaper columnist Gary Singh.
Back on Alston Way, at the Marsh, fans of literary writing flocked to hear National Book Award nonfiction finalist Hanif Abdurraqib (A Little Devil in America: Notes on Black Performance) and poetry finalist Douglas Kearney (Sho) talk poetics and performance. The venue was so crowded that National Book Foundation Executive Director Ruth Dickey had to sit on the floor.
In a Writer to Writer conversation at the Berkeley City College auditorium, novelists Karen Joy Fowler (author of Booth and Booker Prize finalist for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) and Lee Kravetz (The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.) talked about channeling the worlds and minds of two of history’s most mythologized figures. They spoke before a full house about the prismatic approaches each took, the points where nonfiction became fiction, and the work of finding the humanity within villainy. “For the winners, the war is over,” Fowler said, “but for the those who lose, the war never ends.”
“When my son says, ‘I need a hug,’ it’s beautiful to me.”
The Saturday night keynote event at Freight and Salvage featured TED talker, frequent Oprah guest, and author Shaka Senghor, whose bestselling debut memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, chronicled how he survived nineteen years of incarceration (including seven in solitary) and also developed as a writer, an aspiration from back when he was growing up in the tough streets of Detroit.
His new memoir, Letters to the Sons of Society, consists of letters to his two sons, the first of whom he couldn’t raise because of his imprisonment, and the second he’s parenting with intentional care. He spoke of the value of showing vulnerability, of developing a mindfulness practice, and listening to his sons with love. When he said, “I am a sensitive thoughtful man. I love boxing, I love football. When my son comes to me and says ‘I need a hug,’ it’s beautiful to me,” he drew applause.
Many in the audience were in tears when he recited the affirmations he says with his son Sekou every night. When Senghor’s cell phone rang on stage, it was Sekou, seeking those affirmations at bedtime in Los Angeles. Interviewer Zach Norris (Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment), gave him the go-ahead to take the call.
More Global Journeys
Sunday’s midday Writer to Writer conversation between Booker finalist Nadifa Mohamed and Booker winner Douglas Stuart was remarkably intimate for a hybrid event. A 42-inch monitor on stage beamed in Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, from London before the two authors even walked on stage.
In some natural if eerie way, it felt like everyone was just on stage together talking—in real time—with no latency or microphone issues, with a four-camera shoot and television production software all mixing this intimate conversation for everyone watching online, thanks to festival COO Scott Gelfand and tech specialists Wildbound Live. (Like this one, many programs were livestreamed, and most are expected to be posted for free on the festival’s YouTube page in mid-June.)
“These two books show quite a lot about hidden Britain,” Wood noted in her introduction, with characters who don’t routinely appear in the pages of fiction. Stuart, author of the much lauded first novel Shuggie Bain and this year’s Young Mungo, said he wanted to highlight the struggles of young gay boys and men growing up amidst poverty in working class Glasgow, pointing out that most gay characters in English literature are from the privileged class.
Mohamed’s third novel The Fortune Men, was based on the 1952 case of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor wrongfully convicted of a murder in Cardiff, Wales. She read his extensive case file in the National Archives in London. “The real person was lost. The presentation of who he was was controlled by the state. Who was the real twenty-five-year-old executed for a murder he did not commit? I also thought of who he would have been.”
Mohamed was back in the literary limelight on May 11, opening the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in conversation with Abdulrazak Gurnah in his first U.S. appearance since winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature. She began their conversation by thanking him for offering her guidance when she emailed him several pages of her first novel and he responded with helpful suggestions—signifying his generosity and kindness.
The conversation I moderated Sunday afternoon on the theme “In Search of Belonging” highlighted the work of two short story writers shaped by Irish culture—Dublin-born Ethel Rohan, now based in San Francisco, and Colin Barrett, raised in County Mayo in the west of Ireland and now living in Toronto. It was the last panel session of the weekend, live-streamed and IRL, with a gratifyingly large and intent audience and lots of questions at the end.
Rohan, whose In the Event of Contact won the 2021 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, described the ways in which her Irish childhood continued to shape her work—and the freedom of living in San Francisco for more than twenty-five years, not being pigeonholed based on her accent, and finding her voice in her work.Funniest moment at this year’s fest: Claire-Louise Bennett showed up only five minutes before her program’s start time with her hair wet from a quick swim in the Bay.
Barrett, who recently expounded upon his craft in Lit Hub, described regularly driving three hours by car from his village in Mayo to Dublin for college, and how that rhythm shaped the flow of memory that fuels his stories, which still are mostly based in villages in the west of Ireland. His first book, Young Skins, published by the Dublin-based small press Stinging Fly, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the Guardian first book award. When I asked what the two writers were reading now, Ethel provided a quick list off the top of her head, including Irish writers Kevin Barry, Danielle McLaughlin and Louise Kennedy, and American favorites Lori Ostlund, Yiyun Li, Bryan Washington, and Brandon Taylor.
Colin at first looked baffled. Then he explained: During the pandemic, he’s been at home in Toronto with two young children, writing fiction, but not reading much, and mostly reading aloud: “My two year old’s favorite books at the moment are Please, Mr. Panda by Steve Anthony and The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland. Short and lots of nice pictures in both!”
“We Read in Order to Come to Life”
The final event of the festival, back at Freight and Salvage, paired Slate movie critic Dana Stevens, with film critic and historian David Thomson. They discussed her new cultural history, Camera Man, about Buster Keaton. In the course of an hour, spurred on by Thomson’s astute questions, Stevens touched upon the changes in the twentieth century that affect us to this day, all through the lens of an entertainer whose career spanned the entertainment world from vaudeville as a boy (with his parents), silent films, talkies, through television. She even offered a few film clips of a trick Keaton worked on for years.
And then the doors flew open and the confetti fell and the tents came down in the square and the Bay Area Book Festival was over.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” California native Joan Didion wrote in The White Album (that’s also the title of her 2006 essay collection).
“We read in order to come to life,” Claire-Louise Bennett writes in her new novel Checkout 19, celebrated at a panel on Saturday. (Funniest moment at this year’s fest: Bennett showed up only five minutes before her program’s start time with her hair wet from a quick swim in the Bay.) Bennett honors her predecessors—Ingeborg Bachmann, Annie Ernaux, Anais Nïn, Clarice Lispector—in her chapter epigraphs. This year’s Bay Area Book Festival honored writers past and present, nurtured the future through children’s and YA books, and revived the exhilaration we feel in connecting through conversations about reading and writing.
As Berkeley resident Anirvan Chatterjee tweeted: “I missed @BayBookFest so much. There’s something magical about being able to just walk down the street, and spend two days thinking about books and ideas. I paid a measly $15 for tix, but this brings me so much joy. I really need to start donating.”