The Bay Area Book Festival in Five Acts
Jane Ciabattari Reports from Berkeley
A waxing moon rose over the Berkeley hills as the curtain rose on the fourth Bay Area Book Festival. An international literary crowd gathered for cocktails at architect Julia Morgan’s “Little Castle”—so named because it bears kinship with Hearst Castle down the coast, which she also was designing circa 1929. In keeping with the period, many wore sparkling headdresses, beaded frocks, glittery bracelets and earrings, intriguing vests and distinctive shoes. Cherilyn Parsons, BABF founder and executive director, greeted us at the entrance of the candlelit grand ballroom. For this year’s festival—250 writers in 100 sessions—she took her theme from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, emphasizing the voices of women and other underrepresented writers.
Lise Quintana, founder of Zoetic Press, chatted with Grant Faulkner, executive director of National Novel Writing Month. He told me he’s launching a podcast with Brooke Warner, founder of She Writes Press and the new chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association. T.J. Stiles, winner of Pulitzers for his biographies of Custer and Cornelius Vanderbilt, is a year into his life of Theodore Roosevelt. (Also in the room: Hernan Diaz, this year’s Pulitzer finalist in fiction for his novel In the Distance.) Steven Clifford, author of The CEO Pay Machine, was set for a panel on income inequality with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Saturday’s keynote speaker.
El Cerrito poet laureate Maw Shein Win had just given five readings in a week from her new poetry collection, Invisible Gifts. Oakland’s Michael David Lukas, who was appearing on a “writing and risk” conversation on Sunday with Laleh Khadivi, had a new novel—The Last Watchman of Old Cairo—and a newborn daughter. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Vanessa Hua’s first novel, A River of Stars, is coming in August. Irish author Eimear McBride was setting out on a Beckett-inspired project, as the inaugural creative fellow at the Samuel Beckett Research Centre at the University of Reading. Susan Griffin was writing a new book called Strong Men, about masculinity and authoritarianism (she was at the festival to moderate a panel on extremism). Aya de Leon just finished book four in her Justice Hustlers series. Marie Mockett was writing a book called A Kernel In God’s Eye, based on her travels with evangelical Christian harvesters through seven red states.
The room was abuzz with energy by the time Parsons, San Francisco Chronicle publisher Jeff Johnson, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, and KQED general manager Jo Anne Wallace took to the stage for the official welcome. The next morning the festival would take over downtown Berkeley.
Saturday morning booklovers converged on the BABF’s free outdoor fair, with dozens of white exhibitors’ tents and a 600-seat main tent, spotlighting rousing talks by two-term US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and Bay Area icons Alice Waters and Rebecca Solnit. There was fun for all ages, from hip-hop Alphabet Rockers to Dave Eggers’ 826 project, and free books that sent youngsters scrambling with glee.
Long lines formed to hear novelist Greg Sarris, tribal chief of the Graton Rancheria, talk about his How a Mountain Was Made, stories about Sonoma Mountain—“the place where Coyote created the world”—inspired by traditional Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tales. Graton sponsored a full day of programs, including the duo of authors Katherena Vermette, from Metis Nation in Winnipeg, and Oakland’s Tommy Orange (his first novel There There was about to drop). The Graton sessions included a discussion of cultural survival and renewal in the wake of genocide, moderated by Sarris, and a reading by Native students mentored in a writing program sponsored by Graton and BABF. They read essays published in The Graton Writing Project anthology. A standout: tenth grader Gia Altizen’s story about her father’s death only days after being released from prison. “They have named monsters, made visible ghosts,” Sarris noted. “See what they see. It’s medicine for all.”
Down the street, San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie, The Guardian’s nonfiction book editor Paul Laity, Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions, Ismail Muhammad, who writes for The Millions and Slate, and I talked about the ins and outs of book reviewing. McMurtrie had the last word: “Nobody is doing this for the money.”
In the late morning, as the sun began to warm the sidewalks, I stopped by the festival’s main stage at Freight and Salvage, where the Kenyan novelist and UC Irvine professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o discussed his prison memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, with Zambian author and UC Berkeley professor Namwali Serpell. “I had written a play in Gikuyu and it was being performed by factory workers and others without training,” he explained. “After it opened, armed police came to my house at midnight and they were taking me to prison.” He was held for a year. “Writing this novel on toilet paper in the very language I was imprisoned for became an act of survival and resistance.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, a UC Berkeley graduate, discussed art and politics with novelist Karen Tei Yamashita. He was witty: “The Pulitzer Prize, has insulated me from anti-communism in the Vietnamese American community, because you know what trumps anti-communism? Vietnamese desire for American approval.” And also serious: “There are countless films, articles, books about Vietnam but 98 percent of them are written by Americans. So we only ever see the American point-of-view.” The two concluded that Asian communities should work together as allies for change. Later Nguyen told me he was halfway through a sequel to The Sympathizer, partly set in Paris.
That afternoon I moderated a tribute to National Book Award winning author Denis Johnson, who died in May 2017 in Gualala. We started with a sprinkling of accolades (Louise Erdrich calls his books “works of radical human sympathy written with cliff-walking literary genius”). Christian Kiefer, whose novel Phantoms is due out next
He finished to mournful silence. Kiefer saved us with one final reading, from an email exchange: “Throw away all your research, every shred of it, and make a firm resolution to tell at least one lie per day to at least one person you truly love for 90 days. When you’ve lost all ability to distinguish the true from the false, when you’ve estranged all humanity, when you’ve shrunk your soul to a dot of ugliness whose only hope is to be its own God and Creator, you’re ready for page 1. Facts begone! DJ”
Back at Freight and Salvage, at the most crowded session in the festival, people listened intently as revered Pulitzer prize winning Zen poet Gary Snyder, who turned 88 on May 8th, joined his longtime publisher, Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint Press, editor Laurie Glover, and science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson to talk about civil disobedience—taking on a peak in the Sierra and naming it Mount Thoreau. Lines for the authors to sign Naming Mount Thoreau snaked out the door into the cooling Berkeley air.
I headed to the top floor of the Hotel Shattuck for a private salon hosted by the BABF’s new membership-based women’s literary society, Women Lit. Winnie M. Li, whose novel Dark Chapter, based on her own sexual assault, and Norwegian medical educator Ellen Støkken Dahl, author of The Wonder Down Under, talked about breaking the silence around the female body, and sexual assault. “We tell girls how to be safe, but why is the onus on the girls?” Li asked. “The boys should be taught not to rape, and how to understand sexual consent.”
Saturday night at the movies
Saturday evening at eight I met up with Tom Barbash, whose novel The Dakota Winters is coming in late December, and Christian Kiefer to introduce Alison Maclean’s 1999 film of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. The Saturday night showing was part of the eight-film series curated by Tom Luddy, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival, for the BABF and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).
When Jesus’ Son came out, the New York Times’s A.O. Scott wrote that Billy Crudup as narrator Fuckhead was “like Candide strung out on every drug he can find.” When the collection was first published, Johnson remarked, “Jung once said inside of every alcoholic there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.” Barbash, Kiefer and I talked about how Johnson manages to make write stories that are chaotic but not unclear, the wonders of the director’s use of light, how the abrupt pivots Johnson makes are perfect for film, and Johnson’s cameo. (He plays a man who arrives at the emergency room with a hunting knife in his eye.) When the lights dimmed we joined the audience. The car crash came a few minutes into the film.
Sunday brought clouds and chilly weather. The crowd outside Freight and Salvage was bundled up as they waited to hear 92-year-old Dr. Edith Eger, a trauma psychologist who survived Auschwitz, engage in conversation with Elizabeth Rosner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors whose memoir Survivor Café explores intergenerational trauma. “They could beat me but they could never murder my spirit,” Dr. Eger said. The message of her memoir The Choice: “We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for, is up to us.” She so moved the audience they gave her a standing ovation.
The morning also featured pioneering feminist autobiographical comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, on a rare trip back to the Bay Area from the village in the south of France where she has lived for many years with her husband Robert Crumb, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, whose novel A Kind of Freedom is set in New Orleans, her hometown. “In New Orleans you see all classes of blacks,” she said. “If you don’t have races interacting, you can’t have the education you need. What I notice here is, everything is subtle. Not necessarily racist, but racial. People talk to my white husband in different ways than they speak to me.”
A group of four literary descendants of Atwood, Butler, and Le Guin, energized the early afternoon crowd at the Magnes Museum in a conversation moderated by Charlie Jane Anders (her next novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, is coming in January).
Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan): “I started out to write about a billionaire reality tv star who is elected, starts several world wars. I started writing in 2013. I didn’t have Trump in my mind. I was concerned about celebrity culture, capitalism expanding beyond borders. Writers and artists are always writing within the zeitgeist.”
Meg Elison (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife and The Book of Etta): ““It is impossible to write books about women in this world, in any world, without the threat of violence.”
Åsa Avdic (The Dying Game): “I feel like Cassandra. My hero is working in a refugee camp, a war starts and borders are overflowing. Now that’s what has happened with Syria.”
Maggie Shen King (An Excess Male): “When I discovered 39 million men in China who won’t be matched up, because of the one-child policy that privileges men, I built this fictional world where the government appeals to patriotism for women to take in more than one husband. I stayed true to the realistic world . . . It got darker and darker. The government of your ancestors is providing all these plot points for dystopian fiction.”
The finale of the festival was a warm, generous, elegant talk about the power of literature to create a better world by novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer, who was born in England to Indian parents and moved to California when he was seven.
“We’re entering a golden age of literature,” he declared. “I spent eight years of my life studying literature. In England that meant Chaucer, Beowulf, The Wanderer. Now it’s Rushdie, Ondaatje, Ishiguro, Arundhati Roy, Timothy Mo, Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Chandra—new stories, new histories, new ways of telling stories. When talking about the common good we are talking about the common ground. The single greatest travel writer in the US is Barack, from Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kansas. He was beautifully in synch with the modern world.”
“When I hear about cultural appropriation,” he added, “it sounds to me a lot like literature. The point of literature is to imagine yourself into another culture.”
Iyer was joined onstage by editor/author/critic John Freeman. They spoke of books they loved (Iyer rereads The Quiet American and The Snow Leopard every year), the power of solitude, and the urge to simplify.
“Where is your home?” Freeman asked.
“In my self, my friends, in the book I am writing.”
It was a conversation that could have gone on for hours. Or, as Freeman put it, “If I could listen for another two and a half years, life would be okay.”
The extravaganza of reading, writers and writing, imagination and ideas, had come to an end. Daylight lingered, but the white tents at Berkeley’s center were empty now. Monday morning was just around the corner.