Oakland Book Festival celebrates literature, learning

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Mitzi Perez/Staff

On Sunday morning, a loose assembly gravitated toward Oakland City Hall’s hushed hearing rooms. The humming crowd gathered in lines that curled, snakelike, around corners in anticipation of the city’s first public book festival. For one day, Frank Ogawa Plaza became an agora for book lovers, literati and beginning readers alike.

A new event celebrating the Bay Area’s rich literary culture, the Oakland Book Festival is the brainchild of Oakland residents and literary magazine professionals Kira Brunner Don and Timothy Don. The variety of activities explored books in ways tailored to audiences of all backgrounds, with a nod to the city’s history of civic engagement.

A literary council of Bay Area professionals curated 33 panels. These platforms served as riveting debate platforms, each moderated by prominent thinkers and writers, all experts in their fields. More than 60 writers, including UC Berkeley English lecturers Vikram Chandra and Melanie Abrams, articulated their thoughts on a range of subjects related to literature, from gentrification to radical movements to American writer demographics.

At the festival, books — often solitary pleasures — became the nexus of group activity. Locally published books, literary magazines and bibliophile keepsakes spilled across tabletops, while children clustered around performances and readings.

Founding directors Brunner Don and Don partnered with local organizations — including UC Press, the Oakland Public Library and the Before Columbus Foundation — to coordinate the festival’s programming.

“We are always seeking ways to provide a broader set of opportunities to our patrons,” said Gerry Garzon, director of the Oakland Public Library, in an email to The Daily Californian. “Partnerships are a great way to work with other folks who have the skills and resources to share.”

Panel conversations commented on contemporary concerns. A sampling of discussion topics included “The Reshaping of American Literature,” presented by San Francisco journal ZYZZYVA; “Press the Police,” presented by Mother Jones; and “Literary Journals: A New Golden Age?.”

“As our co-founders, Kira and Timothy, and I were talking about the panels and programming for the day we wanted things to hang together and not feel like a hodgepodge of miscellaneous topics,” said Rebekah Otto, the festival’s literary council chair, in an email to the Daily Cal.

“The ideas coalesced around utopia — and its discontents — particularly in cities. I also kept in mind how these larger social ideas manifested in Oakland,” Otto explained. “To take an example of one panel: when considering our incredible locally grown food, we are also compelled to think about the problems of our migrant labor system.”

Interdisciplinary thinking brought together academics and editors, poets and publishers to dig deeply into sociopolitical issues. Underlying the debates was the recognition of writers as vehicles for change and embodiments of knowledge.

And like works of literature themselves, the panels also served as forums for investigating structures of power. In the panel “Multiculturalism or Political Correctness?,” pioneering Asian American novelist and UC Berkeley alumnus Shawn Wong described his experiences at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, a time when “no classes, no teachers, no credit” existed for Asian American studies. Wong’s personal narrative speaks to systemic hurdles that distance ethnic minorities from the study of literature.

As speakers voiced their opinions in energetic exchanges, the constant circulation of thoughts recreated the intellectual yet intimate university-seminar atmosphere — without the exclusiveness of the ivory tower.

“I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of a panel focused on archived home films of old Oakland, which mixed the visual history of the film with an open discussion with the audience about the places and people pictured,” said attendee and UC Berkeley senior Athena Scott in an email to the Daily Cal.

The festival’s wide success has spawned plans for a 2016 event. “We’re going to take a few deep breaths before determining how to shape next year,” Otto said. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said, this Festival is Oakland, and there could be no higher compliment to me.”

Contact Danielle Shi at [email protected].

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