Berkeley book festival explores beyond the bookish

Bay Area Book Fest
Carragh McErlean/Staff

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You can capture, to some degree, any human experience with the written word. It was only appropriate, then, that the Bay Area Book Festival covered an array of topics that extended far beyond the bookish.

On June 4 and 5, white tents lined Allston Way and Milvia St. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — under them you could find booksellers, authors, illustrators, poets, newspapers and nonprofits all peddling merchandise and conscripting volunteers. People milled about, some wandering into the festival and others stopping by in between events in venues spanning the distance between Freight & Salvage on University Avenue and the Berkeley Public Library on Kittredge Street. A bluegrass band played on a stage at Center Street and Oxford Street and down the street stood a shelf-like structure that operated as a makeshift lending library. Among the authors featured in the events were Native American poet and writer Sherman Alexie, writer and adjunct UC Berkeley professor Rebecca Solnit, “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis, Oakland-bred poet Chinaka Hodge and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes.

In one very intimate panel, young adult authors Tim Federle, Jason Reynolds and Gene Luen Yang discussed how they try to engage kids through their books. Federle writes books for the underdogs, the ones who don’t necessarily fit in; he had this experience growing up being a theater kid who realized over time that he was queer. In his novels, Reynolds foregrounds young Black boys in the inner city, kids who often aren’t afforded much humanity by society at large, kids who grew up like he did. Yang, a Berkeley alumnus who majored in computer science and minored in creative writing, relayed the story of a kid who excitedly explained how to read binary numbers to his family after reading the first book of his “Secret Coders” graphic novel series.

There were also panels that zoomed out from the books and provided insight into the writing business itself. A panel called the Future of Publishing brought together people from every aspect of the publishing industry — an executive at a traditional book publishing house, one from an indie press publisher, the founder of e-book site Smashwords and the owner of Booksmith, an independent bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury district. One big shift in the publishing field that they considered is the democratization of publishing with the rise of self-publishing venues such as smashwords.com. On one hand, it allows one’s work to never go out of print and, of course, lowers the barrier to entry for publishing. On the other, the lack of vetting on a site like Smashwords means that self-published works usually aren’t eligible for awards and only the most popular books bubble to the top.

Political issues came up over and over again in many different panels, reflecting how issues of representation are being given a bigger platform in the arts and media. In one panel on the Latino experience in U.S. literature, panelists spoke about how their dual languages and cultures gave them access to different worlds. They collectively rolled their eyes at how people outside Latino communities don’t realize how distinct each of them are (”Imagine what would happen if you called a Cuban person Dominican,” one panelist quipped).

Novelist and journalist Sandip Roy talked about immigrating from India to the U.S., living in San Francisco for 20 years and then returning to India. But going back to India was not a return home for him: Roy had come out during his time in the U.S.. He shared a story of how in his new place in India he had a man over to fix up his kitchen. The man kept asking that the “madam” call him about whether the stove is working properly, even after Roy insisted that there was, in fact, no madam. Among his family and friends there he was treated like a man-child of sorts; not even because he was gay, but because he was unmarried.

The conversation turned to craft towards the end of the panel. Roy likened finishing a book to leaving a lover: You walk away and leave them and wonder what happened to them.  

“To capture the whole world and put it in a bottle — that is what literature does,” said Roy. And that was what the Bay Area Book Festival did, too: It captured the whole world and bottled it into a weekend.

Contact Parthiv Mohan at [email protected].