Sunday programming of Bay Area Book Festival highlights expository power of literature

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How do you explain hate crimes to children? How do you write a fictional dystopia when you’re already living in one? What does it mean to survive?

As Sunday’s programming of the Bay Area Book Festival demonstrated, the best way to answer these questions — questions that probe the dark underbelly of humanity — is through books. The day’s programs focused on truth, emphasizing both how it’s best presented and the aftermath of its effects.

Panelists candidly shared anecdotes, stories and advice into their microphones, their spoken words as compelling as their published ones. Through female, LGBTQ+ and international panelists as well as panelists of color, the festival proved itself to be more than a mere celebration of literature — it was a celebration of everything literature can do.

 Caroline Smith, arts & entertainment editor

Writing the Truth: Fiction and Non-Fiction

Dashka Slater, Anne Nesbet, Sara Saedi, moderated by Dan Brekke

In the Hotel Shattuck Plaza’s Boiler Room, three authors with work in middle-grade and young-adult genres sat down to discuss how they present real-life tragedies to a younger generation.

When asked about how they reconcile the themes in their writing with the fact that their intended audience is often seen as fragile and requiring shielding from the world, all the authors agreed that children don’t have as difficult a time processing the hard truths of the world as adults think they do.

Dashka Slater’s book “The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives” discusses a real-life hate crime and is geared toward a younger audience. Slater pointed out that children have an easier time processing concepts that many adults cannot, such as being outside of the gender binary — the basis of the hate crime depicted in her book.

Anne Nesbet agreed, saying children’s literature has a responsibility to name the monsters that exist in the world instead of pretending they do not exist.

“I think it’s when we don’t acknowledge the bad things,” said Nesbet, “or when we don’t talk about them or we don’t face them, that they grow and grow even worse than they are.”

To make sadder realities more accessible to young audience, Sara Saedi shared that she uses humor. Saedi incorporated comedy into her memoir “Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card,” interjecting moments of laughter and warmth into the darker realities of growing up undocumented in the United States.

Though the audience was mostly made up of adults, it visually and audibly connected with the authors — demonstrating the importance of these authors’ works beyond their intended young readership.

— Alex Jiménez

Creating Home: On Finding Yourself in Another Culture

Hernan Diaz, Rodrigo Hasbún, Tommy Wieringa, moderated by Oscar Villalon

One of the last panels of the book festival took place in the David Brower Center: Hernan Diaz, Rodrigo Hasbún and Tommy Wieringa sat down to talk about how they tackle the concept of home in their respective novels.

It was a fitting conversation topic. Diaz was born in Argentina and raised in Sweden, Hasbún is from Bolivia, although he now lives in Texas, and Wieringa is from the Netherlands but has traveled extensively. Their individual struggles to define home for themselves have played important parts in their respective creative processes.

For Diaz, the idea of home was purposely left out of his novel. He moved forward with the idea that once someone leaves home, they’ve left. This was something that Hasbún agreed with, commenting that home only exists for people who have never left home. Once someone starts wondering what home is, home is over forever.

“For me, the idea of home is related intimately to language,” said Diaz. Wieringa agreed with this remark. As a Dutch-language author, Wieringa expressed the impossibility of ever writing in a language that isn’t his own. Even though the Netherlands hasn’t always felt like home to him, he is connected to his native language more than any other.

The authors also discussed how societal conceptions of home have changed in recent years.

“You’re allowed to belong to more than one place nowadays,” Hasbún said, citing cheap plane tickets and FaceTime as things that have allowed him to keep in touch with his family in Bolivia while living in the United States.

Overall, it was an insightful panel, engaging audience members in its use of specifics despite its broad and abstract theme.

— Alex Jiménez

How Stories Make the World

Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Saul, Ismail Muhammad, Anthony Marra, moderated by Joe Di Prisco

This panel was sponsored by the Simpson Family Literary Project, and most of its speakers were related to the literary education organization in some way or another. As a result, the panel largely felt like an advertisement for the group.

The panel featured Ismail Muhammad, a Simpson Family Literary Fellow and English doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley; Scott Saul, a UC Berkeley professor and author; and Anthony Marra, the winner of the 2018 Simpson Family Literary Prize. The final member of the panel was introduced only as “a giant,” the prolific author and Simpson Family Literary Project Committee member Joyce Carol Oates.

Perhaps it was too early Sunday morning or moderator Joe di Prisco’s questions were simply not resonating with the panel, but the writers were slow to respond to most questions and lacked the enthusiasm of other panelists at the festival.

Despite the similarity of the panelists, each approached the questions differently, providing vastly different perspectives. Saul, a biographer who spent years tirelessly devoted to studying Richard Pryor, discussed the difficult but helpful role of truth in the literary process. Conversely, Oates discussed the freedoms of fiction and of straying from standard narrative conventions. The most pronounced author on the panel, Oates’ expertise radiated through the room, and she responded to every question with a myriad of references to novelists and writers who came before her.

Though clearly the youngest on the panel, Muhammad’s perspective proved a necessary and thought-provoking contrast to the deeply canonical older writers. When the panel was asked about the role of social media in the decline of readership and about changing perspectives on the consumption of art, Marra voiced that online consumption is leading to the “depreciation of value of cultural creation.” Muhammad responded that instead of depreciating its value, sites such as Twitter and YouTube simply change the way we consume art.

In this view, instead of minimizing art, new media culture expands whatever could have been possible. Muhammad’s statement underlines how this media opens new and unique ideas, forever transforming cultural consumption.

— Rebecca Gerny

Women Changing the World: How Phoebe Hearst, Jane Stanford, and Other Women Funded Feminism, Founded Universities, and Inspire Philanthropy Today

Joan Marie Johnson, Catherine Pyke, Alexandra Nickliss, moderated by Julie Castro Abrams

“Sometimes it’s the bathroom that makes the difference,” moderator Julie Castro Abrams said with a sigh in response to Joan Marie Johnson’s account of gender discrimination in MIT’s history. According to Johnson, the university did not have any bathrooms for women until female students raised thousands of dollars to fund the facilities themselves. This account is one of the many stories of formidable women changing the world that were shared with the audience at the Bay Area Book Festival.

In “Women Changing The World,” Johnson, Catherine Pyke and Alexandra Nickliss explored the intersection of women’s roles historically as philanthropists, feminists and higher education regents. From accounts of Phoebe Hearst’s discontent with her title as “the fairy godmother” of UC Berkeley’s campus to the story of how Jane Stanford fought to establish Stanford as a coeducational institution, the talk was received by its audience with murmurs of disbelief and nods of agreement. As a member of the audience remarked during the question-and-answer session, it is odd how far we have come and yet how little we have truly moved forward.

“Women weren’t allowed to boast about their accomplishments,” Nickliss said. In their books, the three speakers attempt to rectify this, setting the record straight on the enormous accomplishments of these oft-forgotten women. Jane Stanford, for example, was a philanthropist and all around feather-ruffler who was poisoned twice, perhaps for her tenacity. The second attempt killed her. Yet a Google search of her name returns results that primarily list her, simply, as Leland Stanford’s wife.

The speakers weren’t content to let the situation lie. “You reduce a woman in power to a fairy godmother or to someone’s wife because it’s easier to comprehend. … These books tell their stories,” Abrams said.

— Maryam Kahn

Women & Speculative Fiction: In the Footsteps of Atwood, Butler, and Le Guin

Åsa Avdic, Maggie Shen King, Lidia Yuknavitch, Meg Elison, moderated by Charlie Jane Anders

What is a dystopian novel, and is your novel one?

This was the first question asked of four women from disparate backgrounds, all united by a common genre. Meg Elison, UC Berkeley and The Daily Californian alumna and Bay Area-based author, responded first. Elison answered that today, everywhere is a dystopia, so every novel written must be dystopian, for we live in trying times.

Lidia Yuknavitch argued that dystopia as a genre carries a future implication, which is “bullshit.” “Brutal and beautiful are right next to each other on the sidewalk,” Yuknavitch said. To the author, dystopian literature’s power is in exposing those dark parts of society.

Maggie Shen King’s novel was based on the current demographic problem in China, where decades of childbirth laws left an overpopulation of males. The near-future government in her novel’s solution? Mandated polyamory. King shared that she took all of the strangeness of reality and turned it into fiction.

Interestingly, in the question-and-answer session of the event, the first woman to speak attended the event with her two partners — she asked if King was inspired by California’s growing polyamory community. In this way, the event mixed fact and fiction, dystopia and reality, forcing listeners to grapple with how they define their own lives.

Though Yuknavitch defines the world as a dystopia, she fears none of her characters could follow her first villain: a media-obsessed, wealthy, celebrity world leader, conceived five years before Donald Trump was elected.

Åsa Avdic, a journalist and speculative feminist author, summed it up perfectly. “I don’t know what to write anymore because I don’t want it to be true,” she said. The Swedish author provided an interesting, cross-Atlantic take on women in science fiction and dystopian fiction, reminding American audiences that we are not the only people living in a dystopia.

The final sentiment of the panel garnered raging applause. When the women were asked about being boxed into categories created for male fiction, Yuknavitch responded, “Yes, we are feminist dystopian writers and we are still fucking political; we are women and we are still fucking strong.”

— Rebecca Gerny

JCC East Bay Presents: Thriving Past Trauma — Holocaust Survivor Dr. Edith Eger with The Choice

Dr. Edith Eger interviewed by Elizabeth Rosner

Edith Eger spent her teenage years in Auschwitz. In her conversation with Elizabeth Rosner, herself a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Eger described her approach to survival in the face of overwhelming trauma.

Eger recounted her initial reticence when it came to speaking about her time in Auschwitz. She and her husband had just moved to America, and she just wanted to move forward. Twenty years after moving to America, Eger graduated with a degree in psychology. Her work took her many places, including the military, where she is still sought as a consultant for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was in her work with Vietnam veterans that Eger first decided she needed to return to Auschwitz. She remembered thinking, “I knew I couldn’t take them further than I’d gone myself.”

The title of the panel, “Thriving Past Trauma,” doesn’t do Eger’s philosophy justice. Firstly, Eger did not talk about getting past trauma, but living beside it.

“I will never forget. I will not overcome. I went through the valley of the shadow of death,” Eger said, also mentioning the flashbacks she has every day. But still, Eger insisted that humanity’s most horrific atrocities do not negate the fact that humanity is also capable of overwhelming goodness. She recounted sharing bread with a group of girls in the camp who would later carry her on a death march when she could no longer walk. Or how, decades later, she found herself on a military base to give a talk only to be surrounded by the number 71 — she realized she was at the home base of the 71st Infantry, the unit that liberated her on May 4, 1945.

Eger ended the talk with her signature ballet kick, but not before imparting her final words — “It ain’t over.”

— Danielle Hilborn

The Impact of Angels in America on LGBTQ Literature

Baruch Porras-Hernandez, K.M. Soehnlein, Brian Thorstenson, Sarah Rose Leonard

Baruch Porras-Hernandez, K.M. Soehnlein, Brian Thorstenson and Sarah Rose Leonard came together for a panel that explored the complexities of LGBTQ+ art and existence both in the time of “Angels in America” and today. Both Soehnlein and Thorstenson lived through the AIDS epidemic, as activists. Thortenson spoke of the many ways in which San Francisco remains a haunted city, carrying the weight of a generation of LGBTQ+ people who were exterminated — the phrase “siege mentality” was used to describe the conditions under which the LGBTQ+ generation of that time evolved.

“Heaven is a place much like San Francisco,” a character says at one point in “Angels in America.” But the panel challenged this notion. Soehnlein described the San Francisco he sees every day: a place of poverty, addiction and homelessness. Porras-Hernandez recounted the polite racism he found in the Bay Area theater world. For all the strides that the LGBTQ+ community has made, the panelists made it clear that there is still further yet to go.

Recounting the Reagan years, an unavoidable thing in a conversation about the AIDS epidemic, inevitably leads to commentary on the extent to which the precedents begun then are still playing out now. Soehnlein came sporting an “Impeach Reagan” pin, wryly reminding us that Donald Trump wasn’t the first guy people wanted out of office. After all, Roy Cohn, who also appears in Tony Kushner’s play, was a mentor to Trump.

The overarching message of the panel, though, was not only focusing on all the things left to be done as new challenges arise; it was also a moment to realize the multiple generations of LGBTQ+ individuals in that room and the power inherent in that. Not everyone survived Reagan, but in “Angels in America,” everybody does live. And the text remains to this day to be a testament to the importance of LGBTQ+ media.

“We won’t die secret deaths anymore,” the play concludes. As long as LGBTQ+ voices continue, as long as diverse identities are represented, as long as stories and ideas and words persist, these words will remain true.

— Danielle Hilborn

Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article failed to disclose that Meg Elison formerly worked at The Daily Californian.