While it may only be the fourth annual Bay Area Book Festival, the festival is already a mainstay in Berkeley. It’s no wonder why — Berkeley is a literary hub. Saturday’s panels embodied Berkeley culture through and through, with topics ranging from the amplification of marginalized voices to themes of resilience. Overall, the festival demonstrated its dedicated emphasis on uplifting female authors, LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color.
It was a day focused on learning, ranging from how to write a novel in a month, to how to write memoirs, to how to become a literary critic. It was a day focused on learning, wherein speakers who represented a myriad of diverse voices shared the importance of producing literature that deviates from the white heterosexual male hegemony. It was a day focused on learning, wherein the Bay Area Book Festival proved that underlying all of its programming was the hope that all in attendance would walk away from the festival knowing something new — be it a new perspective or writing strategy — and return on Sunday, ready to learn more.
— Caroline Smith, arts & entertainment editor
Pep Talk for Writers!
Grant Faulkner, Brooke Warner
Each November, hundreds of thousands of writers participate in the challenge presented by National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo, as it is referred to affectionately — pledging to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in just 30 days. Despite the seeming impossibility of this task, there are some published successes of this national occurrence, including “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen and “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell.
NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit organization currently run by Grant Faulkner, who came to the Bay Area Book Festival to talk about his work and his new book, “Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo.” During the panel, Faulkner explained that he views NaNoWriMo as a way for writers to have a chance to put their creativity first.
“It’s not necessarily about getting your work published, although many do publish their work. But it’s about empowerment. It’s a movement founded on optimism,” Faulkner said in discussion with Brooke Warner.
Faulkner also spoke on the benefits of the very small timescale posed by NaNoWriMo. “Unknown benefits come from constraint. It forces you to think about things in a different way,” he said.
Many audience questions were centered around asking for advice on how to finish the work that they start and how to push through what Faulkner refers to as the “muddy middle.” Faulkner emphasized the power that can result from forcing yourself to write every day and stressed the importance of writing what you want to write despite how risky it may feel.
“The best writing comes when you’re really brave on the page,” Faulkner said. “Writing a book is an act of bravery.”
— Nikki Munoz
Viet Thanh Nguyen on Art and Politics
Viet Thanh Nguyen interviewed by Karen Tei Yamashita
UC Berkeley’s beloved alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen returned to the Bay Area this weekend. His welcome home was a sizeable line of excited attendees waiting on the sidewalk outside of Freight & Salvage, many of them with “The Sympathizer” in hand.
He was interviewed by Oakland-born Karen Tei Yamashita, a Japanese American novelist and UC Santa Cruz professor. As the two distinguished novelists walked onto the stage, the audience geared up for a conversation that proved to be an awe-inspiring treat.
Outspoken and bold, Nguyen is still the quintessential Berkeley student. His loud onstage presence and refusal to shy away from hitting on hard truths, such as the initial controversy of his novel within Vietnamese communities, commanded the audience’s attention. Yamashita, although much softer-spoken, was an eloquent speaker whose careful evaluations and questioning of Nguyen’s work inspired a smooth exchange of intellectual opinions and curiosity.
“The Pulitzer Prize, I think, has insulated me from anti-communism in the Vietnamese American community,” Nguyen said with a laugh, “because you know what trumps anti-communism? Vietnamese desire for American approval.”
At times, the conversation strayed from lighthearted joking and became serious. Nguyen and Yamashita discussed political literature and whether or not their art is a form of protest. Both agreed that their novels are efforts to tell stories that don’t normally get told, giving a voice to their respective communities and thereby resisting the establishment. As professors, Nguyen and Yamashita expressed optimism for the current and future generations to continue to grapple with social turmoil as they both have done in their own creative endeavors.
It was an enthralling exchange that left everyone craving more insight from these incredible contemporary thinkers. They ended on a note of solidarity, both affirming a desire for different Asian nationalities to join together as allies and to inspire change.
— Alex Jiménez
The Art of Memoir: A Story That Must Be Heard
Francisco Cantú, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Elizabeth Rosner, moderated by Marie Mockett
While the memoirs of Francisco Cantú, Julie Lythcott-Haims and Elizabeth Rosner are quite different in subject matter, all the narratives are united in the way they seek to speak the unspeakable.
Cantú’s “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border” deals with the fear and violence at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lythcott-Haims’ “Real American: A Memoir” tells of her experience as a Black woman in America. Rosner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, explores the way trauma is passed down in “Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory.”
Each author grapples with different inherited tragedies in their writing, exploring what we’re meant to do when faced with this inheritance. Lythcott-Haims mentioned the recent opening of The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama — which honors the victims of lynching in the United States — as an example showing that oftentimes the things that most need to be talked about will be met with the most backlash. But, she noted, it is precisely for this reason that these stories must be told.
The panel also aptly touched on the inherited trauma not only of the children of survivors but also of the children of the perpetrators. The discussion turned to the proper response of those who are part of a privileged group when faced with witnessing the oppression perpetuated by that privileged group. For example, how should white people handle the upset and outrage they feel when faced with the reality of racism perpetrated by others who are white?
The panelists addressed this issue by highlighting the importance of the direction of the outrage. It is not wrong to have an emotional reaction, but it is wrong to turn the situation and make it about oneself. All of the focus and compassion should remain directed at the person suffering the injustice.
Ultimately, the intersection of such distinct experiences around trauma and violence yielded an engaging, in-depth conversation.
— Danielle Hilborn
Eimear McBride interviewed by Sylvia Brownrigg
As a partner with Culture Ireland, the Bay Area Book Festival brought several famous Irish novelists and writers across the Atlantic. Perhaps the most well-known was Eimear McBride, the author of two beautiful and painful examinations of femininity and oppression in Irish and British histories, “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” and “The Lesser Bohemians.” McBride and interviewer Sylvia Brownrigg hit it off, with much audience engagement as well.
The easiest way to describe McBride’s nonlinear, stop-and-go, almost poetic and incredibly personal first-person narrative and lyrical style is to call it Joycean. Yet, though she has read and been inspired by James Joyce, McBride takes issue with this simplification. Especially given the nine years she spent trying to get her first novel published, McBride would like to stand apart from the enormous male-centered narrative.
Describing her publishing saga, McBride joked, “It didn’t occur to me that modernism was dead. Joyce got all the words, (Samuel) Beckett got all the silence, and that was it?”
For McBride, the choppy narrative style was for a different purpose than it was for Joyce. She wanted to tie the reader to her narrator, to allow them to see through her eyes, to allow the words to get up on their feet and the reader to walk around as the character. Moreover, in her eyes, fragmentation is trauma. To be honest to the human experience of abuse and pain, linear language and a constructed plotline would not suffice.
It was also McBride’s intention to negate the idea of redemption within literature and life. “Terrible things happen to people, and sometimes it just is,” she said. In “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing,” there is no redemption, only a girl living, dealing, and dying with trauma, but never giving up her agency or refusing to fight — a powerful sentiment for the mostly female room.
— Rebecca Gerny
Lidia Yuknavitch in Person: On Fearlessness, Truth, and Misfits
Lidia Yuknavitch interviewed by Daphne Gottlieb
Given that she was one of the closing authors, speaking at the same time as six other panels, the turnout for Lidia Yuknavitch was small but vibrant. With half the seats in Freight & Salvage filled, author and self-proclaimed misfit Yuknavitch took the stage, interviewed by Daphne Gottlieb, Bay Area performance poet and writer.
From the start, it was clear that both women shared the same passions for literature, but also for breaking norms and pushing boundaries, forcing others to do the same. Five minutes into the panel, when discussing self-art and the process of creating one’s self, Gottlieb motioned to her vibrant and abundant tattoos, to which Yuknavitch, in long sleeves and pants, said, “I just want to take off all my clothes.” Gottlieb snappily responded, saying, “I have that effect on people.”
There could not have been a better interviewer-interviewee pair. Gottlieb asked hard-hitting questions about memory and history, often stumping Yuknavitch, forcing her to consider topics she hadn’t before. One such question revolved around the vulnerability of fiction versus nonfiction, as both women play within both mediums. While Gottlieb seemed to think that memoir writing was more vulnerable — leaving yourself on the page for everyone to see — Yuknavitch disagreed: In fiction, her dreams, ideas, desires and imagination are put on display, showcasing what she believes as the veritable woman.
Having been in prison and homeless before appearing as a novelist at the festival at the age of 55, Yuknavitch sees her out-of-place-ness as a way of transgressing the cultural code for women, of expressing her fullest self.
“I’m just being honest,” Yuknavitch said. “You don’t have to like me or agree with me, but that’s who I am.”
— Rebecca Gerny
The Power of History: Turning Groundbreaking Scholarship into Page-Turning Prose
Edward L. Ayers, Peter Cozzens, Joel Richard Paul, T.J. Stiles, moderated by Steve Wasserman
For a panel on American history and the influence of writers on the telling and retelling of history, one common sentiment was eerily present yet unaddressed in the Barbro Osher Theater — history is told by the white man.
On the panel sat Joel Richard Paul, professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law and author of several historical biographies; T.J. Stiles, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for history; Edward L. Ayers, historian and president of the University of Richmond and the self-proclaimed “least academic” of the panel; and Peter Cozzens, former U.S. Foreign Service officer and Civil War writer.
The amount of shared knowledge in the room cannot be understated. Though often seemingly like a historical game of one-upmanship, the men in the room each proved to be extremely knowledgeable about about their subject matter.
Yet, when questioned by moderator Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, about biases within the retelling of history and investigative scholarship, the answers were surprising. Cozzens articulated an opinion on the American Indian Wars that the U.S. government did not intend to commit physical genocide against indigenous peoples, only cultural genocide, but the former occured nonetheless.
After this rather controversial statement, Wasserman asked if Cozzens has ever felt uncomfortable by his positionality as a white man telling the history of Native Americans. Cozzens’ response: He’d never even thought about it.
Herein lies the primary oversight of this group of speakers. Though the panel focused on adding new perspectives to overly hashed-out history, there was no representation of differing cultural perspectives. For a festival with themes of activism and revolutionary political change, this panel’s lack of diversity was disheartening.
— Rebecca Gerny
State Lines: New California Poets
Ari Banias, MK Chavez, Vandana Khanna, Austin Smith, moderated by D.A. Powell
A small, intimate room in the Marsh Arts Center was the setting for a thought-provoking hour of poetry readings by California-based poets Austin Smith, Vandana Khanna, MK Chavez and Ari Banias; the event was moderated by San Francisco poet D.A. Powell.
“They are each California in some way,” Powell said in his introduction. “Each of them has their own story of California.”
Of the four poets, only Chavez and Banias were born and raised in California. Khanna and Smith have origins in New Delhi, India and Illinois, respectively, but their work has been tremendously influenced by their current residence in the Golden State. The California natives had their own distinctions as well, with Chavez being Oakland-based and Banias originally being from Los Angeles. Despite these small differences, all the poets were deeply connected by their headlining muse: California.
As the poets read from old, new and unpublished collections, the audience was breathless with wonder at their enchanting incarnations of California in the poetic form, each remarkably unique and beautiful. Chavez’s bold statement that California is alive and is a woman was a particularly pithy observation that evoked gasps of both shock and appreciation.
After the readings, the poets answered a handful of questions and engaged in a discussion on a range of topics, including what characterizes Californian poetry and how literature as a whole is following a trend of blurring the lines between genres. Chavez remarked that the intersectionality of this region’s artistry is important to her, and Banias added that the tension and violence of California’s pre- and post-colonial history also shows itself prominently in his works.
Each poet’s commentary on regionalism and genre within the context of California was insightful and inspiring, showcasing the talent and promise of this state’s artists.
— Alex Jiménez
Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor
Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor are the two current managing partners of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which has put together numerous successful stage shows. These stage shows consist of shortened versions of longer well-known works — for instance, there is a show that condenses all of Shakespeare, titled “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” Some other shows include “The Complete History of America (Abridged)” and “The Bible (Abridged).”
Reduced Shakespeare Company’s shows have been met with massive success and have been performed all over the world, including off-Broadway and in the London West End. Now, Martin and Tichenor have written a pop-up book, “Pop-Up Shakespeare,” detailing Shakespeare’s life and work, which includes five spreads, the first involving what is known about the playwright’s life and the next four each focusing on a genre of his works.
The two of them spoke at the Bay Area Book Festival about their work with Reduced Shakespeare Company and how they came to write the pop-up book, which Tichenor describes as “the ultimate reduction of Shakespeare.” While the company’s shows are written with an intended adult audience, Martin and Tichenor feel that younger people can enjoy them as well. With their pop-up book, they say the opposite is true.
Martin and Tichenor spoke on the writing process for a pop-up book, likening it to some of the work of Shakespeare himself, given the constraints and space limitations. “It was a fun challenge; it was a little bit like writing a sonnet,” Tichenor said.
Martin and Tichenor are drawn to Shakespeare because they feel the most effective reduced works come from things that people have some familiarity with at the start, so that the shortened twists of the shows can guide the audience to the unfamiliar. “It’s much easier to make jokes of what is familiar,” Martin noted. “And of course, people know more Shakespeare than they think,” Tichenor agreed.
— Nikki Munoz
The Book Review: Top Reviewers Share How It’s Done
Lydia Kiesling, Paul Laity, John McMurtrie, Ismail Muhammad, moderated by Jane Ciabattari
One of the first events of the two-day festival, “The Book Review” was the necessary first stop for The Daily Californian’s literature beat. The panel included Paul Laity, the nonfiction editor for The Guardian; John McMurtrie, the book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle; Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions — an online literature, arts and culture magazine — and Ismail Muhammad, a staff writer for The Millions and a UC Berkeley English doctoral student.
Moderated by author and arts columnist for BBC, NPR and other sites, Jane Ciabattari, the conversation began lightheartedly, with each reviewer or editor recalling the first novel they ever reviewed. For most, though it wasn’t possible to recall the exact scenario, the stories of young budding careers and the anxiety of writing scathing reviews of famous politicians or authors roused the audience.
Quickly, the state of literary journalism came up. Kiesling, the only editor of a nonprint publication, highlighted the reality of her profession — her remark that in the beginning of her career, one article written would make $11, with Muhammad chiming in that that sum was still his reality, hit upon the unattainability for many of making literary criticism into a career. “Nobody is doing this for the money,” McMurtrie noted, with Ciabattari adding that she has resorted to freelancing for numerous publications to make a sustainable living.
Yet, if it’s not for the money, what do they continue writing for? A doctoral candidate focused on African American literature, Muhammad’s goal is to be reviewing authors that no one will look at — giving them a platform to access a greater community when they often cannot. Yet, sadly, in an age of declining readership for novels, literary reviews receive even less attention. “I’m still hustling,” Muhammad said, explaining why, often, he cannot review those authors.
Despite the excitement of the festival, the panel echoed the sad state of books in the American media landscape, which hoped to be disproved by the rest of the festival.
— Rebecca Gerny
The Nature of Evil: Stories on Darkness
Karo Hämäläinen, Liz Nugent, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, moderated by Brian Cliff
The Bay Area got a taste of the international crime fiction scene when three accomplished novelists of the genre joined forces for a gripping, hard-hitting conversation on depictions of evil in literature.
Panelists included Karo Hämäläinen from Finland, Liz Nugent from Ireland and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from Iceland. Brian Cliff, director of Trinity College Dublin’s Moderatorship in Irish Studies, moderated the conversation, which took place in the Marsh Arts Center.
Intensity immediately characterized the discussion as each novelist read an excerpt from one of their novels. The audience was on edge, moved by the suspense in the novels. Nugent, however, stole the show with the opening lines of her novel “Lying in Wait” — “My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle,” Nugent read, “but the lying tramp deserved it.”
To Nugent’s surprise, her words were immediately met with collective laughter. She explained that this was a very “American” reaction and was doubtful about whether other audiences would have reacted the same way. This spurred a discussion of what draws readers into crime and horror fiction in the first place.
According to Sigurðardóttir, there’s more to the appeal than just murder — if murder were all there were to it, then readers would be satisfied by reading the newspaper. Nugent added that he thinks readers turn to crime fiction so they can see evil being punished, as rarely happens in real life. Hämäläinen then chimed in to explain that he himself uses dark literary themes as a way to explore his own humanity.
They all agreed that regionalism has shaped their literature. As a succinct example, Hämäläinen explained the inclusion of humor in his fiction: “It’s dark in Finland,” he said, “therefore, it’s dark humor.”
The panel ended on a high note, leaving audience members inspired by these diverse perspectives on a controversial but popular genre.
— Alex Jiménez
Katherena Vermette, Winnie M. Li, moderated by Natasha Singh
“It is very important for these stories to be shared and believed,” said Winnie M. Li, author of “Dark Chapter,” at the panel. “Those other survivors are the community that will hold you up,” she elaborated.
The panel, moderated by Natasha Singh, featured Li and Katherena Vermette, who is the author of “The Break.” Together the women discussed the nuances of writing about sexual trauma and the experience of fictionalizing their own trauma and the trauma of others. To begin, Li and Vermette both read sections from their books that focus on the tension between the time before and after a sexual trauma is witnessed or experienced.
Singh said both novels contributed greatly to the literature on living in the aftermath of violence and added that both novels took a surprisingly intimate look at the perpetrators of sexual violence.
Li’s novel switches between the narratives of the victim and perpetrator, who is a 15-year-old boy — it is a fictionalized retelling of the rape Li experienced when she was 29. Vermette’s book took on many more perspectives in a narrative taking place in her own Métis community in Canada.
“This wasn’t my therapy,” Vermette said, discussing writing a book about trauma as a healing process. “That happened first. … I am not instructing empathy.”
Both women, who are activists in their own right, took advantage of the panel to encourage radical empathy and embody the multi-perspective approaches both authors took with their novels.
— Kate Tinney
Knots of Wonder: Stunning Short Fiction
Gunnhild Øyehaug, David Hayden, Masatsugu Ono, moderated by Michael Holtmann
The Bay Area Book Festival held a panel called “Knots of Wonder,” hosting Gunnhild Øyehaug, the Norwegian author of “Knutar” (“Knots”) — the inspiration for the title of the talk — Masatsugu Ono, the author of “Shishiwatari-bana” (“Lion’s Tread Point”), and David Hayden, the author of “Darker With the Lights On: Stories.”
Moderator Michael Holtmann called the panel an “exploration of the intricately involved ideas that make up a story.”
Øyehaug said she draws on a mix of different inspiration for her work and tries to describe people living in different difficult situations — people living in knots. Initially, Øyehaug said her goal was to write a different short story for every German preposition, and while she eventually scrapped that idea, she hoped to keep the inner idea of movement in her work.
Ono hoped to move away from recent Japanese fiction’s fascination with city life and instead focus on rural fishing villages like the one where he grew up. In his words, wanted to write about “marginalized people living cheaply.”
Through their works, each of the three authors address the concept of space very differently. While Ono focuses on that which is familiar to him, Hayden tries to decontextualize his short fiction works from any place, while still giving them strong character, which he said he found to be a difficult task.
“Human beings are our bodies, but we have this sense we aren’t, even though we can’t escape them,” said Hayden. “With my writing, I try to inhabit the idea of unity of the body with feeling and thought.”
— Kate Tinney
The Art of Science Fiction: Interview with Sylvie Denis, France’s Queen of Sci-Fi
Sylvie Denis interviewed by Marie Brennan
Sylvie Denis is one of France’s most well-known science fiction writers. She has written short stories, as well as working as a translator and co-editing the science fiction magazine Cyberdreams. The conversation between Denis and Marie Brennan covered everything from the practical aspects of Denis’ work as a translator to the science fiction that most inspired her as a child.
In response to a question about whether Denis disliked the concept of robots, Denis responded by saying she was not anti-singularity, but anti-blinders. In other words, her work and characters reflect a measured skepticism when faced with all-powerful technology.
It was later pointed out that Denis’ work is concerned with the systems that oppress people and how people resist those systems — thus uniting her work with the most deeply held themes of science fiction.
Denis also spoke to her work as a translator and specifically the ways it differs from writing. Translation requires one to approach a text through an entirely different lens, she said.
The panel also interestingly touched on the different ways science fiction inhabits the cultures of France and America. Denis noted that American science fiction embraces technology and cultivated a fascination with it in a way that French science fiction does not.
Denis closed the panel by talking about her beginnings as a science fiction writer. She remembers being 12 or 13 and seeing science fiction programs on TV and thinking to herself, “Could there by books like that?” Her ensuing career serves as a resounding affirmative to that question.
— Danielle Hilborn