Among the buzzing restaurants and bars that make up University Avenue, Eastwind Books of Berkeley has made itself a cozy spot for authors and activists alike to meet. The store, which specifically promotes books about Asia, Asian America, martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, children’s books, Chinese Mandarin and other Asian languages, hosts a multitude of events featuring authors in the Bay Area.
On Sunday, writer and artist Shizue Seigel invited writers from around the Bay Area to read their pieces published in “Endangered Species, Enduring Values,” a community anthology, to an audience of readers interested in engaging in a discussion about representation in literature. The book, which was funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission, is a result of a series of writing workshops held in San Francisco.
Seigel discussed the process of compiling and editing stories by different writers, each discussing their own relationships with community and identity.
“I got individual artist grants, and I was going to work on my own memoir and do this as a little side-project,” Seigel said. “It sort of turned into a much bigger thing.”
Finding refuge from the rainy weather, audience members sat down with a cup of tea, courtesy of Eastwind Books, and listened to the various authors share their pieces. Seigel, who grew up in the United States reading about white characters, said she has always wanted to see people of color in literature, and this community anthology, which is the second she has produced, is her way of giving a platform to creatives of color.
“Whole generations of kids are growing up voiceless and invisible … and so it’s up to us to give them a voice,” Seigel said to the audience in the store.
Seigel started off the reading with a poem of her own about her grandfather’s experience with Japanese internment and the concentration camps that Japanese-Americans were placed in during World War II. She punctuated the poem with: “Hone every experience to its essential lesson.”
The day’s reading featured a variety of artists, from the Managing Editor of Argot Magazine Dena Rod to UCSF Global Health expert Dr. Sriram Shamasunder. Some shared harrowing experiences of living as people of color in the United States, such as being asked, “Where are you from?” on the street and juggling your relative privilege in society nevertheless.
Shamasunder, who went first, reflected on the privilege conferred to him through his status as a doctor.
“My doctor’s ID becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Shamasunder said. “An ‘I exist’ card that distinguishes me from the Black, the brown, the sick, the poor, the nameless, the undocumented — from my patients.”
In poignant moments such as these, the level of attention and care in the room was palpable — everyone was dedicating their whole selves to understand where the reader was coming from. When poet Clara Hsu wrote about poetry dying in San Francisco’s Chinatown or when Rose Berryessa recounted the time she fought off a molester as a 12-year-old, the sobriety in the room was palpable.
After the event, Seigel explained that finding these artists and getting them to share their stories had been no easy task. She said a lot of individuals don’t value their own voices and stories and don’t see their potential impact on audiences, so it took a significant amount of energy to find interested writers and encourage them to submit pieces. She also recruited writers through workshops, which she held monthly at the San Francisco Main Public Library.
Seigel concluded the session with poignant, thought-provoking remarks on the importance of this type of literature, which is geared toward highlighting artists of color.
“The way that oppression works is that it weakens our ability to really see reality and really understand what we’re feeling and how the world really operates,” Seigel said. “The oppression stays in place if we doubt ourselves.”