Bay Area Book Festival prepares to blow out 5 birthday candles

Woman smiles into camera while standing in front of book shelf.
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Cherilyn Parsons makes the walk to a P.O. box not far from her North Berkeley home every day to pick up a variety of books: novels sent by publishers, advance copies, poetry collections, biographies, nonfiction and fiction works to forward along, community submissions and “for your consideration” packages from writers around the world.

Mail opening isn’t exactly part of her job description as founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival. But to Parsons, it’s a reenactment of some of her favorite childhood holidays spent opening books and a reminder of her first love: reading. “It’s almost like my birthday or Christmas or something,” Parsons told the Daily Californian over the phone.

She described this while sitting at her home office desk — the exact spot where, just over five years ago, she had an idea. She recalled the story by the numbers: a proposal for the first large-scale book festival located in the Bay Area written at 1 a.m., which led to five festivals (including this year’s) cumulatively comprising roughly 1,400 authors, 450 festival events, 1,000 outside exhibitors and around 125,000 attendees. “When you look back on it, I think, wow, just from an idea,” said Parsons.

The festival will celebrate its fifth year on May 4 and 5 in Downtown Berkeley, its home since the beginning. “I think that we have found our voice in a way. It’s weird to say we’ve arrived, but when you hit the five year mark, it’s like, you’re here. You’re not a toddler anymore. You’re going to kindergarten,” Parsons laughed.

This year will blend both tried and true elements and new ideas. Following its standard design, the festival will include both free outside events and paid inside events. For the price of $15, or $5 for college students, bibliophiles can purchase wristbands that provide them unlimited access to the weekend’s indoor events.

New elements of the fifth festival include author interviews led by teens and middle schoolers, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performances of works inspired by Bay Area poets’ work and “Writer to Writer,” which puts two writers — who are “huge fans of each other’s work,” in Parsons’ words — in conversation. To Parsons, the festival is about more than just the chance to get a favorite book signed by a favorite author.

“You read privately,” Parsons said. “Generally, it’s just you and the page, and then you come into a lecture hall or a conversation with the writers that has all these other people who similarly have that really intimate experience of convening with the page… and then you get to explore these ideas and this creativity with everyone and the writers, communally.”

For the Bay Area Book Festival, this community is enacted through uplifting society’s marginalized voices, emphasizing in its lineup authors who are people of color, women and immigrants. Panelists were selected to highlight topics the Bay Area prioritizes, including climate change and economic justice. This year, Ishmael Reed, Tommy Pico, R.O. Kwon and Charlie Jane Anders will be among the hundreds of authors in attendance, who together will represent the highest number of countries in the festival’s history. The closing keynote Sunday will be “The Unbreakable Human Spirit: Albert Woodfox on Survival in Solitary,” wherein Woodfox, one of the “Angola 3,” will share his story about 44 years of solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit.

Claire Calderón, the festival’s program manager and a Bay Area Latinx artist and writer, conducts outreach to writers of color and LGBTQ writers within her role. In an interview with the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley professor of African American studies and director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People Aya de Leon, praised Calderón’s efforts. “She put together a list of people of color headliners and I mean it’s just such a star-studded cast,” de Leon said.

De Leon frequently contributes to the festival as a panelist and through behind the scenes work on the program steering committee. For the latter, she utilizes her own network of Bay Area-based writers of color to both support the festival’s diversity and provide new writers the chance to connect with authors from around the world at the festival.

Members of de Leon’s Poetry for the People class will perform alongside past graduates of the program — one of many ways the Bay Area Book Festival strives to include UC Berkeley students and faculty in its programming.

Looking back, de Leon not only recalled the time Parsons took her out to tea and asked if she’d like to heighten her involvement in the festival, she also remembered the gratitude she felt when the Bay Area Book Festival began in a location accessible to her as an East Bay author, poet and mother.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, my prayers have been answered,’” said de Leon. “For me, as somebody who grew up in Berkeley, went to Berkeley High School, went to Berkeley public schools my entire K through 12 career, and now teaches at Berkeley, it’s just such an incredible blessing to have this festival here.”

Not only did Parsons choose to locate the festival in Berkeley partly because of a partnership with the campus, but the festival’s date was specifically chosen to be the weekend before RRR week “expressly so students and faculty can come,” said Parsons.“We’re literally right across the street,” she said.

With four festivals under their belt, Parsons and her team are ready for students — and other members of the projected 25,000 crowd — to experience all the Bay Area Book Festival has to offer in celebrating its fifth birthday.

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].