Bay Area Book Festival forges new paths in light of COVID-19 cancellation

Cherilyn Parsons/Courtesy

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Days before the Bay Area Book Festival was set to release its full programming for this year’s festival, increasing public health concerns due to COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, resulted in the announcement that 2020’s festival would be canceled. The festival would have been the sixth of its kind, with more than 200 speakers slated to take part in the celebrations. 

“We had all of these alternative plans before it became apparent that we would just have to totally cancel,” said Cherilyn Parsons, founder and executive director of the festival. The loss of the festival resulted in “a bit of a sense of a death” for Parsons and her team, who had put in eight months of hard work to see the festival through. 

But Parsons and the festival team aren’t letting COVID-19 preventative measures keep them from continuing to uplift the literary community — far from it. January to mid-March is the busiest time of the year for the festival organizers, and everything was just starting to relax when shelter-in-place orders were issued. Rather than hitting pause on it all, Parsons chose to pivot to virtual events and preserve as much of her staff as possible. 

Mid- to late April will see the festival’s online presence rising as virtual events start to take off. According to Parsons, several authors have already agreed to Zoom interviews, and her team has skilled sound and production engineers who will be integral in pulling off the online programming. 

“We did have this terrific voting rights program planned. It was going to be five different panels … looking at various aspects of challenges to voting today, which (include) voter suppression and challenges facing Native communities and so on. So we are transferring that program to an online environment,” Parsons said. “This was really the centerpiece of the festival.”

This is just one way that the festival is rising to the occasion and continuing to provide vital, socially relevant programming. In response to the Berkeley City Council launching the Berkeley Relief Fund, which aims to raise $3 million to aid arts nonprofits, small businesses and residential tenants, the festival put together a video program for the fund’s YouTube account. The program features local writers such as Michael Chabon, Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass, and was made in the hopes of garnering donor support for the fund. 

Donor support especially has become critical for the festival, which took a big hit in terms of revenue loss after the cancellation. As the festival gears up to launch regular online programming, the once-monthly festival newsletter has started going out three times a month. The newsletter, which is penned by Suzanne Rivecca, always asks for financial support from those who can give. And it’s much more than just a newsletter about the festival’s goings-on: it also highlights different parts of the broader literary community, such as spotlighting new book releases.

“We’ve had people write us back saying, ‘I feel isolated and I can’t go to the library … and your newsletter is really consoling to me — thank you so much for increasing the quantity,” Parsons said. “The whole theory of the newsletter… (is that) it’s meant to be a gift to the reader.”

For Parsons, seeing the literary community come together in this time of strife has been especially gratifying. Between festivals across the country, there is a sense of kinship rather than of competition. Parsons is in contact with many other festival directors in the United States, and spoke about how festivals have been sharing information with each other regarding the pivot to extensive online programming, a move many literary festivals are now trying to adapt to. 

Parsons also sent out a call to other festivals asking if anyone wished to get involved with the voter rights programming, and was heartened when 11 different festivals voiced their interest. Speaking more broadly, the way in which writers and bookstores have been rallying together has also been uplifting to witness. 

In Parson’s words, “the literary community has been really appreciating each other.” 

“This sense of community in the literary world, that’s kind of my world … (and) it really has been sustaining,” Parsons continued. 

The act of simply reading, too, has been a welcome escape route for Parsons and booklovers in general. Parson’s vast “currently reading” list includes the novel “Godshot” by Chelsea Bieker and Jane Hirshfield’s new poetry collection “Ledger” — both works by authors who were slated to appear at the festival — as well as “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster” by Rebecca Solnit, an especially relevant read for the time we’re living in. 

Despite the stress of the current landscape, Parsons is looking to the future and feeling optimistic about the current shift in how and where events take place. Would-be festival attendees who cannot give monetary support can continue to support the festival by engaging with its online presence through a simple like or share. 

“The mission of our nonprofit is to build community and foster love of literature,” Parsons said. “People can help carry that out, even if we’re not meeting physically.”

Alex Jiménez covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.