On May 4, the Bay Area Book Festival hosted Carol Edgarian and Vendela Vida for “Epicenter of Girlhood,” a virtual — yet insightful — addition to its “Women Lit” series. Edgarian, author of “Vera,” discussed writing historical fiction and maintaining humor in the midst of crisis. While Vida was unable to make it to the live event due to a medical emergency, the “We Run the Tides” author was there in spirit. Recorded clips of a previous conversation with husband Dave Eggers were played throughout the event.
The event may have been on Zoom, but moderator and Festival founder Cherilyn Parsons encouraged viewers to use the chat feature to ask questions and share their thoughts. Parsons and Edgarian’s book-filled backgrounds felt more than appropriate as they shared their love of literature and discussed what it means to grow up in San Francisco.
Edgarian’s novel “Vera,” tells an adventurous coming-of-age story set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The historic trembler ruptures teenage protagonist Vera’s adolescent life, forcing her to come to terms with issues of family, identity and truth. However, even as the event dismantles the life she knows, it also opens up new opportunities.
“It gives her a freedom that in 1906 women just didn’t have, particularly young women, to live the life she wants to live and to find her real people and to find her moral compass,” Edgarian explained.
Parsons and Edgarian then discussed Vida’s “We Run the Tides,” which also takes place in historical San Francisco. Set in the ’80s, the novel centers on a group of teenage girls in the upscale community of Sea Cliff. Vida elegantly weaves her way through an environment of tightly contained girlhood; “These streets of Sea Cliff are ours,” protagonist Eulabee boldly proclaims as she describes the familiar avenues of her adolescence.
Even in Vida’s absence, Parsons and Edgarian provided excellent insight into her book. Edgarian described Vida’s narrative voice as “fabulous,” remarking that “the collective ‘we’ knows everything. That idea of a girl pack is so incredible and so important when you’re in middle school. The underside of it is the vulnerability because the pack breaks and everything you knew to be true and solid is gone.”
In a prerecorded clip, Vida shared that she began writing her book the day after Donald Trump was elected president. She was fascinated by the prevalence of lies in political discourse, and she thought to herself, “Who better to embody the practice of lying than teenage girls?” Throughout “We Run the Tides,” Eulabee must pursue her own truth, even if she has to face the growing pains of losing her closest friendships.
“That’s my definition of being a grown-up,” Vida admitted. “It’s actually when you stop lying.”
Interestingly, Edgarian also began writing her novel around the time of the 2016 election, and Vera’s coming-of-age adventure is tightly interwoven with the quest for truth. “Vera means truth, and it means truth in almost every language,” Edgarian revealed.
But even as these novels wrestle with themes associated with the Trump presidency, they contain a continued relevance in the current political and social climate. Edgarian did not write with a pandemic in mind, but her story feels applicable nonetheless. As the author explained, “There is a moment when there is a catastrophe like the pandemic … There is a moment where the questions of what is fair, what are gross inequalities, suddenly come forward.”
San Francisco may be the epicenter of girlhood, but it also contains the shadows of inequality. Edgarian shines a light on both sides of her beloved home city, and she doesn’t shy away from confronting human existence in its various complexities.
This year’s Bay Area Book Festival may not have been traditional, and “Epicenter of Girlhood” may not have gone exactly as planned. Nevertheless, viewers were able to glean excellent insight from both Edgarian and Vida, walking away with an increased understanding of what it means to come of age during times of great hardship.
If the two authors succeed at one thing, it is tracing lost girlhood to its epicenter — and watching as it quakes with a terrible beauty.