Em Bohlka was a brilliant poet. She held a master’s degree in literature, rhetoric and composition from Cal Poly Pomona and a bachelor’s in English from UC Riverside. “She was not one of us,” says her partner Natalie Jahanbani of Bohlka’s powerful intellect. “She really was an exemplary person.”
Like many victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, Bohlka supported her art with several day jobs. She worked as a barista at Highwire Coffee Roasters (with fellow victim Donna Kellogg), and as a baker at Firebrand Artisan Breads. Three of her poems appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Pomona Valley Review.
“She was writing just nonstop,” says Bohlka’s longtime friend Kassidy Heal. The two met at age five and grew up together in the Claremont area. “From that moment on we’ve talked every day,” Heal says. “We’ve just had to know about each other’s lives.”
Bohlka and Heal were in several bands together. Music -- playing it, listening to it, seeing it performed live -- was an integral part of Bohlka’s life.
Heal’s current band Rope in Hand, a self-described “Southern California country/honky-punk” outfit, was a solo project until Bohlka joined him in 2009. “She was tired of seeing me perform up on stage by myself,” Heal says. “She said, ‘So what instrument do you need?’ That was a Friday night and by Monday we had purchased an upright bass.”
Bohlka, who already played guitar, learned to play all of Rope in Hand’s songs on the upright bass in just three weeks.
“We never fought; not even one time in 27 years did we ever get into an argument,” Heal says. “We gave each other space and we would bicker, but we were on a level that I don’t know if I’ll ever match again in my lifetime.”
Bohlka and Jahanbani moved to Oakland in July, 2015. Bohlka came out as transgender earlier this year. “It was hard and scary through and through,” Jahanbani writes in a memorial post on Instagram. “But she showed such bravery and perseverance even with the toughest obstacles.”
Poetry was a fitting medium for Bohlka’s creative energy, Jahanbani says, because it is such a malleable form. “She was someone who definitely pushed the ideas of what we think of as normal,” Jahanbani says. “The way she saw the world and what we consider to be normal was not normal to her. And not just because she was trans.”
Bohlka’s poem titled “Footnote to the Los Angeles Valley Suburbs,” published in the Pomona Valley Review, rages against the status quo of white suburbia:
We ought not aspire to the suburbs.
We do not need anything
they embody; large screen televisions, larger than large homes, a car for each would-be driver, swimming pools –
none of it.
“Something I’ve been sharing with people is Em’s radical belief that everyone deserved the same respect and compassion,” Jahanbani says.
On the day she died, Jahanbani says, Bohlka told her a story exemplary of this belief: “She said, ‘I handed a homeless woman some fruit. And she told me I looked beautiful and it made my day.’”
“Being trans, being on the periphery for so long and feeling like she didn’t fit in, gave her a level of understanding that lot of people don’t have,” Jahanbani says. “Even in the pain of that and feeling left out and marginalized, I will say that it made her viewpoint more complex than even I could understand. She just was really radical.”
Jahanbani has been more outspoken in the face of her grief than many of the family and friends of victims of the warehouse fire. “I am devastated for how many people we lost,” she says. “I hope that there are other trans people who are seeing that even in these situations that are so horrific that we loved these people and we care for them. On behalf of myself and Em’s father, we’re on a mission to see that these women’s voices are not silenced. That happens too often.”