Good Old-Fashioned Berkeley Activism, By the Book

Vendors and book lovers at the 2016 Bay Area Book Festival. The 2017 festival kicks off this Saturday, June 3.  (Dianne Brenner)

When Cherilyn Parsons first moved from L.A. to the Bay Area in 2012, she loved most things about her new home -- but she deeply missed the annual Los Angeles Festival of Books.

"I would look forward to the festival all year,” says Parsons. “And then it would come, and for one weekend it would be so great -- people coming together to talk about books and ideas, and all of these writers there. And then [the end of] Sunday would come, and every year I would be sad.”

Cherilyn Parsons (right) with members of her leadership team and author Gary Kamiya. (Richard Friedman / Berkeleyside)

So began the Bay Area Book Festival, now in its third year -- a young but already widely successful weekend connecting writers, readers, and ideas. And far from being a copycat of L.A.'s fest, this year the BABF embraces its Bay Area roots like never before. The third annual festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, June 3 and 4, at venues throughout downtown Berkeley, featuring the theme “literature as an activist force.” More than 200 authors and 100 literary panels, workshops, and discussions will all consider the power of the written word within a resistance movement.

Author Roxane Gay. (Jay Grabiec)

Cherilyn Parsons, the festival’s founder, says it felt necessary to focus on this theme both in light of our current administration, and because of Berkeley's historic reputation as a hotbed of political activism. (In recent months, in particular, it's also become the center of a renewed debate about hate speech and the First Amendment on college campuses.)

“All of society is becoming more politicized right now,” says Parsons. “Honestly, after the election my first question to myself was, ‘How is a literary festival relevant now?’ And my second thought was ‘more relevant than ever.’ Because literature is such an important tool in changing hearts and minds.”

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Parsons underscores this shifting intention in a manifesto/mission statement she wrote to guide this year’s festival: “We have always emphasized writers and books concerned with social justice, diversity, and the environment," it reads. "We now are raising our sign higher in the public sphere as we explore and amplify the literary voice of resistance.”

Alicia Garza will appear Sunday, June 4 at a panel called 'Race and Resistance in the Trump Era: Fighting Words and Wisdom from The Nation and Black Lives Matter.' (Courtesy Bay Area Book Festival)

Over the course of the two-day fest, authors including Roxane Gay, Cleve Jones, Lindy West, Geoff Dyer, Alicia Garza, Wesley Morris, Jack Kornfield, David Talbot, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman take on questions like: Is writing a female protagonist inherently feminist? How can journalism advance social justice in a "post-truth" era? And -- not to put too fine a point on it -- what happens when reality starts to feel a little too much like science fiction?

Arlie Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and the author of the 2016 New York Times best-seller Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, will discuss the importance of empathy at a June 3 panel titled "Understanding the Other: How Emotion Shapes Politics and Can Heal our Divides." Hochschild's book, published just eight weeks before the presidential election, recounts the Berkeley-born writer's experiences living among Tea Party supporters for five years, deep in rural Louisiana.

Arlie Russell Hochschild. (Courtesy UC Berkeley)

Hochschild says her work embraces activism in an indirect way. “I think of taking my readers on a journey into a world they don't know of," she says. "[Readers learn about] people who oppose them and who are trying to prevent their activism. And in doing so I do hope to be healing that divide and helping us find common ground.”

“Activism is always based on a picture of the world, and ideas inform that picture of the world,” she adds. “I see both nonfiction and fiction literature as informing that picture.”

Carolina de Robertis, a local writer and SFSU professor, is also focused on finding common ground -- but among progressives who come from vastly different backgrounds. She hosts a Saturday evening panel titled "Radical Hope: Staying Sane, Awake, and Engaged in Dangerous Times," featuring contributors to the similarly titled, recently published Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times (de Robertis served as editor). An epistolary collection modeled after James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, the book includes authors' letters to their ancestors, friends, partners, siblings, and future children about the current state of the country.

Carolina DeRobertis. (Courtesy Bay Area Book Festival)

“It's unapologetically progressive, but at the same time I don't see it as one-sided at all,” says de Robertis of the collection. “I really wanted to have voices in this book who thought intersectionally -- for that to be expressed by juxtaposing these different voices with each other. This is what we look like. This is the United States of America. They’re all coming from different backgrounds, but their voices come together to form a dialogue.”

Samuel Getachew and Leticia Guzman, two young spoken word artists with the non-profit organization Youth Speaks, will contribute to this dialogue as part of "Speak Your Truth: A Youth Speaks Writing & Performance Workshop" on Saturday afternoon. Both poets grew up in the Bay Area, and see their local communities as integral to their practice as slam poets.

“Since the election, I feel I have responsibility,” says Guzman, who writes mostly about Chicana and queer identity. “Since I was born here I have privilege to speak out about certain issues, and I have the privilege to actually talk about my identity, unlike some other people.”

She says that becoming a writer in the Bay Area “has been great because people are so supportive. People come up on stage afterwards, other Chicanos, and say to me that they needed to hear that. I feel it's very important to incorporate our stories so that we inspire other people. To find their own form of resistance.”

A 2015 BABF event at Freight & Salvage. (Courtesy Bay Area Book Festival)

Getachew takes a different stance toward our current administration. “This election was not something that I was extremely surprised by," he says. "While I do address some elements of the election in my writing, I don't like to give it too much power in my life.” At the same time, he allows that such a position is largely possible because of the famously liberal place he lives. “It provides me a place where I can create art about what I want to," he says. "I feel very lucky to be in a place that fosters my creativity.”

It’s both this creative Bay Area spirit and contradictory opinions that Parsons hopes to foment at the festival. When she founded the BABF in 2015, says Parsons, her aim was to create a sense of community and connection for bookish people who spent much of their time reading or writing on their own. She wanted a space where these writers an readers could talk about their pressing ideas -- which, in 2017, as it turns out, overwhelmingly come back to politics and action.

Of course, her ultimate goal is for the conversations started at BABF to continue year-round -- and, ideally, to grow into something more than just talk. After all, writing is an act that inherently provokes change, writes Parsons in her mission statement:

“We can experiment with ourselves. Then we can experiment with the world.”

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Bay Area Book Festival programming kicks off at 10am on Saturday, June 3, and continues until 7:30pm on June 4 at venues throughout downtown Berkeley. For tickets (many events are free; priority admission is $8), visit the festival website here.

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