One of San Francisco's most charming characteristics is its tendency to embody the spirit of the people who fully embrace its culture. Armistead Maupin is a prime example of what might happen to a transplant with fresh eyes: only three years after moving to San Francisco, he started the now legendary series Tales of the City as a serial in the Pacific Sun and then the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner that has since become a series of novels translated into ten languages and adapted into a television miniseries. This spring, for the first time, Tales of the City will be performed as a musical at the American Conservatory Theater and, as the Bay Area ramps up for the premiere, Litquake has organized an event to celebrate Maupin's legacy: Thoroughly Modern Maupin.
Tales of the City begins with the arrival of one Mary Ann Singleton to San Francisco and follows her adventures and the colorful characters she meets here. Because it was run as a serial and was based largely on real places and events, Tales of the City fast became a way for San Franciscans to engage with their city in new ways. Residents grew with the characters. The series is notorious for its frank exploration of underground cultures and, as a result, Maupin is regarded as one of the first writers to address the subject of AIDS. Like the characters he created, Maupin has been embraced as a true Bay Area treasure.
To pay tribute to the world Maupin created and the spirit with which he inhabits it, Litquake has invited representatives from the generation of writers and performers inspired by Maupin's tradition to perform from their own works Thursday, May 12, 2011 at the Swedish American Hall. Says co-founder Jack Boulware, "some of them take the next step in fiction from a gay-identified perspective, some continue to help place San Francisco on the literary map, and some push the envelope further around gender and originality. And some, one could argue, do all of the above."
Among the artists to perform that evening is Michelle Tea, whose book Valencia embodies the spirit of a time (mid to late '90s) and place (Mission District, San Francisco) as well as any modern book I've read. When I moved to San Francisco in the summer of '09 I didn't know anything about the culture here. I remember discovering Valencia and how every time I saw that green sign "Valencia" it meant something more to me than just a street name; it is possible to experience a place so intensely that you help to define it. Inspired, I walked around dreaming about my Valencia, my Mission.
After my first Litquake I was addicted to public readings and decided not only to continue filming events and talking about them, but also to try to unite all of the disparate groups I was finding here. After a little research, I discovered that Scott James, who will also read at Thoroughly Modern Maupin, had been sending out a weekly list via email of all the city's forthcoming literary events. James had just stopped sending out the list because he had been asked by the New York Times to write a weekly column for their then-new Bay Area section, and, despite always being on the move, he graciously met with me to offer advice and help. Also known as Kemble Scott for the novels SoMa and The Sower -- both of which follow characters through the underbelly of San Francisco -- James says: "I'm following Armistead Maupin's career in reverse. He started with a newspaper column, and ended up with a series of provocative books. I've done it backwards."
In addition to Tea and James, beloved Bay Area comedienne/solo performer Marga Gomez will join novelist and teacher K.M. Soehnlein, poet, composer and solo artist Kevin Simmonds, and the multi-talented Precious Moments (a.k.a. Michael Soldier, who will perform a couple of musical drag numbers) in Litquake's tribute to Maupin.
Recently, Litquake has been quite innovative itself. Only this past year, the 11-year-old festival has decided to program year-round, teaming up with local literary readings and zines in a monthly hangout called The Epicenter and organizing summer soirees in the homes of established Bay Area writers. Additionally, the festival that never stops has collaborated with other organizations such as Noise Pop to feature authors reading the autobiographies of rock stars, and The Grotto for an event called Regreturature -- for which the Grottoites read works that "probably shouldn't see the light of day."
As Litquake programs more regularly it is beginning to extend beyond the personalities it has traditionally invited to headline its events. At Thoroughly Modern Maupin, for instance, the famed author will proudly be in the audience. As Boulware says, "There can only be one Armistead, of course," but, for every one person who sets a standard, there are multitudes that follow suit. How many people, I wonder, enter Tea's Valencia every time they see the sign? Or use Maupin as their doorway between fiction and reality? We have come to love these authors and their worlds, and it is high time we took a closer look at the people they have inspired and the ways in which they have each shaped the place we all so admire.
Thoroughly Modern Maupin is Thursday, May 12, 2011, 8pm at Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market Street in San Francisco. For more information, visit litquake.org. The event is $15 in advance and $18 at the door.