Oakland hills author’s pandemic book an international contest finalist
By Lou Fancher
Powered primarily by love and occasionally loss, Anna Henny Dabney, 82, of Oakland, has led a quiet but remarkable and unexpected life. Born and raised in South Texas during the Jim Crow era, her father was a Dutch immigrant born in 1888 who fought in World War I. Despite their surroundings, he taught his daughter that most of the world is darker-skinned and that just a minority is White and not especially deserving of privilege.
“He didn’t discriminate. I always felt kinship with that,” Dabney says in an interview. “As a young girl, I couldn’t understand why people had to sit separately in a bus station or drink out of different fountains.”
Dabney as a young woman earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of North Texas before accepting a position with the Air Force teaching U.S. dependents in Ankara, Turkey. Having met and married her first husband, Robert Dabney, the biracial couple lived in Europe during their early marital years.
“Growing up in Texas, I never dated anyone outside my own race before,” she says. “I just fell in love. He told me he was Cherokee, and it wasn’t until after I met his mother five years later that she said, ‘Is that what he told you? The Dabneys actually descended from slaves. We’re Black.’ ”
When the couple returned to the United States in 1966, they searched for a welcoming, progressive community and found it in Oakland.
“We never had a problem. We bought a house in Montclair after the Fair Housing Act had passed. We came to the Bay Area to avoid discrimination, and we were happy here for years.”
Dabney and her husband raised a daughter and son, and after the children were of school age, she transitioned from her former career as a music and English teacher to work in public relations and marketing in broadcast media and later in health care. Founding AD Communications in 1992, Dabney focused on topics related to health care, education, business, government and environmental issues. The couple divorced in 1985, and Dabney’s life followed additional twists and turns that eventually led to finding the enduring love of her life, Victor Royer.
“While doing therapy after a back injury, I met him at the Lakeridge Club in El Sobrante, where I lived for several years,” she recalls. “I looked into his eyes, and I knew. We began walking together in the mornings, and after I asked him two questions — Do you believe in God, and do you like classical music? — and he said he didn’t believe in God but he liked classical music, that was enough for me.”
Eventually, having moved back into the home she had rented to people who’d lost their homes in the Oakland hills fires, Dabney was joined by Royer.
“He had had a live-work art studio in Oakland but came to live with me during the last 14 of our 23 years together.”
Royer was a respected sculptor whose work received critical acclaim in the 1960s and included kinetic pieces held in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Art, Oakland Museum of California and more. His creativity extended to children’s books, teaching, building and playing a four-octave fortepiano and an enormous telescope nearly equal to his own height. Sadly, Royer ended his life in 2016 at age 79 after a short, intense battle with pancreatic cancer.
During the earliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic, still reeling from the loss of Royer and thrust along with people worldwide into isolation, Dabney searched for comfort and purpose. She found it in a writing challenge she set for herself that ultimately resulted in her book, “Year of the Plague Journal: Pandemic and Politics” (bayareane.ws/yearofplague). Set forth in short essays and modified 14-line sonnets, the book chronicles news and events from March 2020 to 2021.
“Writing makes me feel closer to Victor,” says Dabney. “I never expected to write a book of sonnets. It’s my therapy. I like the challenge of the meter, rhyming and saying things in 14 lines. I feel productive. Victor encouraged me so much, and that’s at the root of it. A few days before he died, he took all the sonnets I’d written and read them to me. I still feel close to him with that memory and his sculptures around me.”
Dabney’s journal was recently announced as a finalist in the 2020-22 International Book Awards competition for titles published from 2020 to 2022. In addition to the 120 sonnets and essays that establish Dabney’s voice as a clarion call for social justice, peace, courage and resilience, a dozen sonnets pay tribute to her relationship with Royer.
“I poured out my heart. One, I wrote while waiting for what was to be a 30-minute surgery and ended up being four hours. It’s what absorbed me and helped me to wait.”
As the pandemic restrictions lift, Dabney continues to protect her health and writes daily. Recent sonnets include writing about the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, Supreme Court decisions, global warming, the war in Ukraine, the Jan. 6 hearings and “any subject that moves me.”
Always, classical music plays in her home, and she says attending Montclair Presbyterian Church places her within a welcoming, social justice-oriented faith community in which some members claim “deep-seated” Christian beliefs and others hold their beliefs less firmly. She credits the church’s writers group with getting her through the darkest days of the pandemic and encouraging her to publish her book.
Dabney has written a 300-page autobiography that she plans to keep private and leave for her children. It includes signature elements from her life, such as her travels in Europe, greater details of her work and romances and transcriptions of 30 letters she sent to her mother while living as a young woman in Europe.
“The sights I saw,” she says, “in Turkey, Germany, France — the different cultures, the archeological marvels — were remarkable.”
Dabney concludes her book with a sonnet written for her by Royer in which the final lines read, “And so I write, and so do I declare: That Anna Henny is beyond compare.”
The words ring true, and the love embedded ensures Dabney’s life will continue to be remarkable.