Bay Area Book Festival to include ‘best of the best’ headliners online
By Lou Fancher
Writers and readers during the coronavirus pandemic united in vigorous pursuit of the existential core of the human spirit: a desire to connect — to each other, to hope, peace, nature, comfort, love, freedom, inner consciousness, truth and joy. Through books, music, social media and other forms of written, sung or spoken words, people found ways to cope with shelter-in-place isolation, a divisive political landscape, tragic loss of life, tense race relations and social inequities.
It is little wonder then that this year’s seventh annual Bay Area Book Festival (baybookfest.org) is aimed for knock-it-out-of-the-park virtual events May 1-9, says Cherilyn Parsons, the Berkeley festival’s founder and executive director.
“We’ve distilled it down to have the ‘best of the best’ headliners. There’s a Nobel Prize Laureate (Kazuo Ishiguro), a Booker Prize Winner (Douglas Stuart), a National Book Award winner (Charles Yu), and there’s MacArthur ‘genius’ Yiyun Li appearing with Orville Schell, the former Dean of Journalism at the UC Berkeley,” she says.
The festival includes 11 adult events (three free, eight ticketed) and a broad platform of seven programs for early to late teens (all free but registration requested). Youth of color and diversity of publishing in youth programs are featured, with Top Chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi’s appearance with Cinnamongirl Inc.’s two young writers, authors from Wattpad Books, Black and Brown young writers, teen entrepreneurs and activists, adult hip-hop artists and more. In 2020, the festival that had each year previously featured nearly 300 authors on 15 stages and served more than 125,000 literature-loving people since its founding was canceled due to COVID-19 closures.
“We lost revenue,” says Parsons. “We managed to recoup most of the money for hotels, airfare and venue rentals, but the staff time had already been spent. We lost grants, sponsorships and individual donations. It’s been a tough year.”
Even so, the staff regrouped: diving into retraining and technology needed to produce virtual events and expanding activities from a single two-day festival to offer two year-round series online: “Women Lit” and “Bay Area Book Festival #UNBOUND.” The programs showcase women writers, youths interviewing established authors and bestselling or emerging writers addressing contemporary issues including parenting, health, racism, civil rights and more. Parsons says the response so far shows readers are engaged, but the organization still lacks the financial resources it has had in previous years.
“This is the time for people to give, to take us through this festival and seed next year,” says Parsons.
Framing the year-long planning required to present the festival, Parsons suggests the process to prepare for the virtual event required a reset; not only in terms of technology but mentally.
“This has been a time of reflecting. Even within a crisis, with a massive interruption in normality, there’s an opportunity to remake our society.”
As we reconfigure who we are in relationship to others, examine deep levels of inner consciousness, discover buried, unconscious bias or confront who we become when we are truly alone — awareness Parsons believes literature can address like no other art form — many people turn to books for guidance or rescue.
“What happens after the initial crisis has been handled by actual first responders?” Parsons asks. “Second responders arrive: artists. Art goes into the fabric of healing, of remaking meaning. Writers are the best second responders.”
Writer Vendela Vida, the author of six books including a new novel, “We Run the Tides,” is co-founder of “The Believer” magazine, 826 Valencia and other literary institutions. Vida will appear May 4 with author Carol Edgarian (the author of “Vera: A Novel”) in a program entitled “Epicenter of Girlhood: Coming of Age in San Francisco.”
Vida says in an interview that her novel set mostly in 1980s San Francisco and about two girls experiencing the “400 blows” of teenage years while emerging from childhood began as a nonfiction book about lies.
“This book started in 2016, the day after the election, when I started thinking about lies and how they pollute our society. I realized after a year that I wanted to write fiction about lies. That’s when the whole book shifted, about 2017.”
The novel’s first lie is told by the protagonist, Eulabee. Lying becomes a magnificent and sometimes horrific art form, though, when Eulabee’s friend, Fabiola, adopts the practice.
“The thing that surprised me is how everyone has had a Fabiola character in their lives,” Vida says about feedback she’s received from readers, “Girls trying on new identities in real life is interesting. The nature of drawing up a new character based on lies is shapeshifting. It’s not wrong, in my opinion, but the challenge is about changing that when you become an adult. Being an adult is when I think you stop lying — to other people and to yourself.”
Which explains why Vida found it vital that the story not end at girlhood but leap forward in time to show how the girls’ lives intertwine even in adulthood. It’s a masterful stroke that demonstrates a skilled writer making an impossibly difficult plot development appear easy and inevitable.
“I had to write about them meeting again, years later, in 2019. I wanted to show how our experiences as adults are shaped by our experiences when we were younger.”
Parsons says that same idea — anticipating that current events will reverberate for decades — prioritized the themes for the festival: racial justice and equity, police brutality, the election, serving/underserving people of color during the pandemic, Asian stereotyping, hate crimes.
“How can you put the last year into words?” Parsons asks. “Poets and writers can do that. They can put the unsayable into words.”