Women authors seek to inspire at annual festival
By Lou Fancher
Four words can change a life.
Noted El Cerrito author Gail Tsukiyama says her self-perception was transformed by a college instructor's note remarking, "You are a poet!" on work she submitted.
Decades later, as one of four women authors who will headline the Berkeley/Oakland YWCA's 22nd annual Festival of Women Authors event Jan. 30 at H's Lordships, Berkeley Marina, the award-winning poet and novelist says curiosity and a desire to learn are what "give birth" to her books.
"I knew I wanted to tell stories from the time I was 12, but it wasn't the norm in the Asian culture, where most parents want their children to have careers that will support them financially," she says. "Role models are so terribly important, people who believe and encourage."
Festival chairwoman Cherisse Baatin says the annual event has "inspired budding writers" and "touched souls." A 15-year YWCA Association board member, Baatin highlights the YWCA's mission -- eliminating racism and empowering women -- and points to volunteerism and people who "walk the talk" as the organization's greatest strength.
"Our student volunteers are mentors, teachers and advocates," she says. "They lead anti-human trafficking and Eracism workshops at the university level, financial literacy and technology classes in middle school and high school. They develop lasting relationships."
An ad hoc committee of board members selects the authors for the festival according to criteria that favors local, currently published women writers who reflect the community's diversity and the YWCA's mission. Joining Tsukiyama are Bay Area authors Julia Flynn Siler, Adrienne McDonnell and Renee Swindle.
The approximately five-hour festival is $85 per person and includes a continental breakfast and luncheon, 45-minute presentations by each author, book signings and casual interaction with the writers and YWCA board.
"We encourage authors to share their writing process and focus on their anecdotal stories rather than reading selections from their books," Baatin says about the presentations.
Tsukiyama says she grew up reading voraciously. "Everything -- from fiction to biographies to mysteries." Binge-reading was her practice even before it became a commonly used term. "When I find an author who inspires, I tend to read all of their work. I still do that now, and I also reread many of my favorite books, from Jane Austen to Rohinton Mistry."
Tsukiyama's novels reflect her multicultural background. Born in San Francisco to a Japanese father and Chinese mother, her plot-driven work is steeped in real-life history, frequently structured by the experiences of Asian women and families and packed with precise detail. "Nothing flows easily," she says. "Each book has its own characteristics and difficulties."
A writing group she has been a member of for more than 20 years helps Tsukiyama find balance in the final outcome. "I'm kept in check by them even before the manuscript gets to my editor."
Support from her mother, colleagues, friends and readers brings Tsukiyama full circle to remember the mentor who validated her efforts years ago. Calling herself fortunate and grateful to have "women who have my back," she is active in Hedgebrook, a global artists community based in Seattle that supports women writers, and San Francisco-based WaterBridge Outreach: Books+Water, a nonprofit group that donates books and funds clean water projects in the developing world.
"It has been the greatest form of empowerment to take what I've been given and use it in bigger and better ways," says Tsukiyama.