East Bay Writers Light Up Litquake
By Lou Fancher
Litquake, the 10-day annual festival of literature as it celebrates 20 years, dazzles the Bay Area with award-winning authors like 2019’s Ann Patchett, Tobias Wolff, Adam Johnson, Tommy Orange, Tope Folarin, and a plethora of other noteworthy writers. Programs for all ages and many free events broaden the appeal.
Not lost in the glittery, golden moments when a person shares a beer, attends a workshop, or listens separated by mere inches from a favorite writer reading and expounding — upon topics from prose, nonfiction, and poetry to immigration, race, environmentalism, addiction, investigative journalism, social media, and more — are the many writers who live or have roots in the East Bay.
While most of the action takes place in San Francisco, Lit on the Lake, held at the Oakland Public Library near Lake Merritt on Oct. 18, is a treasured exception. A panel of six East Bay authors will read their latest works and partake of wine from Ashes & Diamonds Winery and treats from Semifreddis with participants. Writers Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Alison Hart, Vanessa Hua, S.A. Lelchuk, Jenny Odell, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton appear at the event.
In separate interviews, four of the six writers expressed a special kinship with Litquake. Oakland’s Sexton (A Kind of Freedom, The Revisioners) vividly remembered the isolation and doubt she experienced as a young author when she wrote every day but did not feeling bold enough to call herself a writer. “Now, I cherish all opportunities to develop those relationships with like-minded people who understand my experiences and feelings. Litquake does an exceptional job of fostering these networks and I am always grateful to be a part of the festival,” she said.
Vanessa Hua (A River of Stars, Deceit and Other Possibilities) issued from her home in Orinda a “Happy 20th Anniversary, Litquake!” Hua said the festival’s free Litcrawl, during which streets in the Mission district are filled with nearly 10,000 lit lovers and readings are held in bookstores, pubs, tattoo parlors, laundromats and other unusual locations, is amazing, inspiring, and most memorable.
Lelchuk (Save Me From Dangerous Men) recalled his own “frantic rushes down the block from one event to the next” during Litcrawl. The Berkeley author said, “Litquake is an event that invariably reminds me of how robust and enthusiastic the Bay Area populace is when it comes to books and reading.”
There is little doubt that Oakland’s Odell (How to Do Nothing) recognizes the significance of location when it comes to Litquake. Her new book, she said, emphasizes cultural, political, and environmental forces, especially in the Bay Area, and the value in writing about a specific place. Laying the groundwork for “communal, emotional investment in the places we call home,” is the topic most urgent on her mind.
Geography, history, and contemporary culture influence the six East Bay writers and perhaps unite their work, although each writer is impossible — happily so — to define with slim categorization. Lelchuck’s debut novel is a wrestling match between tech-obsessed Silicon Valley companies, a mystery involving surveillance technology, and a protagonist who “proudly doesn’t own a cell phone.” And Hua is eager to discuss with readers how contemporary fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum and can deal with current issues like climate change, immigration, racism, and sexual harassment. “Even if those issues are not at the foreground of the story, they’re ever-present,” she said.
Sexton, reflecting on the discrepancies between white women and black women voters during and after the 2016 presidential election, continues to ponder that “troubling divide.” She explores the rift from a historical perspective — white women slave owners and black enslaved women, a black 1920s farm owner and her neighbor, a white woman with KKK affiliations. Such perspective, she believes, lends insight into contemporary realities, including a young biracial woman in her most recent novel who confronts racist attitudes in her white grandmother. “As divisive and toxic as this current political climate is, it has expanded and lifted my literary vision,” Sexton said.
If Litquake then can be thought of as a grand, secular, missionary expedition, as well as a terrific, family-friendly, 10-day party, there is good reason to shout “happy anniversary” and wish for 20 more years of lit-for-all to come.