Piercing the Book Bubble: Litquake celebrates 23 years of bringing literature to the people
By Lou Fancher
If Litquake 2022 were weaponry, it would be a bow and arrows. Instead, Litquake is the Bay Area’s beloved annual literary festival that this year sprawls over 16 days with 93 events and over 350 authors and one self-proclaimed “big-ass Lit Crawl finale.” Even so, ever since the festival was dreamed up 23 years ago by writers and founders Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware, Litquake has aimed its quirky projectile programming on zig-zagging but nevertheless fiercely dedicated trajectories that pierce the academic bubble of books and stuffy conversations about literature.
Inarguably, the majority of ideas dreamed up in the mid-1990s over too-many drinks at the Edinburgh Castle Pub in the Tenderloin district have long and thankfully been forgotten. But Ganahl and Boulware were at that time young, idealistic and energetic enough to believe their literary festival could present—without sacrificing quality or degenerating into trendy celebrity chasing—the day’s best, brightest and radically independent voices in literature. History has tested their mettle, but the festival’s solid track record over decades has determined their vision robust and worthy.
Launched as Litstock in 1999, the one-day free reading series that began when the internet was a mere infant and most people didn’t even have email, relied on word-of-mouth and poster-paste-up advertising. In their back pockets they knew, was one vital, golden feature: free and direct access for anyone to incredible, underrepresented, push-the-genre writers. There were, in the early years, Ishmael Reed, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, publisher and writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the marvelously articulate Michael McLure and many more.
In the decades to follow, the roster of writers has included Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, T. C. Boyle, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chinaka Hodge, Tobias Wolff, Amy Tan, Patti Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Roach, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Pollan, Boots Riley, Colson Whitehead and others.
This year, Litquake, from Oct. 6-22, showcases, among many others, Oakland writer Margaret Wilkerson Sexton; Peruvian-American explorer and author Silvia Vasquez-Lavado; author/memoirist Prince Shakur; San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin; author, activist, educator and former Black Panther Party member Ericka Huggins; writers Daniel Handler, Andrew Sean Greer and Vladimir Sorokin; Lambda Literary Award-winning K.M. Soehnlein; and Colombian author Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
There are new venues, such as San Francisco’s Botanical Garden, KQED’s Live Studio and an event in San Jose celebrating author Jacqueline Woodson with the John Steinbeck “In the Souls of the People” award. These venues spread the wealth beyond mainstays like Yerba Buena Gardens, Museum of the African Diaspora, Mechanic’s Institute Library, San Francisco Public Library, Grace Cathedral, and pubs and clubs such as Amado’s, Mothership, Drawing Room Gallery Annex, Verdi, Strut, Make-Out Room and the like.
In an interview, Ganahl, reflecting on recent observations on the literary scene and demonstrating she continues to drum up futuristic dreams, says, “It seems to me that there’s been a wonderful blossoming in recent years of books by underrepresented groups: AAPI, Black, Latinx, Asian Indian. And there have been some wonderful, harrowing books in recent years by new Native American authors, including Tommy Orange’s There There and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, both of which were phenomenal.
“During our two decades, we’ve hosted events with Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Greg Sarris (who’s appearing this year at the Botanical Gardens), Brandon Hobson and Billy Ray Belcourt. But I would love for there to be an explosion of Native American authors, such that we could do a full day of them, a festival within a festival.”
Ganahl questions, admitting to “selfish wonder because I just turned 70,” why there is a lack of smart, funny nonfiction books about aging. “Maybe I’ll write one myself,” she says. She might be jesting, but perhaps it’s a promise? Pleasure in keeping people guessing could be said to play a role in Ganahl’s approach and that of Litquake.
“We created a new program last year called Litquake Out Loud, and have hired curators from marginalized communities to bring those voices to the audience. Finally, we have always had a proud history of making sure women are well-represented. This year, we’re welcoming the first participation by Generation Women, a wonderful organization from New York that includes authors from each decade, from the ’20s through the ’70s, telling stories on the topic of ‘bodies.”’
In a separate interview, Boulware addresses a similar topic viewed from a perspective that examines writers and the craft. What information, for instance, contributed to and defined the curation process when selecting writers for this year’s festival? How do they find the new, radical voices within the hot mess of constant “news” and the barrage of social media?
“Social media has churned and disrupted every slice of humanity,” he says. “When we first started the festival, people were barely using email. You only heard about a literary reading if someone asked you, or called you, or you saw a flier or a postcard. Today, my social feeds are filled with literary content of all kinds.
“Some of the most talented writers are also, for instance, really good users of Instagram. Some of the most popular writers using Instagram are not very good writers at all, but we’re much more aware of their existence. And some really excellent writers are just crap on social media, they either don’t care about it, or their publisher has insisted they open social accounts, and the idea of self-promotion is so foreign they barely interact at all. If you jump on a social network, see who’s the loudest, whose posts are getting noticed most—their writing may or may not be worth checking out. It still comes down to, does their work resonate with you, and do you want to spend money to read it and support the writer?”
As for the overall literary community as it and other industries emerge from the worst of the pandemic, Boulware sees both loss and gain. “The pandemic shut down most of the businesses in the city, including the bookstores. During that time, Dog Eared Books Castro and Alley Cat Books were both sold, but reopened as the stores Fabulosa, and Medicine for Nightmares. Both of those stores are going strong with new owners, focusing on LGBTQ+ and BIPOC audiences, and as everyone climbs out of the COVID fog, we’ll see even more diversity in lit community events.”
Operations manager Hunter Thomas has curated the Lit Crawl and Litquake Out Loud series and could be considered among Litquake’s next-gen heir apparent. At age 27, Thomas brings to his job a creative writing degree from San Francisco State University, “a year sifting through the slush pile at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers,” experience “wearing a variety of hats” at the Litquake Foundation, and the appearance of his work in print, online and at a variety of performance spaces in the Bay Area. More than anything, Thomas presents the profile of a person with an intense fondness, if not an outright addiction, to books, reading, writing and art.
Thomas says the push at Litquake is always the same. There is an attempt and intention, he insists, “to bring programming that isn’t easy; it isn’t just a reading at a bookstore and a Q&A and then everyone goes home. The festival is a showcase of the breadth of scholastic interests that it takes to create a meaningful work of art. It’s the best way to show non-standard, harder-to-find, individuated approaches.
Most memorable for Thomas in past years have been three Litquake stalwarts: the Word/Jazz spoken word basement readings that have top-flight poets accompanied by improvised jazz music performers, the always-a-smash-hit Lit Crawl and the Porchlight series. “Word/Jazz is a mainstay. We’ve done it for more than a decade. It pays homage to Bay Area literary history—Ferlinghetti, (Kenneth) Rexroth, (Bob) Kaufman—yet brings in new voices. Lit Crawl truly represents the spirit of Litquake.
“And Porchlight is a space that curates people from across age, cultural, class and other boundaries. They might not be published yet, but they have incredible stories to tell. Porchlight is a way to communicate to people the idea that writing and storytelling can affect people at all levels of literary engagement. It’s not academic or stuffy. It’s people outside of the ‘circle’ talking: Porchlight pierces the bubble.”
Thomas says this year’s writers, filmmakers and other participants provide more speculative writing, an orbit he finds satisfying. “There’s more dreaming. More people acknowledging various plights that continue to block social change, but also imagining new futures. They’re imagining new governments, living situations, families, relationships, city organizations. They are talking about being radical, bolder. We’re not ruminating on what’s been happening as much as we are focusing on the future.”
The focus of Litquake, he says, can always be sharpened or quickened, but could specifically benefit from introducing more young voices. “In terms of voices we’re not hearing enough from, maybe I’m biased, but I’d say young people. The average age of the writers presenting at Litquake are around 40. We’re still not hearing enough from teens and people in their 20s. It’s not a lack of talent; it’s that there aren’t enough publications willing to take chances with younger voices.
“I think it’s slowly starting to change. There are young writers such as Leila Mottley, who has a book getting attention and people taking her seriously. (Oakland-based Mottley’s debut novel, Nightcrawling, is an Oprah Book Club selection, and Mottley has been named a ‘New York Times Writer to Watch.’) It’s lyrical writing blending poetry with fiction. And Jacob Kahn is another author and poet with an amazing new book, Mine Eclogue (coming from Roof Books in late 2022).”
An advent Thomas sees and embraces in 2022 is new, small, independent presses cutting their teeth on the scene. “They’re presses started by younger voices that were dormant during the last few years during the pandemic. The Ana has been around for five years, but they, like many others, weren’t able to hold anything other than Zoom events. This year at Litquake, there will be an Ana event with new voices, with people doing experimental things with poetry, form, performance styles.
“People writing from all communities is nothing new in the Bay Area, like LGBTQ and trans authors, non-white and other marginalized writers, but the content of the actual writing this year offers a chance to present newer experiences. Club Chicxulub is a series with a variety of writers performing alongside experiential ambient music that I’m really excited about.”
Litquake 2022 arrives with add-ons: a film, podcasts, livestream and virtual AI integrated audio and visual programs, an award ceremony, and a deeper infusion of live music that holds meaningful resonance and contributes depth. Examples include a jazz vocalist syncing up with an author whose book centers on 1950s and ’60s jazz in the Fillmore District, or a Columbian author’s memoir involving locations mostly in South America that is paired with an after-party led by a LatinX DJ. With all the high tech bells and whistles, how can Litquake avoid losing its bohemian roots and traditions and not risk becoming a showy megaplex for stargazing?
Thomas has an answer for even the stumpiest questions and says, “There’s a misconception that tech isn’t bohemian. It’s a problem in the Bay Area because of the tons of money that’s involved with tech and the impact of tech workers on the culture and lifestyles in the area. Our original spirit is maintained because Litquake is an organization of people who love literature, who are involved at ground level in readings, who have genuine interest in art. We are people who add to the literary scene, rather than people who just love books.”