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Beyond the Book: Celebrating literary activism at Bay Area Book Festival

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JUNE 08, 2017

Editor’s Note

On Saturday and Sunday, Downtown Berkeley played host to the annual Bay Area Book Festival, which featured hundreds of authors and exhibitors, along with tens of thousands of visitors. This year’s theme was “Literary Activism,” in confluence with a current of social and political unrest that has accompanied a contentious election.

Authors and activists came together in numerous panels to discuss organizing resistance, generating empathy and engaging in advocacy to protect those that are at risk — in particular, they discussed the role that literature, from fantasy and sci-fi to non-fiction and autobiography, can play in creating an inclusive future.

Outside the fully packed panel discussions, community members perused the hundreds of booksellers lining the streets and participated in free activities including a fully-fledged children’s section and booths where developing writers could practice and perform their works.

Several Daily Californian Arts and Entertainment writers visited the wide-ranging panels at the festival, bringing together the various viewpoints and genres of literature represented.

— Imad Pasha

Discussing Modern ‘Activism at a Crossroads’

Activists and authors Becky Bond and Micah White met in conversation Saturday for “Activism at a Crossroads,” moderated by Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein. The talk sought to address the efficacy of modern protests.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín introduced the talk, framing it within the city’s “long history of political discourse and activism.” This was met with an immediate response — an audience member yelled out “Tick-tock, we’re here for them, not you” — effectively setting the tone for the discussion.

The back-and-forth wove neatly between each speaker’s particular experiences with politics, the last election cycle and the current administration, and most of the discussion touched on these themes through the lens of revolution.

White focused on the changing nature of protest and how people might “recode” their experiences with protesting from the bottom up. He pointed to the Occupy movement, of which he was a co-founder, as a “constructive failure,” in part because “the underlying theory of change is broken.” He suggested that although we have seen more frequent protests in recent years, they are increasingly ineffective, and radical ideas for revolution are essential for future success.

Some of his ideas touched on the fantastical, such as a theory that sunspot activity correlates with revolutionary periods, or that cosmic rays have interfered with election tallying on computers. They are intriguing prospects, albeit ones that somewhat detracted from the more dynamic and approachable methods of protest that people can actually practice.  

Bond, a senior advisor to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, had a more grounded focus from working on the campaign trail. Bond suggested that existing places such as communities colleges were where we should look for models of effective organizing.

Both speakers emphasized that something needs to shift in order for protests to truly produce change, and that the methodology of protest is at a tipping point as we know it.

— Camryn Bell

Festival-goers peruse books at the third annual Bay Area Book Festival. Daniel Kim / Senior Staff

Festival-goers peruse books at the third annual Bay Area Book Festival. Daniel Kim / Senior Staff

Highlighting feminist activism through popular fiction

Sunday’s discussion on “Feminist Activism through Popular Fiction” featured four panelists: Aya de León, a UC Berkeley faculty member and the author of feminist heist series “Justice Hustlers”; Meg Elison, a sci-fi novelist and former editor at The Daily Californian; Sarai Walker, author of “Dietland,” a novel that addresses societal “fat phobia” and Kate Raphael, a writer and activist whose murder mystery “Murder Under the Bridge” features a female Palestinian detective as the protagonist.

The four authors examined not only the pitfalls of their respective genres, but also their personal approaches to dismantling structural inequalities.

For several of the panelists, this approach lies in the idea of “stealth progressivism” — a focus on building a narrative that satisfies genre fans, but incorporates feminism implicitly into the world-building.

The panel didn’t, however, limit its conversation to the authors’ philosophies. Sex was a common topic for discussion to the extent that it may have distracted from other worthwhile talking points. While Kate Raphael tackles fascinating, complex subjects in her novel, much of the panel’s dialogue surrounding her work revolved around her controversial decision to include a queer sex scene, and the story’s numerous dynamic qualities went underserved.

Nevertheless, the discourse surrounding sex related to a much larger challenge faced by a great many feminist authors: unjustified backlash, often rooted in internalized misogyny. Each of the panelists could recall a time when their work was ill-received by their target audience.

“Ask any woman, and she knows what it’s like to be Harry Potter. She’s been there,” said Elison, in response to men who claimed they weren’t able to relate to a female protagonist. “Maybe it’s time you learn to be Hermione.”

— Shannon O’Hara

Paul Hawken on hope, positive solutions to climate change

Amid the celebration of literature and art this weekend, a palpable nervous current found its way into a small pocket of the Bay Area Book Festival. On Saturday, scientist, activist and author Paul Hawken sat down with journalist Mark Hertsgaard to discuss his latest book, “Drawdown: Real Solutions for Climate Change.”

On everyone’s minds, of course, was President Trump’s recent announcement that the United States will leave the international Paris Agreement, the climate accord in which 195 pledging countries agreed to set target goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to keep the average global temperature below two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Hawken, oddly, seemed nowhere near as concerned as the rest of the audience.

“Let’s start today’s session as an antidote,” he began.

And he did. He and Hertsgaard proceeded to sit down and discuss his book’s actual point: that climate change is actually reversible, with a multidimensional, targeted approach. With more insight into the contemporary science being undertaken and more hope for the future of our society, members of the audience could breathe sighs of relief and go back to enjoying the rest of the festival.

— Holly Secon

How lessons of history impact present through writing

Even though authors John Scalzi, Ellen Klages, Nisi Shawl, Gregory Benford and Charlie Jane Anders met to discuss history and the lessons learned in revisiting and reimagining it, modern challenges loomed large over their conversation about the past

Anders warned against viewing history as inevitable and obdurate and wondered aloud what trouble would befall those who indulged such a view of history. “Donald Trump,” Klages topically and succinctly replied — a moment of dark humor that elicited laughs but also spoke to an earlier moment of introspection from Scalzi. According to him, we only have ourselves to blame for our present day woes. “No matter where we are in history, no matter what technology we have or who our presidents are, humans are running 1.0 software.”

Nevertheless, the panel heeded Anders’ warning, and the conversation became an exploration of history’s malleability. Benford said he wrote his latest novel “The Berlin Project,” a revisionist history about the development of the hydrogen bomb, in an attempt to construct a better present than the one we live in. Reimagining the past to soothe old wounds and recuperate from a traumatic history was a theme that Shawl expanded on. Her latest novel, “Everfair,” imagines a Congo freed from the colonial grasp of King Leopold.

According to Shawl, her reimagined past gives a voice to the historically voiceless, which demonstrates science fiction and fantasy’s capacity for representation as an art form. In this sense, the panel’s ultimate conclusion is that history must revisited in order to seek out stories and voices that would otherwise be forgotten.

— Harrison Tunggal

Community members line up for entry to one of the many venues hosting panels of authors. Daniel Kim / Senior Staff.

Community members line up for entry to one of the many venues hosting panels of authors. Daniel Kim / Senior Staff.

Roxane Gay talks alternative forms of activism

Fans lined the block outside Freight & Salvage on Saturday to hear renowned feminist author Roxane Gay in conversation with Rafia Zakaria. The two discussed alternative forms of justice, resistance, community-building and ways of processing the rage and fear sparked by the election.

“I think we have to start taking on oppression individually, as if it is our own oppression, because that is the only kind we are invested in enough to do what it takes to create actual change,” said Gay. “Until people are willing to abandon this idea of allyship and say … transgender oppression is my own, racial oppression is my own and the oppression that we see against disability and different kinds of bodies is my own — we’re not going to get anywhere.”

When Zakaria asked for her thoughts on “the moral responsibility of privilege,” Gay responded, “When you have a voice, you have a responsibility to use it for people (who aren’t) just like you.”

Throughout the discussion, Gay had an unapologetic, powerful presence. Both resolute and vulnerable, she spoke matter-of-factly, but always with immense empathy.

— Sophie-Marie Prime

Lindy West on Resilience, intersecting identities

Lindy West — journalist, former Jezebel columnist and humorist — has a lot of accolades. Her memoir “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” was a New York Times bestseller. She successfully called out her boss Dan Savage for his fatphobia. And she’s got the tact and humor to crack actually-tasteful jokes about abortion. She did all of this and more during her Saturday talk at the Bay Area Book Festival, where, met with cries of utter adoration, she spoke about sex, snacks and reproductive health.

Reading from “Shrill” before answering audience members’ questions, West recounted the story of her abortion, using her own experience as a platform to speak about access to reproductive healthcare, privilege and female sexuality. At times, she was jovial, joking, “LOL, I hope you have $600 (to get an abortion), you fertile bitch,” while at other times she was more serious, speaking feelingly on the trolls, bloggers and other online personalities that have targeted intersections of her identities — often flowing between the two moods. Relatable, sometimes silly and often a little graphic, West’s talk deftly danced on the line between uproarious comedy and tender reality.

— Sarah Coduto

Science fiction as a prototype for brighter future

Science fiction heavyweights Zachary Mason, Cory Doctorow and former Daily Californian editor Meg Elison joined forces in a panel led by Annalee Newitz at the David Brower Center on Sunday to explore the ever-disappearing gap between science fiction and reality.

Each of the authors present followed a uniquely sinuous path towards a life immersed in science fiction — Elison began writing her first novel while studying at UC Berkeley, Mason works closely with artificial intelligence as a computer scientist, Doctorow is first and foremost a blogger and Newitz veered from science and culture journalism toward science fiction.

As each panelist detailed the journey they took to produce their most recent works and the initial stimuli that inspired them — whether that be a desire to write more women into dystopian situations or to craft more optimistic apocalypses — they delicately peeled away the layers that separate the world of science fiction from daily reality.

In each author’s work, science fiction was created from slight variations in the everyday rather than from an inconceivable, extraterrestrial departure. Doctorow drove the point home by rejecting the idea that science fiction is simply a whimsical genre to be looked down upon by the literary elite. Instead, he established it as a viable — if somewhat experimental and fallible — model for future realities.

It is the fallibility of science fiction that renders it such a captivating prototype of the future. “If I could predict the future then I wouldn’t get out of bed at all,” Doctorow told the audience. When reality meets science fiction, the latter becomes a rippled reflection of the intersection of the existing present and future.

— Sannidhi Shukla

A train winds its way through the streets of Downtown Berkeley. Daniel Kim / Senior Staff

A train winds its way through the streets of Downtown Berkeley. Daniel Kim / Senior Staff

How to generate empathy through fantasy

Fantasy authors Randy Henderson and Erika Lewis have had extensive experience in imagining various “others” — elves, dragons, gods, etc. — but such experience does not necessarily translate to generating empathy for people inhabiting the real world. Rather, the panel, which also included moderator and fellow author Ellen Klages on Sunday, posited that only through research can true empathy be achieved.

Lewis, whose fantasy series deals heavily with Celtic mythology, referenced her thorough research process — with experts at UC Berkeley, no less — which allowed her to avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. More humorously, Henderson suggested that he would hypothetically consult with elven cultural experts (both high elves and woodland ones, to cover all his bases) if his readership consisted of elves. Ultimately though, doing thorough research to empathize with the “other” isn’t only a significant step in the writing process, but a vital one. “You’re always writing about the ‘other.’ Unless you’re writing somebody that had exactly your same experience — from your block in LA, had your parents and went to your high school — you’re always writing somebody other than yourself,” Klages said. In this sense, because writing the “other” is inescapable, achieving empathy becomes essential to the act of writing itself, in fantasy or otherwise.

— Harrison Tunggal

3 authors talk ‘radical’ fat positivity, women’s representation in literature

Authors Sonya Renee Taylor, Sarai Walker and Roxane Gay came together Saturday afternoon for a panel of self-identified fat women writing about bodies and fat positivity. Taylor performed a poem from her forthcoming work “The Body is Not an Apology,” to be released next year, while Sarai Walker read from her fiction novel “Dietland” and Gay read from her memoir “Hunger,” available next week.

The three authors collectively recognized the way that fatness is both erased and made spectacle simultaneously in our society. Because fat bodies are often stared at and commented on, it can be exhausting to inhibit the world as a fat person, Gay noted. This contributes to the immense pressure, for women in particular to lose weight: “I can’t think of a single woman friend who’s not on a diet,” Gay said.

To that effect, Taylor recognized that weight loss is commodified in everything from “The Biggest Loser” to cereal (we see you, Kashi GOLEAN).

“I’m interested in dismantling oppression,” said Taylor. And thus, she explained, we can ask ourselves, “How do I get out of a system that benefits greatly from my self-loathing?”

“Fat positivity is so radical,” said Walker, who believes that imagination and fiction can be extremely powerful in that vein, because it allows us to inhabit our ideal selves — not because those selves are thinner, but because they reject the idea that they must become smaller.

Each of the three women had unique genre-specific means of representing fatness, but they agreed that we all must look inward to cultivate empathy for the infinite ways that different bodies experience the world.

— Sophie-Marie Prime


The book festival is an annual tradition that speaks to the continued relevance of literature in our society, and the importance of dialogue between community members, media outlets and writers to advance equality and diversity for future generations.

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].

JUNE 09, 2017