A Day at the Oakland Book Festival

The clouds swirl above city hall, swept at the edges into mist. The breeze is icy, the sun warm. Smiling faces in every shade sit in grass, books in hand, heads bobbing to rappers crisscrossing the stage. I look up at the banners stretching between columns at the top of the stairs.


I step into a crowded room and the flow of poet Will Alexander draws me in. His hand moves in circles to the rhythm of his words. I do not understand most poetry. Today is no exception. Maybe poetry is not meant to be understood. Maybe it is meant to be felt. His words sound beautiful, his beat hypnotic.

A poetry student raises his hand.

“How do you know when a poem is done?” he asks.

Matthew Zapruder answers by quoting another poet.

“I know a poem is done when both me and the poem have had an orgasm.”

I walk to the bookstore across the plaza. A choir of African-American girls sings a capella. I imagine Jack London calling for a socialist revolution at this very spot. I remember watching Barack Obama speak on these steps. I recall the humanity and energy of Occupy Oakland. The sun warms my face. I feel love for this city. I feel like I have returned to my home.

I sit on a metal folding chair and listen to authors from Oakland read from their books. Novella Carpenter tip-toes through the crowd to the front of the room. In her hand is a box of cucumber and zucchini starters she plans to give away.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, “no bike parking around here.”

I read her memoir about starting an urban farm on an abandoned lot in west Oakland. She tells us a story about how once she was dumpster diving in Chinatown for fish guts (to feed her pigs) when a homeless man offered her a dollar for food. “Even the homeless of Oakland are openhearted,” she says.

There is also Zac Unger, a firefighter from Rockridge and Rod Campbell, an entrepreneur from west Oakland. Both wrote memoirs.

Campbell’s wife commends all three for embodying and celebrating all that is good with the town. Then she asks what can be done about all that is bad.

Unger says, “the most political decision a family can make is where they send their kids to school.”

I feel a pang of guilt.

I walk back to city hall and queue up for a reading/discussion with Ayelet Waldman and Akhil Sharma. A middle-aged Asian lady with short spiky hair and long pink bangs stands behind me.

“What a great turnout, huh?” she says. “Who knew this many people still love books?”

Sharma is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Waldman is obsessed with him too. “I’ll only read a little bit,” she says, “so we can listen to more of him.”

I admire Sharma’s sparse yet piercing style. I feel compassion for the suffering he endured. I admire his dedication to craft. He spent twelve and a half years writing his novel. He wrote seven thousand pages for what became a two hundred and twenty-four page book. When he finished the end of one draft, he opened a new document and started typing again.

Waldman can’t believe he revises this way. “I think you’ve inspired me,” she says. “I’m going to try that tomorrow.”

Sharma sits at a table in the loud and white hallway after the reading. He is hidden by a line of people waiting for a panel on gentrification. I introduce myself to him. I am nervous.

“I also wrote a novel drawn from my own experience,” I say. “I’ve written four drafts so far and I signed up to do an intensive workshop with Tom Barbash.”

I know him and Tom are friends.

“Oh, good for you,” he says. He is sincere.

“I’ve yet to try rewriting it from scratch,” I say.

“Try it, man,” he says.

I like that he calls me “man.” He makes a mountain climbing analogy I don’t really hear because I’m so nervous. Something about carving out a more direct route to the peak.

“Try it for like two months,” he says.

“I think I might,” I say. “It’s taken while, but I’m finally embracing the long game that writing a novel demands.”

At home, my wife tells me I networked.

“I’m glad you went,” she says.

“Me too,” I say. “Just seeing all those authors in the flesh and listening to them speak and interact with each other, it struck me that these are not the superhuman people I’ve idealized in my imagination. They’re all just…”

“Regular people,” she says.

“Yes, exactly. It just made the prospects of me becoming one of them seem more plausible.”

She nods.

“I have to believe in myself to make this thing work,” I say. “If I don’t believe in myself, I might as well stop.”

“Well I believe in you,” she says, “so even when you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll always have that.”

I almost start sobbing but I don’t. I make a caprese salad. I think about my short story. I am excited to get back to work.

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