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.

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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.


The Bluest Eye, the African-American Experience and the Importance of Art

I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison last week and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I can only marvel at Morrison’s narrative genius, the love she invests in each of her characters, from the most vulnerable to the most vile, but mostly at the magnitude of suffering upon which her brutal and devastating story shines a light. The book is about an ugly, poor black girl who yearns for blue eyes and the recognition of beauty blue eyes represent. It is a heart-breaking premise rich with so many truths about how the beautiful and privileged see and treat the ugly and suffering, how the absence of love is filled so often with addiction, self-loathing and violence and how this perpetuates itself from generation to generation. In the broadest possible sense, the book is about humanizing an African-American experience. It is about becoming a vulnerable black girl or even an abusive alcoholic black man and understanding the beauty, yearning and intelligence behind all that which we demonize or ignore.

Morrison’s project is more important today than ever before. The race narrative in America is being dominated by fear and distrust when it should be dominated by compassion, sorrow, regret and a recognition that the legacy of slavery persists today. The African-American experience is unlike the experience of any other racial minority in the United States. They have not been simply victims of stereotypes regarding work ethic or driving skills. They were dehumanized, in the most literal sense of the word, for 246 years of America’s history. They were regarded by society as nothing more than chattels. Bought and sold, traded, whipped and disposed of when no longer useful. They labored without compensation for 246 years, building infrastructure, industry and wealth for privileged classes to pass on to subsequent generations of privileged classes and the only thing they were left to pass on were the scars.

Today, 150 years after the abolition of slavery and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, camera phones and social media are documenting and exposing the unacceptable regularity with which unarmed black men are being shot, ran over, choked or otherwise subject to deadly or excessive force by white police officers. There is a widespread assumption today that blackness alone is a suspicious activity that justifies intrusion into sacred spheres of personal liberty, that blackness alone is grounds to believe that one’s physical safety is so threatened that the use of deadly force on unarmed men is being judged by our legal system to be okay. This insidious brand of racism is conspiring with the criminalization of addiction and privatization of prisons to modify the directive of our police from “protect and serve” to “arrest and imprison,” to try and sweep under the rug the ugly and complex consequences of building a country on the backs of slave labor and then profit from it. When excessive force from the police results in deaths of unarmed human beings, deaths that are either met with no prosecution or bungled and halfhearted prosecution from the officers’ colleagues and lunch-buddies at the local DA’s office, something has to break. Such blatant failures in the system of justice, such “intolerable conditions,” in the words of Martin Luther King, “are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.” The riot, according to King, “is the language of the unheard.”

The problem with indiscriminate destruction of private property or the use of violence in any protest, however, is that it weakens the credibility and moral standing of the protester. Committing injustice in the protest of injustice only results in more injustice. People pay attention, but they pay attention to fires and broken glass, to crimes against innocent members of the community. They do not pay attention to the message that needs to be heard, they are downloading images that support the very narrative that oppresses the protestor in the first place and the vicious cycle rages on.

The truly radical and revolutionary acts of protest are anchored to a steadfast commitment to nonviolence. Organized, sustained disruptions of the unjust systems with strikes, peaceful blockades or sit-ins in the spirit of King and Gandhi. Pressure on law-makers to reform prison and drug policy, to require body cameras on all police and recuse local DAs offices from the job of prosecuting their investigating officers/slow-pitch softball buddies.

But perhaps the most effective and potentially world-changing thing we can do is take the time to understand each other by expressing ourselves and our stories truthfully and authentically and, most importantly, listening when others do the same. We can make less judgments and more art. We can watch less “news” and read more literature. It is one thing to know something intellectually and another thing to experience it through the magic of brilliant writing, writing like that of Toni Morrison, that puts us in the shoes of the disenfranchised and suffering and forces us to feel what it’s like to feel ugly, unwanted, invisible or hated for things beyond our control.


Writing Wisdom from Jack London

Writing my novel has been my first real education in the narrative arts. In addition to a daily writing practice and subjecting my writing to editorial critique, I have been reading more than ever before. I have been reading classic and modern novels, studying the lives of established authors and learning the fundamentals of craft. Currently I am reading a biography of Jack London which so far has confirmed my belief that

  1. real-life experience and adventure provides the greatest fodder for fiction and
  2. persistence renders failure impossible.

By the time he established himself as one of America’s most important writers in his early twenties, London had already been the primary breadwinner for his house for a decade, as a factory-worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, gold prospector, university student and political leader.

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He sailed the Pacific and Bering sea hunting seals for nine months. He rode the American rails with the homeless and did thirty days in jail for vagrancy. He traveled by foot through Alaskan mountains in search of Klondike gold then built a boat out of a tree he chopped down and sailed home through the deadly rapids of the Yukon river. He never finished high school but got into U.C. Berkeley. He gave speeches nightly on the Oakland city hall lawn, espousing socialist ideals and calling for revolution. He ran for mayor of Oakland.

When he set his mind to make a living as a writer, he was met with rejection after rejection. He gave up for periods at a time, but always returned to his desk and he wrote and submitted his work profusely and continued to be rejected profusely. “I’m going to stick to my writing,” he said, “and the publishers are going to accept it whether they like it or not. And some of these days they’ll be glad to take the stuff they’ve rejected and pay me a good price for it; you just wait and see.”

After ascending to the heights of the literary elite, he offered the following advice to aspiring writers:

“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a ‘stint’, and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year. Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your teeth. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.

See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all. And keep a notebook. Travel with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than grey matter, and lead pencil marking endures longer than memory. And work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time. Find about this earth, this universe, this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to the Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well. The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH, WORK and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth, SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail. With it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.”

photo by Pablo Sanchez