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Turning Pages: Litquake 2021 is rooted in the present and gives glimpses into the future of the world of arts and letters

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THERE, THERE Daniel Handler under the watchful eye of Gertrude Stein at Litquake 2005.

Two conversations—one with Litquake co-founder and Executive Director Jack Boulware, the other, with Oakland-based author Nayomi Munaweera—provide reasons more compelling than splashy best-selling literary stars and buzzy topics to attend this year’s annual literary festival.

Certainly, the in-person appearance—hurray!—of Bay Area writers such as Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Natalie Baszile, Chef Bryant Terry, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, devorah major, Ingrid Rojas Contreras and others after last year’s all-virtual festival are good reasons to celebrate. Even the hybrid festival’s virtual programming has audience-attracting pizzazz and arrives in films online or live-streamed with a glittery array of world-renowned literary diaspora: Isabel Allende, Brandon Hobson, Tommy Orange, Dave Eggers, actor Danny Trejo and more. Two live, virtual day-long “Words Around the World” events add the global voices of notable authors from Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong and the Czech Republic.

Or, a person might lean on Litquake’s impressive history and free-to-low-cost ticket pricing to decide about attending. Launched in 1999, the festival has presented close to 8,650 author appearances with audience numbers reaching close to or over 180,000. Fun and friendly events include hundreds of casual readings in parks, pubs, restaurants, galleries and other locations, celebratory and rousing opening and closing parties, the interactive LitCrawl, engaging events for children, panels and topics relatable to the moment but also progressive, and cross-media presentations often involving music, film, dance and visual design.

Even so, far more provocative and indicative of what makes Litquake 2021 noteworthy other than a hybrid program with some live presentations is the futuristic mindset expressed during separate interviews with Boulware and Munaweera. Litquake aims never to be a mere, take-it-easy mirror of the moment. Instead, festival organizers and presenters stretch, squirm, protest, parade or pounce beyond and outside of predictable facades and frames to offer a glimpse from now into tomorrow.

While acknowledging unspeakable global losses suffered during the pandemic and erasure of the lives and history of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ due to systemic racism, homophobia and other social weaponry, Boulware says, “We all get news from daily headlines about social injustice and Covid. We already know about and don’t need to hear more at Litquake about boarded up storefronts or people working at home wearing sweatpants. This year, we said let’s do live literary events and celebrate writing and reading. We wanted a spirit of positivity and optimism because that’s what people need right now.”

Boulware says the delta-variant surge was an especially hard hit after June 15 when restrictions lifted. He remembers shouting, “California’s wide open!” Fortunately, having hedged expectations and with a year’s worth of knowledge about making virtual presentations more enticing under their belts, the staff was able to move presentations out of Zoom format. Films made live on Treasure Island and other efforts energize even pre-recorded programs, according to Boulware. Looking at reservations made as of Sept. 23, he says, “We see our live and virtual events are equally popular. There are still people who want to boot it up, do things around the house while watching online. People aren’t glued to the screen anymore. I do things while I watch, don’t you?”

This year’s outdoor live events, such as full-afternoon programs held at Yerba Buena Gardens Esplanade, are guest-curated by authors and literary organizations in the Bay Area literary community. “It engages people who don’t have best-selling books, or people working in their communities. This gives them a showcase in a higher-profile environment,” he says. “It’s an odd time in the publishing world. Books are delayed, printing and mailing is disrupted, writers aren’t getting contracts. It’s never been super lucrative unless you are a big bestseller, but we’re hearing excitement just about being together.”

Boulware suggests live readings are “a unique petri dish of human experience.” Reading and writing are primarily solitary activities, but bring writers together with tourists from Sacramento, young people home from college, tech workers hitting an event at the end of a long day, members of the writer’s family—for debut authors a given—and you never know what will happen. “I was always thankful that anybody read my work,” Boulware says. “It’s cool to meet people who like how your brain thinks.”

Munaweera’s brain thinks often and deeply. She speaks boldly, sometimes with rage, occasionally with joy. Which is why when the conversation begins with the obligatory “how have you fared during Covid” question, she says, “The new metric is looking to see who’s around and if they’ve survived. The last year was difficult with multiple global traumas: the pandemic, wildfires and the 2020 election. It was a trifecta of hideous assaulting news coming every day.”

When the vaccine came out, she was joyful, then not. “I thought science had won! Then two months ago when the delta variant came out I had hope dashed. For ridiculous reasons people weren’t getting vaccinated. We could have been done with this crisis. That there’s an answer and people aren’t getting it: I’ve been in a rage. These brilliant scientists came up with a response—and there’s a death cult. Some people are so convinced that the vaccine doesn’t work they’re willing to stake their life on that position.”

Working to complete her third novel, the new book is a psychosexual thriller following Munaweera’s two best-selling novels—Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us—that hold central the themes of disorientation and the divide of life as an immigrant. She was grateful to have work throughout the pandemic. But she’s decidedly not at all grateful for the way writers who are BIPOC, immigrants, elderly, LGBTQ+ or forced into other segregated designations are lumped into bundles and often considered only within limited frames.

Which is why she resists “lumping” and chooses to highlight the work of four novelists—whose new books deal with families and family relationships—on the panel she will be moderating, “World (Re)Building: The Art of the Novel.” Beyond that, Munaweera insists the four authors strike out on distinctively individual narratives, characters, time frames, settings and other elements.

“You know, for a long time Black writers were all compared to Toni Morrison. For South Asian writers, it was Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s performative: select a name people know and say you’re diverse because “we have one of those already.” I ask, is there only space for one? We understand that whiteness has multiplicity, and white writers can represent different experiences and yet, no, we haven’t caught up with that idea for people of color. It’s not even close.”

Witnessing minor, incremental shifts made to increase diversity and equity in the literary field, Munaweera rails against the “one means many” mentality. A friend’s television-show pitch was denied because “we have one like it, just in a different race.” She mourns that people with shortened attention spans she attributes to social media and the internet read less long-format material and read less often. “That’s why Litquake is fantastic,” she says. “Books saved my life because early on, reading gave me solace. When my childhood home was chaotic, I could escape into books. Disappearing into different worlds gave me understanding there are different ways to live. I could break with the limited choices often offered to immigrants—become a doctor or lawyer, get married, have children. Instead, I could become a writer.”

Mourning the absence of live literary gatherings during the last 18 months, Munaweera confesses she even misses grousing with other writers about writing. “Writing is the best and worst thing ever to do,” she says. “There’s joy when it’s going well and when a book is done, but midstream … not always. We complain all the time when readers aren’t around.”

Now, holding back complaints about the difficulty of writing, collecting rage about science denied and grief over global loss during the pandemic, resisting “being lumped and labeled” by race or immigrant status, remaining concerned that the efforts to bring diverse voices forward will fade and fail, Munaweera somehow finds herself exuberant about literature, eager to emerge after months spent in isolation and thrilled to join in community at Litquake. It will be fun, exciting, positive and uplifting, she suggests, sounding a great deal like the buoyant Boulware—and like one person among hundreds who will welcome a celebration of reading and writing that is live, in-person, virtual and by all means necessary.