Bay Area Book Festival founding director Cherilyn Parsons will pass the baton to the next generation of leadership next month. But before she steps aside, there’ll be one massive, two-day party.
The ninth annual fest, May 6 and 7—shining light on local, national and international authors and writers of all genres—hosts 74 indoor and 24 outdoor in-person programs. Since its inaugural year, the literary gathering has presented more than 1,600 speakers and expanded its reach with the additions of videos and podcasts archived online, regular literary series throughout the year such as Women Lit and #UNBOUND, and other special programs.
The 2023 edition comes with an impressive array of buzzy guests and features, but the focus is deeper than bestsellerdom. Appearing at multiple venues in Berkeley (with a few prologue pre-festival events held all around the Bay Area), the headliners include singer-songwriter and social activist Joan Baez, Emmy-winning comedian W. Kamau Bell, publisher-author Dave Eggers, KQED’s “Bay Curious” podcast host Olivia Allen-Price, V (formerly known as Eve Ensler), and others. Local and national adult literature authors also make a splash with Alexandra Petri, T. Jefferson Parker, Annalee Newitz, Jane Smiley, Peggy Orenstein, and Jasmine Guillory, and more. Young adult and children’s authors and an expanded youth program make a larger mark this year, as well, plus the one-day Outdoor Fair on May 7 offers a Family Fun Zone and dozens of literary and food vendors in Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park.
Last, but never least: With the exception of two ticketed programs, every single event is free.
“Presenting programs that matter have been the bywords for me,” Parsons says. “Often, that’s meant programs and authors whose books are related to social justice and deep, personal and social meaningfulness. The festival’s not a flippant, celebrity event. We’re not here for the surface. Our authors have something significant to give—and without being fiction that’s didactic, for example. I’ve always believed the way a writer sees the world shapes the story that comes out. And we’ve always sought a balance of very local authors and international authors. Those twin poles of representation are a priority because the world is not small and we need to hear voices from everywhere. It’s more work to bring international writers in, but we’ve made it happen.”
Parsons says a broad array of voices is crucial to the festival and largely guides the curation of presented authors and programs, “If it’s a Black, queer, debut author from Oakland who uses they/them pronouns, we need to hear what the emotions, thoughts, and place of their life is. Why? Because that’s what books do: They take us out of what can be our limited experience.”
This year, the festival hosts Alice Wong, a disabled activist, media maker, and research consultant based in San Francisco. Wong is the founder and director of the online community Disability Visibility Project; editor of the anthologies Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century and Disability Visibility: 17 First-Person Stories for Today (Adapted for Young Adults); and author of the hybrid memoir Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life. Parsons says, “She has multiple challenges with communicating to the public, but she’s written brilliantly and prolifically and we need to hear from her.”
Naming another other programs from the wealth of offerings, Parson mentions an event with the Swedish author and journalist Jens Liljestrand, about Even If Everything Ends, his first English-language novel. “It’s about climate change and how it impacts a family. It is extraordinary. I’m supposed to be working on the festival and I am, but it’s all I want to do to keep reading this book.”
One event she says might “fly under the radar” is centered on author Chenxing Han’s one long listening. Parsons says the memoir is riveting, taking in Han’s journey as a hospital chaplain, bringing in different cultures, and exploring the essential nature of listening, of not knowing, of not assuming. While tracing grief and heartache, pain and impermanence, friendship and loss, Han’s wring is also clever, and funny. “What can I say? I love this book,” Parsons exclaims.
Of course love for literature is wonderful, but not enough to power the festival through next year’s grand, 10th anniversary season, let alone the decades Parsons hopes will follow. Recognizing that the 11 years she put into planning and then launching and running the festival has taken a toll on her time, health, family, relationships and energy for the novel she will buckle down on after departing, Parsons says any doubts she might have are erased by interim successor Norah Piehl.
“She has been our director of literary programs for the past two years. In fact, Nora is the one who started the series of prologue events that are in the community this year. Those programs are all about expanding the festival beyond the weekend in a concerted effort to present fun programs that are community-based. I want the festival to reach a variety of people and places to engage in books through partnerships. It draws more people in and expands the experience of reading. I would not feel I could leave if there was not someone so strong to take over. Nora has that leadership experience, so I can let it go because it’s in good hands.”
As she turns to writing her own book, Parsons holds gratitude for a gift she’s received while running the festival. “I’ve become a better writer by being exposed to the close to 1,200 writers we’ve worked with. I’ve had the great fortune of listening to their processes and reading their books. My body, heart and soul are tired, after the last 11 years, but I will stay involved and always can be found each year at the Bay Area Book Festival.”
THE 9TH ANNUAL BAY AREA BOOK FESTIVAL takes place in various Berkeley venues Sat/6 and Sun/7. More info here.