Lit

Leticia del Toro grounds her ‘Cafe Colima’ in the lives of ‘everyday Latinas’

Leticia del Toro

LIT Bay Area author Leticia Del Toro is not a household name… yet. Her work has appeared in Huizache, Zyzzyva, Cipactli and Mutha Magazine. Her short stories are some of the best out here dealing with migration, gender and working-class realities. One of them, “Café Colima,” received the prestigious Short Fiction Award from Kore Press and is now available as a chapbook.

Leticia Del Toro spoke with 48 Hills ahead of her reading (with Norma Liliana Valdez)
at the Green Arcade Books, Wed/27, 7pm. All proceeds from the sales of “Café Colima” will benefit the ACLU.

48 HILLS You have been writing since your teens, growing up in working-class
Crockett during the 1980s. To what extent did growing up in the Reagan
years shape your writing?

LETICIA DEL TORO Living in fear of nukes was part of my childhood. I can remember doing the lockdown drills in my elementary school, but I wouldn’t say that specific fear made its way into my fiction writing. I do, however, remember as a third grader, writing to my grandmother on her ranch in Jalisco, and telling her I was afraid the world would end either from an earthquake or a bomb. She wrote back via my aunt who was the letter writer and told me not to worry about the problems of the world, to be happy that my parents would take care of me.

There existed a fear that permeated my childhood experience, but there were other hostile elements I experienced as a young person living in a small refinery town. Even though I was from a family who was known and liked, I was sometimes called a Hindu or Iranian, and called “Ayatollah” at school. I didn’t truly know what was going on politically or racially until later. It begs the question: how were elementary school kids taught to hate so early? The media had so much to do with feeding anti-immigrant sentiment. I have a story called “Peaches” in which the protagonist, Tila, is eleven and she is assaulted on the playground and called “Ayatollah.” That’s very real. It made me feel an early connection to other communities of color. I remember thinking, I could just as easily be identified in the world as Indian or Middle Eastern. It made me reflect on what it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes and hopefully, it gave me a little more empathy.

The other Reagan-era policies that inherently make their way into my work and truly, impacted the lives of folks across the country, were the cuts to mental health care from the federal budget. My father was a machinist, who held the same job for over forty-five years. He had also experienced violence along the border when he came over as a fourteen-year old. I think those early years of his immigration really scarred him and he battled addictions and depression all his life, until his death in 2010. Many working-class folks of his generation truly needed mental health care. I remember being in grade school, hearing about suicides and violent acts that occurred along the Carquinez Bridge and near the bay. There were also folks that had serious chemical dependencies and ended up dying in the street or incarcerated. When I moved to Berkeley as an undergrad, I saw suffering up close in the streets. Here we were these privileged kids studying lofty ideas on campus and then you’d walk past Sather Gate and mingle among all the homeless people. I soon learned there was a direct correlation between vulnerable populations living in the streets and the cuts to mental health care.

When I look at my stories now, I see most of my main characters are dealing with the impact of addiction in their lives or fleeing from the law in some way. In “Café Colima,” the protagonist is living with the aftermath of having both lost her sister and her parents to different types of violence. In some ways, my writing bears witness to those circumstances.

48H “Cafe Colima” explores grief and loss of a sibling. Is moving on from this kind of tragedy also a form of loss?

LDT Sure, one can cling to tragedy and trauma and use it to create meaning in your life, whether we’re talking about real life or in Arcelia’s case as the protagonist in “Café Colima.” She uses her trauma as an excuse not to take risks. She uses her grief as a sort of barricade between herself and the world. The loss can be a way of defining yourself. It’s just a shaping force in your life if you’ve lost someone you’ve shared a very close bond with.

There’s also a certain intensity to the early process of grieving, in which you want to scrape together every memory you have of that person, every photo, every note they’ve ever written to you. It all becomes this kind of sacred quest to enshrine your memory of the person. It’s no secret that much of this story is derived from the grief I felt in losing my own brother when I was 25. Unlike the two sisters in the story who were very close in age, we had a seven year difference between us. For years, I was in this mode of piecing together my memories of life with him. It’s only in the last four or five years that I have started to write about him in essays and in a more layered way, in fiction.

I do know that a part of my life, my early adulthood, has been defined by that loss. Growing away from its intensity, actually growing older and giving myself permission to move on has been daunting. I was terrified of having children and yet I took on that challenge of becoming a parent. I knew how deeply it hurt to lose my brother and I was actually afraid to have a child, to move on to parenting because I was afraid to love that deeply, and I’d ask myself wow, what would the loss of a child feel like? Grieving and feeling that pain can be something to hold on to, but if you hold on to it too much it can paralyze you, too.


48H What was the purpose of making the Café itself a sort of character?

LDT It’s interesting how that turned out. I didn’t actually plan to make the Café a character, but it does kind of have a life of its own. I know I wanted Arcelia and Selene’s every day surroundings to have their own physicality. That everyday quality of having to work, having to show up and prep radishes or fill pastry boxes, those necessary images just presented themselves while I was writing. The representation of the café probably showed up so vividly because it stems from a time when I was around nine or ten and I went to my mother’s work after school. It was a Mexican deli in Richmond, go figure, and I hung out in the pantry and listened to these Mexican women, my mom and her coworkers talk and work, and take orders and cook, and get through the evening. There were actually two delis that my mother worked at and she alternated between them, La Palma and La Palmita.

I also knew I wanted to write about an everyday, average Latina, someone you might run into waiting for the bus, or getting lunch, or someone you might see at a café and not think twice about. I know that these every day characters often appear ordinary, but often are very humble about their own heroic qualities. I’ve talked to plenty of editors who want to see a Latina in exotic, international locales making an impact in the world, rising above her humble beginnings. Fine, that’s one kind of story, but I think reflecting a neighborhood and the specificity of one character’s suffering and changing is equally interesting. I had also read a good amount of work about Chicanas set in Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas and at some point I started generating actual scenes about this East Bay character whose life was grounded in her grandmother’s café.

48H Does your mission as a writer change as the external world becomes more reactionary and conservative?

LDT It becomes more intense and necessary. One of the reasons I write is because it helps me make sense of the world. It also gives me pleasure. When I’m on a writing streak and I’ve been at it for hours, I actually feel physical pleasure and gratification. Discussing writing and being in an intellectual environment is also a happy place for me, but then you get to a point where writing is just necessary. Some of my poetry and essay writing has surged from that place, where thoughts are just swirling in my head and I have to get them out.

The first essay I wrote for Mutha Magazine was in response to police brutality and the initial stages of the Black Lives Matter movement. I also wrote a poem called “Alive at Lampedusa” that referenced one of the ships of African refugees that arrived in Italy, but it linked ideas about immigration in the Southwest, as well. I wrote those pieces because they felt very essential, poems of witness, but they are also pieces that stake a claim and express my beliefs.

Luis Alberto Urrea was a faculty member in the audience when I first read “Alive at Lampedusa” in Ripton, Vermont, and he came up to me afterwards and hugged me. That was a big moment. I felt I’d hit a nerve and people really listened. With fiction, I think I’m just trying to filter through what it was like to be a young woman in the 90s, a young woman born into a very traditional, macho-led family which did not encourage me to take risks or to aspire to become anything other than a wife or mother, not what I wanted to do at age eighteen! I needed to see literature which spoke to my experience. I have been writing towards that void. At the same time, I know I have an urgent responsibility to write about injustice and how I feel connected to other people in the world, to highlight my experience when we’re living through this era of isolationism, othering, and the dehumanization of Latin American families.

48H One of the great things about the moment we live in is the attention given to the exclusion, and alternatively tokenization, of writers of color. What do you think needs to happen to for the publishing industry to finally move forward in terms of race?

LDT We need a lot more people of color in publishing and we need a whole plethora of writers of color published. We need to multipy the titles written by people from different racial, cultural and socio-economic perspectives, When I have had work that has been rejected, one of the comments is invariably, “it didn’t speak to me,” or “I couldn’t get into the story.” It’s all a matter of taste, right? So editors and publishers want stories that they can relate to, but honestly how is an editor going to relate to my linguistically specific and regionally specific story about working-class issues or misogyny if they have no life experience to bring to that reading?

There is the rare editor who is going to appreciate a new point of view and a new voice and appreciates a glimpse into a world unfamiliar to them, but those editors are few and far between. In order to get more people of color into publishing we need more mentorship programs, more opportunities for paid internships and more formal initiatives that promote diverse writing. That bit about getting paid is serious, too, because let’s face it if you come from a non-traditional background and your parents are not able to support you for a summer or two, you are going to pick an industry that pays you over a seasonal nonpaid internship in publishing. It’s economic survival.

Oscar Villalon wrote a very pointed essay about this a while back on LitHub, called “Diversity in Publishing: What Happens Now?” We Need Diverse Books is also a great organization that is making changes to diversity children’s and Young Adult literature. Other publishers need to take the lead like Graywolf Press. They offer a fellowship called the Citizen Literary Fellowship that encourages candidates that would not otherwise have access to careers in publishing to explore the field. More fellowships like the Emerging Writers Fellowship from PEN America would also help people like me gain access to the industry.

48H What’s next for you?

LDT I’ve been invited to do another reading in San Antonio, Texas on July 30th at The Twig, after attending the Macondo Conference. I’m especially thrilled to join theMacondo Conference, since so many amazing writers have sung its praises over the years. It’s rumored that Sandra Cisneros will be attending this year, so I’m excited to share time and community with her. Kore Press is also organizing a joint reading in Arizona, in a few months which will feature me along with poet, Natalia Treviño, who also has a forthcoming chapbook called, VirginX (Finishing Line Press). In between readings, I’ll be switching gears a bit and working on a novel. I’m moving away froms short stories to work on my novel, Return to Azucena. I’m also going to Mexico towards the end of the summer for research and reconnection with family.

LETICIA DEL TORO 
Wed/27, 7pm
Green Arcade Books
More info here

Author Amanda Huron on housing and the power of urban ‘commoning’

From the cover of 'Carving Out the Commons' by Amanda Huron

LIT Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. “explores the practice of urban ‘commoning’ in Washington, DC, through an investigation of the city’s equity housing cooperatives.” Author Amanda Huron draws insight and lessons from organizing against displacement that are relevant for any major US cities. Huron teaches at the University of the District of Columbia and plays drums with the band Puff Pieces. We spoke with Huron ahead of her Wed/2, 7pm, appearance at Green Arcade.

48 HILLS Your book benefits greatly from the fact that you are an academic with years of grassroots organizing experience. What brought you to the study of Washington, DC’s housing struggles?

AMANDA HURON  I grew up in a DC neighborhood called Mt. Pleasant that was, at the time I was growing up there, one of the few neighborhoods in the city that was integrated by race and class. I really poured a lot of my heart and soul and organizing work into that particular place over the course of the 1990s, only to watch it become a place where only wealthy people could afford to live. It’s a familiar story, I’m sure especially for folks in SF and the Bay Area.

So that personal experience was part of what made me want to study housing struggles in the city in a more systematic way. Over the years I would also hear little bits of references to the history of housing struggles in the city, and I was well-aware that we had relatively good tenant protections, and was curious about where those protections had come from. There are a couple good sources that document the history of housing struggles in the city, but I wanted to find out more, to learn from all the hard and creative work tenants in past generations had already done. 

48H One of the common critiques of Housing Cooperatives is that they can’t benefit as many people as Rent Control or high-density affordable housing can. What would you say to people skeptical about coops as a solution to the housing crisis?

AH I would say that strong rent control is absolutely necessary. And all kinds of truly affordable housing are also necessary. I would also add that preserving and even extending public housing is also critical. Housing co-ops should be one of several options. Limited-equity housing co-ops are distinct from other forms of “affordable” housing in that they are collectively owned by their members. So—for some people, that sense of ownership and control over their homes is really important.

Then again, collective ownership can take work. Some folks might prefer to rent, because if you have a decent, non-profit-motivated landlord, that can make your life a lot simpler than being involved in collective ownership decisions. It would be nice if people had options. I do not think housing co-ops are the solution to the housing crisis. But I think the story of how co-op members collectively govern their decommodified housing is really useful for thinking about future efforts to decommodify housing at other scales. 

48H What similarities do you see between Washington DC and San Francisco in regards to the way they use land?

AH Both are relatively low-density cities, with small-ish apartment buildings (DC has a 10-story height limit on all construction). And both are super constrained in terms of land— neither can expand its borders. In both cities there are big fights over questions of density and development, with one side arguing that increasing housing density will increase housing affordability over the long term (on the theory that more housing equals less demand equals lower price), and the other side arguing that there is so much pent-up demand for housing in these cities on the part of wealthy folks that even if you add large amounts of new housing, it won’t do much to bring down prices.

Amanda Huron



48H To what extent is it possible to end the housing crisis in a market economy?

AH We have to do a lot more to decommodify land and housing. This is not a preposterous goal: we’re already doing it in small ways. Traditional public housing was decommodified housing, and so are the limited-equity co-ops I write about, and so are all the land trusts around the country. We just need to keep pushing it to a much more massive scale. 



48H For the first time in many decades, evictions are part of the national dialogue. Why do you think this is? Is there something you think is being overlooked in this conversation?

AH I think it’s partly because Matthew Desmond wrote an incisive, well-researched book on the crisis of eviction. (And the book in part received so much press because Desmond was declared a “genius” by a family foundation, which of course exists in large part in order to avoid paying taxes.) It’s increasingly become clear in cities across the nation (and world) that large numbers of people simply cannot be housed based on “market principles,” so I think that adds to the interest in eviction. I worry that Desmond’s book may be over-shaping the dialogue on eviction—for interest, he’s very interested in the personal relationship between landlords and tenants, and in fact has been praised for putting a human face on this relationship, and rendering it in all its complexity.

But in fact in many instances (certainly here in DC), landlords are faceless LLCs that automatically begin eviction proceedings when the rent is X days late, and have zero care for their tenants as human beings. There is nothing complex or personal about this relationship: These tenants simply exist as small but mostly reliable income streams to LLCs. So I think the financialization of housing—the way housing is used more and more as an investment simply for profit, like any other investment—should be more a part of the dialogue around eviction. 

AMANDA HURON: CARVING OUT THE COMMONS
Wed/2, 7pm
Green Arcade, SF.
More info here. 

Read something new! California Book Award finalists announced

The California Book Awards date back to 1931, when Mark Twin rode bearback.

LIT Spring brings an overflow of book recommendations, when the announcements of both the Northern California Book Award winners and the California Book Award finalists come slushing down the pike, just around the cruellest month.    

The Northern California Book Awards are the scrappier more locally-minded of the two, presented by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association every spring. (These are not to be confused with the other Northern California Book Awards, presented by the irascible Poetry Flash, PENWest, and the SF Public Library, which has yet to announce its finalists and usually has a splashy ceremony every June. It’s weird! But worth it.)

The California Book Awards are presented by the Commonwealth Club, and while they’re a bit ritzier (and they date back to 1931), there’ a lot of overlap in the nominations of both organizations. The CBA finalists were just announced last week, the winners will be announced June 1, and there will be a big ceremony June 11.

Below are the California Book Award finalists, followed by the Northern California Book Award finalists and winners. All of the books were published in 2017, and there’s so many that were new to me.

Plenty to pick up—including from favorites like City Lights Publishers, Analee Newitz, Armistead Maupin, and Kevin Killian.

CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD FINALISTS

Poetry
Heaven Is All Goodbyes, Tongo Eisen-Martin
Holy Ghost, David Brazil
I Love It Though, Alli Warren
Invocation to Daughters, Barbara Jane Reyes
Tony Greene Era, Kevin Killian

First Fiction
Goodbye, Vitamin
, Rachel Khong
Large Animals, Jess Arndt
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Lindsey Lee Johnson
What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons

Fiction
Less,
Andrew Sean Greer
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, Sarah Ladipo Manyika
So Much Blue, Percival Everett
The Age of Perpetual Light, Josh Weil
The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nonfiction
All They Will Call You, Tim Z. Hernandez
Color of Law, Richard Rothstein
Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg
Far Away Brothers, Lauren Markham
Glass House, Brian Alexander

Juvenile
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again
, Dan Santat
Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands,  Susan Goldman Rubin
Short, Holly Goldberg Sloan
The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Young Adult
The 57 Bus, Dashka Slater

We Are Okay, Nina Lacour
What Girls Are Made Of, Elana K. Arnold

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD FINALISTS AND WINNERS

(winners are in red)

FICTION                                           
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Counterpoint, 9781619029224
Sourdough by Robin Sloan, MCD, Macmillan, 9790374203108
Autonomous by Analee Newitz, Tor Books, 9780765392077
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, Knopf, 9781524731823
In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 9781616962487
In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, Atria Books,  9781501178139

Honorable Mention:
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 9781101982242
An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King, Harper Voyager, 9780062662552

NONFICTION 
Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, Ellen Pao,  Spiegel & Grau 9780399591013  
Drawdown, Paul Hawken, Penguin Books 9780143130444  
Color of Law, Richard Rothstein, Liveright Publishing Corporation 9781631492853       
The Modoc War, Robert McNally, University of Nebraska Press  9781496201799      
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, Thi Bui, Abrams Comicarts 9781419718779     
                                           
YA 
Wild Beauty, Anna Marie McLemore, Feiwel & Friends 9781250124555
The 57 Bus, Dashka Slater, Farrar Straus Giroux 9780374303235
You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins, Farrar Straus Giroux 9780374304904
We Are Okay, Nina LaCour, Dutton Books For Young Readers 9780525425892
Caraval, Stephanie Garber, Flatiron Books 9781250095251
The Speaker, Traci Chee, G..P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers 9780399176784
                                               
MIRRORS & WINDOWS 
Lucia the Luchadora, Cynthia Leonor Garza, POW! 9781576878279
Jabari Jumps, Gaia Cornwall, Candlewick Press 9780763678388
Yo Soy Muslim, Mark Gonzales, Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for You 9781481489362
This Is How We Do It, Matt Lamothe, Chronicle Books 9781452150185
La Princesa and the Pea, Susan Middleton Elya, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers 9780399251566
                                               
OLDER READERS (8-18) M&W AWARD   
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, Balzer & Bray/Harperteen 9780062498533
The 57 Bus, Dashka Slater, Farrar Straus Giroux 9780374303235
Amina’s Voice, Hena Khan, Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster  9781481492065
Dear Martin, Nic Stone, Crown Books for Young Readers 9781101939499
Pashmina, Nidhi Chanani, First Second 9781626720886
                                               
PICTURE BOOK 
All Ears, All Eyes,
illustrated by Katherine Tilltoson, Atheneum Books, 9781481415712
A Different Pond, Bao Phi & Thi Bui, Capstone Young Readers 9781623708030
The Antlered Ship, Dashka Slater & the Fan Brothers, Beach Lane Books 9781481451604
Maya Lin: Artist Architect of Light and Lines, Jeanne Walker Harvey, Henry Holt & Company 9781250112491
Kate Warne Pinkerton Detective, Marissa Moss & April Chu, Creston Books 9781939547330
                                               
MIDDLE GRADE 
Stef Soto, Taco Queen, Jennifer Torres, Little Brown 9780316306867
The Wondrous World of Violet Barnaby, Jenny Lindquist, Aladdin/S&S 9781481460354
Wishtree, Katherine Applegate, Feiwel & Friends 9781250043221
Forest World, Margarita Engle, Atheneum/S&S 9781481490573
Pashmina, Nidhi Chanani, First Second/Macmillan 9781626720879
Click’d, Tamara Ireland Stone, Disney-Hyperion 9781484784976
                                               
POETRY 
Body, in Good Light, Erin Rodoni, Sixteen Rivers 9781939639127
Daydream, Jean Day, Litmus Press 978-1933959368
Silk Poems, Jen Bervin, Nightboat 9781937658724
Heaven is all Goodbyes, Tongo Eisen-Martin, City Lights 9780872867451
There You Are, Joanne Kyger, Wave Books, 9781940696584

Lifetime Achievement: 
Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New Directions 9780811227124
                                    
REGIONAL  
Coming to my Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, Alice Waters, Clarkson Potter Publishers 9780307718280
Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, Amy Tan, Ecco Press 9780062319296
Logical Family: A Memoir, Armistead Maupin, Harper 9780062391223
The 57 Bus, Dashka Slater, Farrar Straus Giroux 9780374303235
The California Field Atlas, Obi Kaufmann, Heyday Books 9781597144025
San Francisco Noir, Fred Lyon, Princeton Architectural Press, 9781616896515                                               

FOOD 
Deepa’s Secrets, Deepa Thomas, Skyhorse Publishing 9781510718982
Tartine All Day, Elisabeth Prueitt, Lorena Jones Books 9780399578823
Dish of the Day, Kate McMillan, Weldon Owen 9781616286651
The Juhu Beach Cookbook, Preeti Mistry and Sarah Henry, Running Press Book Publishers 9780762462452
Autentico, Rolando Beramendi, St. Martin’s Griffin 9781250124975
Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat, Simon & Schuster 9781476753836

Ananda Esteva’s border-crossing, jazz-driven Califaztlan tale

Author Ananda Esteva

The Wanderings of Chela Coatlícue: Touring Califaztlan (Transgress Press) is the first installment of a trilogy of coming-of-age adventures, following a brazen young musical prodigy in search of a sacred bass once owned by a legendary blues musician, Sugar Rivera. The fantasy novel “takes readers through numerous plot developments and twists that lead them to a variety of choices and outcomes, as Chela travels from the punk rock slums of Mexico City to the suburbs of Los Angeles.” It’s a reader-driven, “choose your own adventure”-type story, a border-crossing, feminist quest with plenty of twists and turns..  

Ananda Esteva spoke to 48 Hills before an upcoming series of readings: 3/15 at the Octopus Literary Lounge, 3/28 at the Green Arcade bookstore and 4/4 at City College of San Francisco.

48 HILLS Your family came here escaping Pinochet’s Chile. How did this background influence the creation of your protagonist, Chela?

ANANDA ESTEVA Lorna Dee Cervantes says in her poem “The Refugee Ship,” “…I feel I am a captive aboard the refugee ship. The ship that will never dock. El barco que nunca atraca.” That’s how I feel, like I’m always on a road trip in my mind. I can’t seem to settle and fully embrace a place or a person. I also don’t fully fit in to either culture. As a woman, I’m too straight-forward and crass for Chile but too accommodating in the US, I’ve been told. My main character, Chela hangs out with guys and carries a sassy, bordering on snarky, way about her. It comes out indirectly; her mom is not especially pleased about how she expresses her womanhood.

48H The character of Sugar Rivera was based on a real-life musician. Who was it, and how did he become Rivera in your book?

AE Sugar Rivera is loosely based on Charles Mingus, that’s why I have Mingus quotes in there. Originally I used his name instead of Sugar Rivera and the book was a fuller Mingus experience. Way back when, I had a crush on a stand-up bass player and she introduced me to Beneath The Underdog by Charles Mingus and that book stuck with me. I’ve always been deeply touched, from my bones on out, by certain types of Jazz. When I was still in high school, I used to go to The Church of Saint John Coltrane in San Francisco, where folks would play jazz in a rapture. 

Mingus became Rivera just out of fear of being sued. This is a fantasy novel, yet the characters are hyper-real. There is no basis for Mingus having an affair with a curandera in Veracruz. That was just a silly idea, but one that launched me on the journey of writing this book. I was determined to keep the Mingus name in there. We tried to get permission to keep his name. We contacted the people in charge of the Mingus legacy. In the end, I never got the final word from the Mingus people, so we went with Sugar. The reason Sugar has a Spanish surname is because, in the bebop era, there were Jazz vocalists who pretended to be Latino in order to be able to play their music due to segregation. I guess when mambo was on the rise, some Latin artists, could sneak into the white side of segregation.

48H Your book is many things but especially a story about crossing borders. Why are these kinds of stories important now?

AE One of the reasons I made this book nonlinear, where the reader can turn to different pages based on their whims and then have a variety of experiences, I wanted to make it so that the reader could cross the border multiple times and in a variety of ways. 

The upcoming second book in the series, goes into crossing borders more intimately because Chela walks through the border, both alone and with others. In the first book, she attempts to drive through. Most of it is pretty fantastical with crazy car chases while blasting music. “Haitian Fight Song” was one of their border chase songs. I thought it would be cool to connect Haitian independence with my characters struggling to get across the border despite all odds. Haiti was one of the first colonies to become independent and was the first to abolish slavery, all thanks to The Slave Revolt of 1791. Talk about underdogs!

Another border chase song I have in there is a song that was used to inspire American troops in Iraq. I thought it would be funny to flip that song, so instead of being used to kill Arabs, it would be used to fight the Border Patrol.

Parts of the border descriptions were based on true experiences that I have had. The most exciting was getting secretly X-rayed by the Federales and having the car stripped, lining and all. Just like in the story, they thought our CD cases were gun cases. It was nerve-wracking because I didn’t know how to drive and my partner, who was driving, didn’t have a license. But after stripping the car naked, they didn’t ask for his license—and he was a trans guy, so getting arrested in Mexico, was the last thing he needed.

I also wanted to include the ICE Detention Centers. When I was writing the book, the existence of ICE Detention Centers was not common knowledge. I knew that political prisoners were often held for long stretches of time, but it was even more unnerving to hear about everyday folks being locked up indefinitely just for stepping from one side of the line to another. Mind you, the southwest was Mexico not that long ago. I wanted to make sure to include the ICE Detention Center in the book. Apparently, these ICE prisons are all over. The locations are on their website. There’s one a couple of miles from my house and that one is being expanded.

48H Although this is your first published novel, you’ve been a Bay Area favorite in the poetry scene for quite sometime. How did your study with June Jordan and your time with the legendary Molotov Mouths Outspoken Word Troupe shape your fiction?

AE June Jordan branded in my brain, “Maximal impact, minimum words.” I really tried to accomplish that with Chela. I was thinking about that the whole time I was writing. She forced us to read our work aloud to check for flow and assonance. So I think the reader will find reading Chela to be a lyrical experience. June also believed in honoring your own voice. That took me a while to embody, because I never thought anything I experienced was worth telling. 

I have all these gritty, sweaty, smelly but lovely memories of going on random road trips with the Molotov Mouths Spoken Word Troupe, so that’s definitely in there. Manic D Press published an anthology of our collective’s work, and that gave us an excuse to cross the country reading in union halls, community centers, bars, at protests, and even living rooms. Some people have said to me, why didn’t you make Chela Chilena like you? One of the reasons was the road trip, since that was something I did know. Having a road trip from Chile to Mexico would be far, far, too long of a book.  

48H If your book is made into a movie, what actors would you love to see star in it?

AE I like Dascha Polanco from Orange is the New Black and America Ferrera for Chela. Part of the point of the book is that Chela has curves, just like her grandmother and just like the bass, called The Perfumed Lady. Dascha is not meso-American but I like her for Chela is also supposed to represent La Raza Cósmica, The Cosmic Race with indigenous, African, and Spanish blood. I’m not sure for the rest, but I see them in my mind: Pato would need to be tall and big-boned. Fedi, cute, wiry and twitchy. Charlie, full-lipped and long-nosed.

‘Knucklehead’ author Adam Smyer takes on the turbulent ’90s

Author Adam Smyer

LIT San Francisco writer Adam Smyer’s debut novel Knucklehead introduces the reader to Marcus Hayes, a black lawyer who regulates everyday bad behavior with short, sharp bursts of retribution, and “struggles to keep his cool in the personally and politically turbulent ’90s.”

Like Smyer, the book has a wicked sense of humor, even as it gives the reader a tour of the dystopian Clinton years. Comparisons to James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston are well earned, yet there are also strains of Anthony Burgess and Hubert Selby Jr. in Smyer’s prose. 

48 Hills talked to Smyer ahead of this March 6 reading at Book Passage, and March 28 reading at Green Arcade.  

48H What was it about the 1990s that led you to place the events of Knucklehead there?

ADAM SMYER I think that the ’90s have been overlooked in a way. I think that on some level the prevailing narrative has become that everything was fine before 9/11. But everything was definitely not fine. We had militias and the Unabomber and Tim McVeigh and Columbine. The amount of hate and hysteria that we normalized back then laid the groundwork for what is happening today. It was fertile ground for storytelling.

48H What did the choice of a middle-class protagonist allow you to illustrate about the black experience?

AS I’m not sure that was a conscious decision. I’ve been middle-class most of my life; I think I just wrote what I knew. And I’m not sure that the standard “urban” setting was entirely our idea. It might be an assumption that has been imposed. I suppose the fact that [protagonist] Marcus was dealing with 1960s Selma mindsets in 1990s Manhattan makes the point that there is a universality to the struggle. But again I can’t really say that was a conscious choice. I just wrote what was normal for me.

48H What authors are your influences, and why?

AS My answer is always incomplete. This will be no exception. Growing up, Richard Wright and James Baldwin got in deep. In high school, I had Frank McCourt for creative writing and homeroom and so, even though his memoirs were not published until I was grown, the actual person was a major influence on me as a person. And, throughout my childhood, there were a lot of specific books that shaped me: To Be a Slave, The Maltese Falcon (a huge influence re dialogue), Roots, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, like that. In college, I read all the Malcolm I could find. Shoutout to The Handmaid’s Tale and To Be Popular or Smart

In the years before I started writing seriously—say, 1995 to 2005—I read a lot of Maya Angelou (her memoirs) and Chinua Achebe. I think that’s relevant because they made writing some of the best prose on Earth look easy, which in my view is harder than making it look hard.  Angelou and Achebe are my favorite prose writers. I also read a lot of Walter Mosley, Geoff Nicholson, and Junichiro Tanizaki during that period. Shoutout to Why Black People Tend to ShoutThe Emperor of Ocean Park was so good that I almost gave up on writing before I even really started—if that was what writing was, then obviously I couldn’t do that. Then in 2006, at my first VONA retreat, I told Walter Mosley that and he gave me a dope pep talk. 

While I was down the rabbit hole of writing Knucklehead, friends gave me The Fuck-Up, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and The Warmth of Other Suns, all of which kept me going.  Shout out to Fight Club and American Psycho. My current influences include ZZ Packer, Mat Johnson, Laura Albert, Jerry Stahl, Victor LaValle and Junot Diaz. 

This list is still woefully incomplete, and I am as influenced by movies as I am books.  Please don’t get me started on movies.

48H Tell us a little about VONA Voices Writing Workshop you are a part of. Are we going to be seeing a new literary movement coming from this crew?

AS VONA is an annual retreat, and more, for writers of color. My wife found VONA after I wrote a short story and got a little frustrated at how much feedback was basically the suggestion that I make my protagonist white (and male). I was heavy into Mosley and he was teaching one of the VONA courses in ’06 and that is why I went. But once I was there I found myself surrounded by a tribe I did not know I belonged to. Before that, even though I had been writing a little, I did not identify as a writer. I did not recognize the writer mindset until I was surrounded by it. VONA ’06 is basically where I came out. Since then I have done three other retreats and been a fairly active part of the community year-round. My first publication was in an anthology of VONA writers called Dismantle

The talent flowing out of VONA is already making itself known. Tayari Jones comes to mind; she gave me a major shot in the arm when she said, “Pulling Oprah out of a burning car will not finish your novel for you.” And the people I came up with are blowing up: Jamilah King, Nayomi Munaweera, Deesha Philyaw, Lisa Ko, Adriana Ramírez, Dickson Lam, Kelli Stevens Kane, Irma Herrera, Tara Betts, Tara Dorabji, Ashaki Jackson, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Sharline Chiang, Gail Dottin, Minal Hajratwala, Juan Alvarado Valdivia, Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, Vanessa Mártir… another woefully inadequate list. Forgive me. Yeah, it’s a deep crew.

48H What is next for you as an author? What stories do you still need to tell?

AS I have a few stories rattling around.  Some are sort of like Knucklehead; others are not.  We’ll see.

Adam Smyer reads from Knucklehead at Book Passage in the San Francisco Ferry Building at 6pm March 6; and Green Arcade Bookstore (with Ananda Esteva), 1680 Market Street in San Francisco at 7pm March 28.

 James Tracy is the co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. His next book (with Hilary Moore), No Fascist USA: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the Reagan Years will be published by City Lights Publishing in 2019.

Small city, Big Oil, upset victories

The pundit-defying results in Virginia’s recent elections happened because of “local, grassroots organizing,” according to Democratic leaders. An intensively researched saga, Steve Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City is an impressive look at how activists in Richmond, California, figured out how to use the same kind of local clout—and also succeeded.

Early, a longtime journalist and labor organizer, moved from the Boston area to Point Richmond in 2012. In the book’s first chapter, he jokes that his realtor referred to his new home with its sweeping views of the Bay as the “Richmond Riviera.” But six months after the move, his wife was working outside when a panicked neighbor yelled, “Don’t you know there’s a ‘shelter in place’?” The Aug. 6, 2012 Chevron refinery fire was spewing toxic smoke and fumes across the skyline the couple had fallen in love with.

Early was already fascinated with Richmond’s “100-year history of refinery labor struggles and civil rights activity in the black community,” as he says, so the concept for “Refinery Town” easily emerged. But there were challenges. “Without bogging readers down in too much backstory, I had to distill two complex and overlapping threads that shed light on more recent Richmond controversies,” he says.

The result is a very dense, intense read. It draws readers back in time to tell the story of (then) Standard Oil’s establishment in Richmond, drawn by its natural deep-water harbor and the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, then moves forward through decades of environmental injustice, attempts at labor organizing, and overt racial discrimination to arrive at “The Greening of City Hall.”

As recently as 2003, Early reports, Richmond’s city government was rife with corruption and cronyism, and dominated by what is now Chevron and other industrial special interests. The author expertly delineates the multiple personalities, conflicts and events that led to the emergence of what became the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which, through the leadership of people like Juan Reardon, Andres Soto, and Gayle McLaughlin, began the uphill slog to transform Richmond and its politics.

Multifaceted battles over the proposed casino at Point Molate, the hiring of openly gay police chief Chris Magnus, and what Early calls “Tuesday Night Cage Fights” (City Council meetings) are all explored in narrative journalism style, allowing the reader access to passionate viewpoints on both sides.

Yet the most compelling section of “Refinery Town” is naturally its re-telling of Chevron’s now-infamous, unsuccessful attempt to buy Richmond’s 2014 elections in the chapter “An Election Not for Sale.” Before few had ever heard the term “fake news,” Chevron spent $3.1 million in negative advertising, direct mail, and “polling” calls, attempting to smear RPA candidates as anarchists and radicals. What happens when a pre-presidential-campaign Bernie Sanders comes to town really deserves a movie of its own. Early himself becomes a cast member, as he describes his encounters with larger-than-life characters such as former city council members Nat Bates and Corky Booze. (“Refinery Town” was submitted for publication prior to the 2016 city council elections, in which the RPA gained a majority for the first time.)

Early moves Richmond’s story further on, noting that the RPA itself has experienced internal controversies, resulting in reorganization, and in an ongoing split between it and former ally, current Mayor Tom Butt. He then turns to that inescapable Bay Area reality: “Gentrification and Its Discontents.” To those who still haven’t caught up with Oakland’s transformation, it may seem implausible that a place long known as crime-ridden and literally toxic could become “the Bay Area’s next hipster haven.” And the collapse of UCB’s plan to build an extension of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, closely documented by Early, has tamped down those rumors—for now.

Ultimately, Early is most interested in what Richmond’s struggles can teach other American “industry towns,” even those that don’t have large progressive elements.“I think organizers in any blue-collar, working-class community, whether predominantly white or majority minority, can learn a lot from the Richmond experience about making progressive politics a viable alternative to corporate domination,” he says.

And as for the refinery in “Refinery Town”?

“Chevron and Richmond could live happier ever after if the city’s damage suit against the company over the 2012 refinery fire was resolved more quickly,” Early says. “High-stakes litigation against the company just keeps piling up, with neighbors like San Francisco and Oakland, and several nearby counties filing lawsuits over Big Oil’s contribution to global warming, a case far more complex than determining liability for a single refinery fire.”

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Steve Early, author, forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Beacon Press, 2017, 194 pages, $27.95.

Sunday’s Howard Zinn Book Fair envisions “The World We Want”

LIT The world is flaming on Twitter, your friends are frothing on Facebook, and, well, let’s just say online political discourse in this precarious global moment is a bit… fraught. It’s time to take a breath and gather together — in person, in real life — with several hundred fellow dreamers-into-activists and reach, not for the keyboard, but for a better, more humane society.

“This year has brought many hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to defend immigrants, fight for healthcare for all, defeat a Muslim ban, and provide a powerful voice against the racism, mysoginy and homophobia that brought Trump to office,” the organizers say. “This is the spirit that the Fourth Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair (Sun/19, 10am-6pm. $5 suggested donation. City College, Mission Campus, SF) celebrates as we envision what ‘The World We Want,’ might look like.”

HBZF is inspired by the great peoples’ historian, who described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist,” and who passed away in 2010. The Book Fair has grown to more than 60 exhibitors including everyone from Rainbow Cooperative and Social Justice Journal to Jacobin Magazine and the Revolutionary Poets’ Brigade.

There’s also an enormous lineup of speakers and presenters, workshops and other activities whose topics include “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” (presented by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz), “Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restoration in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” “Narrating the Anthropocene: Storytelling to Rouse Communities Grappling With Planetary Crises,” “Futures of Black Radicalism” and tons more. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the Zinn-inspired ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States’ will speak at the Howard Zinn Book Fair. Photo by Barrie Karp.

I spoke with organizers Joan Bender and James Tracy about the fair’s origins, its importance as a venue of intellectual and social exchange, and this year’s expansive theme “The World We Want.”

48 HILLS The Howard Zinn Book Fair is on its fourth year, and has an astonishing range of speakers and exhibitors. How did it all originally come together? 

JAMES TRACY In 2014, the original organizing committee wanted a place where people from various points on the left could get away from online debates and just share ideas with each other in a little more depth. We started from the assumption that books, theory, and history were all still important and could make our actions more impactful. We also recognized that no one political tradition had all of the answers. Our first Book Fair was held at Mission High attracted about 1300 people, and we had expected about 500!

JOAN BENDER It was an opportunity to reach out to activists, writers, poets, professors, students, community groups, and to bring them together in once place, united by their vision of grassroots struggle from below and fighting for a better world. There wasn’t really another event like this in San Francisco and we are proud that we are making it an annual event.

JAMES TRACY The Fair is organized literally on the floor or the Green Arcade Bookstore. Our current organizing committee includes people from AK Press, Haymarket Books, and the Labor and Community Studies Department of CCSF. We kinda spun out of several different projects — the Voices of the People’s History events, and the Avanti Popolo reading series at City Lights. A lot of the initial conversation and ideas came out of drinking coffee with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

48 Did you personally know Howard? 

JB Most of us organizing the Howard Zinn Book Fair did not know Howard Zinn himself, but knew him through his writings, especially “A People’s History of the United States,” which many people read in high school or college. Also, some of us have participated in or watched Voices of a People’s History which gives public expression to the freedom fighters from our past and present, and seeks to educate and inspire a new generation working for liberation and justice. 

JT I met him once at the National Association of Street Newspaper Conference in Boston. The door to the auditorium he was going to speak at was locked, and he just held court hanging out with a bunch of homeless and formerly homeless activists, not only answering questions but asking a bunch of questions about their activism.

I’ll always remember when one woman shared that she had organized a successful campaign that resulted in free bus passes from families moving from welfare to work. One gentleman in the crowd yelled out that this campaign was just ‘reformist’ and that she needed to fight for socialism. Howard shut that down quickly and said “Son, big revolutions come out of small ones.” With a really stern look. When we finally got into the room he helped set up the chairs and tables. When he finally took the stage, he opened with “I feel really at home here,” and started talking about the history of organizing for housing. 

Poster by Cece Carpio

48H What is particularly new or strikes you as especially interesting this year at the fair?

JB This year’s lineup has sessions covering a wide variety of timely and important topics including the rise of fascism, the fight for healthcare, the economy, the role of the Democratic Party, the relationship between electoral politics, and building the Left. Something that is especially exciting this year are the sessions devoted to celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s not every year that we get to commemorate such an incredible exercise in mass democracy! Another notable speaker is Sekou Odinga, a former Black Panther and recently released political prisoner.

JT We’re also really happy that the Center For Political Education is providing the Black Reconstruction in Our Times track — updating the ideas of WEB Dubois for today.

48H This year’s theme is “The World We Want” — why do you feel this is particularly poignant, and how is it reflected in the Fair?  

JT We keep seeing dynamic and powerful moments such as the mobilizations to defeat the Muslim ban, the Women’s March, and the confront the fascist movement. We’re trying to create a space where people can ask what it might look like if the same forces weren’t just playing great defense. That’s going to take gathering those who want to work within and outside of the system to create strategy together. History is a powerful tool. If we use it correctly, we don’t have to start over again every few years. That’s the main lesson of the History From Below tradition. 

JB As Trump passes the one-year mark of his presidency, millions of people are looking for a way to fight back against his all-out assault on the rights of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and the working class as a whole. Now is the time for collaboration and coalition building among those who are committed to turning the tide on Trump’s reactionary political agenda, and the HZBF is the place for us to come together and figure out how to build a better world: the world we want. At the HZBF this year, we’ve  dedicated sessions to this theme like “The Economy We Want,” featuring local activist Alessandro Tinonga and George Lakey, author of Viking Economics. The HZBF is a really important event for the Bay Area left — this year more than ever. And our theme reflects this.

A better world is possible, and talking to each other about what that world might look like is the first step to achieving it.

HOWARD ZINN BOOK FAIR
Sun/19, 10am-6pm, $5 suggested donation (NOTAFLOF)
City College, Mission Campus, SF.
More info here. 

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