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.

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

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