Lit

Ben Folds illuminates the music biz with ‘Lightning Bugs’

Ben Folds. Photo by Joe Vaughn

Ben Folds is not your average rockstar, so it’s no surprise that the genre-bending alternative, pop, and classical artist’s autobiography, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, is not your typical tell-all.

Instead of issuing yet another celebrity memoir teeming with lurid tales of sexcapades and drug abuse, the former Ben Folds Five frontman and multi-platinum-selling solo artist, best known for such cult classics as “Brick,” “The Luckiest,” and “You Don’t Know Me,” fills his 336-page bio with career lessons for artists, which he himself learned the hard way from his own successes and failures.

Folds, who serves as the first-ever Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, scores for film and TV, and hosts the ArtsVote 2020 Podcast Series of interviews on arts policies with current 2020 presidential candidates, is particularly suited to teaching readers such things as how to find their creative voice, think like an artist, and sustain a lasting and multidisciplinary artistic career.

The singer-songwriter is excited to impart even more lessons when he appears in San Francisco, in conversation with SF Chronicle pop music critic Aidin Vaziri, on his birthday (Thu/12 at JCCSF) and ice the cake with an intimate performance of some of his standout tunes.

But first, he chatted with me about his most valuable lesson for creatives, why arts education is critical, and why every single person should write their own damn memoir.

48 HILLS There are a lot of lessons in your book for aspiring musicians and creatives in general. Which, in your opinion, is the most important one?

BEN FOLDS I would simply drop off the suggestion that human life is essentially creative at its core and separating art from life is not always an easy, possible, or smart thing to do.

People are inherently creative. I don’t know what lesson comes out of that. It’s just something to remember as people embark upon life, whether you’re selling insurance like Charles Ives, one of the great composers, was doing, or whether you’re shaking your ass on stage like Elvis was doing.

48 HILLS Reading your book, I can see why you’ve become such a huge advocate for arts education and music therapy funding in our nation’s public schools. Why have so many been quick to abandon arts education?

BEN FOLDS Because I think in order to achieve the incredible things we’ve achieved, we have all become experts in our fields. So I think the compartmentalization into various expertise has given birth to the idea that creativity is only valuable if it’s the expertise—that which puts food on the table—when creativity is actually how we live, what we’re interested in, what brings us joy, and what makes us human.

The purest environment in which we really foster creativity is in the arts. So the reason that I’m really in favor of reestablishing the value of arts education is that it’s so good for everybody’s life going forward.

48 HILLS I know you’ve spoken to many Democratic candidates for president on your podcast to get their stances on this issue.

BEN FOLDS Such a number has been done politically on the arts as a frivolous thing to invest public funds into and in the course of that, we have devalued the very idea of art, and that’s a grave mistake.

But I’ve talked to plenty of politicians that are very for arts education that will be the first to tell me that they sucked at art and music and when they were in it didn’t understand why they were doing it. But they can now see the value when they make a good public speech and the cadence, rhythm, timing, and pitch they choose are all artistic decisions.

48 HILLS In your book you describe how your Aunt Sharon was big on investigating and recording your family history for posterity. Since you have kids, I wonder if part of the reason you wrote your memoir was to get down a Folds family history for them. 

BEN FOLDS Well, it is. But they know most of that stuff anyway. I think a lot of the things about my adult life, they won’t have known until they read the book, but I can’t honestly say that they’ve read the book.

I probably wouldn’t have read my father’s book till I was in my 40’s, had he written a book. So I don’t anticipate they’ve read it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love me, but one day they may read it and go, “Oh, he did this and this and this before I was born. I had no idea because he didn’t talk about that.” So that could come in handy.

My daughter has become pretty interested in the Ancestry.com stuff, and so I’ve actually learned quite a bit.

48 HILLS So are you related to anyone famous?

BEN FOLDS No, I don’t think so. There’s notably veterans up in the chain and a lot of mountain people in there who didn’t know that anything was going on outside of that. My grandfather was considered big stuff and famous because he was from the big city of Martinsville, North Carolina, and he sold tractors. So he was kind of the rockstar of the family.

48 HILLS You’ve said that you hope that in the process of  writing your memoir you eliminated some “badly filed memories.”  What did you mean by that? 

BEN FOLDS There’s another angle to that. I nearly called the book Write Your Own Damn Memoir and the joke of that was that I think that people in their 40s should actually take a sabbatical and write their own memoir. The reason I believe that after doing it is because you sometimes have memories that are not right because they’re false, filed like bricks in your memory by the people, say the 10-year-old, that you once were. But when you reexamine your life, you can take each bad brick out, so it doesn’t inform your life or decision making for the rest of your life.

48 HILLS You’ll be at the Jewish Community Center of SF on your birthday. How do you feel about celebrating your birthday with us?

BEN FOLDS I like that people are buying my book and showing up to talk about it. I can’t imagine anything more generous.

48 HILLS How do you typically mark your birthday?

BEN FOLDS By not announcing it. By not having my friends or family do anything about it if they would restrain themselves. I don’t need anything. I know it’s my birthday that morning. I’ll wake up and go, “Yeah it’s my birthday,” but it’s not avoiding it. I just don’t celebrate it.

BEN FOLDS: CONVERSATION & PERFORMANCE
Thu/12, 7pm, $35-$65 
JCCSF, SF.
More info here.

Aya De León’s ‘Side Chick Nation’ explores post-Maria Puerto Rico

Aya De León

LIT Aya De León is a writer, activist, educator, spoken word poet and author of the award-winning Justice Hustlers series, including latest installment Side Chick Nation. The Director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, she teaches poetry and spoken word at UC Berkeley and is an alumna of Cave Canem, VONA and Harvard University. We caught up with her before her reading at Octopus Literary Salon, Tue/20.

48 HILLS  Tell us about the Justice Hustlers series of books. You describe it as “feminist heist/romance.” What do you mean?

Aya De León: As far as feminist heist, this is a Robin Hood series about a group of women who are redistributing wealth from representatives of the patriarchy to low income women of color. Sometimes they use the funds in direct reparations to specific groups of women who have been harmed. Sometimes they fund institutions that meet the needs of those communities. But I see these women engaging in direct action on behalf of their communities.

As far as feminist romance, the book would fit into the category of romantic suspense. The story follows the woman, as her choices generate the central action plot. As a secondary plot, the series uses the traditional tropes of romance to plot the trajectory of a heterosexual couple where the man really loves her, but the relationship reaches a crisis where the man needs to choose between his allegiance to patriarchy and the woman he loves. Because these are happily-ever-after romances, the man is tested and initially falters, but in the end he always chooses the woman.

48H Your latest novel, “Side Chick Nation” is set in post Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. What do you hope the reader will learn about the island?

ADL By creating a point of view character who goes through the hurricane, I wanted audiences to have a deeper level of empathy with the people of Puerto Rico and what they experienced, both in terms of the hurricane and the ongoing storm of colonization by the US. My protagonist, Dulce, is an outsider to PR, so her POV seemed a little too removed to carry the story alone.

The secondary protagonist, Marisol Rivera, is Puerto Rican. In later drafts, I added the POV of her cousins. Dulce could show us the trauma of the storm itself, but couldn’t show the devastation to a character’s home and homeland. I wanted to make sure that was part of the book, as well.

48H As a politically engaged author, do you find that fiction can do things that non-fiction can’t?

ADL Empathy is at the core of my politics. If I only write non-fiction, I can only create narratives where people empathize with my limited personal experience. But through fiction, I can create characters who live all kinds of different lives, and create empathy for their lives among my readers.

The danger of course is that I haven’t lived those lives, and I am vulnerable to writing cliche or stereotype about identities that I don’t share. Which is why I used sensitivity readers, even when writing about communities where I do have a lot of familiarity. I find there is always something that can be changed to better reflect not only the reality of those communities, but the movements that those communities have organized for their freedom and survival.

48H You are one of the Bay Area’s best known poets. How has the poetry scene changed here in the past few years now that the Slam scene is not as large as it used to be?

ADL: Sadly, as a working mom who has been writing a book a year for the last five years, I don’t get out that much. When I was in slam, in the early 2000s, it was HUGE. The Bay Area had the biggest slam in the nation. But artistic movements change. Venues close. Artists and producers shift their focus.

I see an incredible amount of energy continuing in the youth slam scene, Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices continue to have a lot of momentum. We’re also seeing lots of writers from slam communities come of age and branch out into longer forms.

Within the last decade, I also watched some of the slam and poetry momentum shift into storytelling: The Moth, Snap Judgment, and other storytelling slam spaces have gotten really large audiences and have been spaces of really good composition, even if the writing is more conversational, and isn’t always as dazzling at the sentence level, as is the case with poetry. But the storytelling form is that these need to be true stories. So there’s a different power. This is sort of the opposite of what I had said about the power of fiction. Fiction has the range. But non-fiction has the power of personal testimony.

Aya De León reads from Sidechick Nation Tue/20, 6:30 at the Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster Street, Oakland.

AIDS, sex, and ‘Illuminations on Market Street’

Benjamin Heim Shepherd. Photo by Nanni Fontana

LIT Author Benjamin Heim Shepard is a Brooklyn-based activist who has published 10 books, including White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (1997), From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (2002).

His new book, Illuminations on Market Street, is a turn to fiction. It “traces the story of a young caregiver in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Cab is on the deep end of a losing streak. After having been dumped yet again, he moves to Haight-Ashbury fresh out of college. It is the middle of a recession, before the dot-com boom, and AIDS is an immediate and untreatable reality.

“A story about AIDS and sex, acting up and praying for the dead, this is a story about living and fighting in the face of insurmountable challenges as one writer searches for his own story.”

We spoke with Shepard about his inspirations and history in advance of several Bay Area readings.

48 Hills: You are one of the most prolific scholars of social movement history and theory writing today. What inspired the switch to fiction? 

BHS:  I think books about social movements are about collective, zeitgeist-like sentiments, built of countless overlapping, sometimes colliding, intersecting culture tales.

The movements that have inspired me, the magic realist writings of Garcia Marquez and the Riot Grrrl Zines all suggest the blurrings between fiction and non-fiction are more interesting. “Confuse truth with fiction, attempt to de-centralize the manufacturing of the ‘truth’” notes one Riot Grrrl Zine.

Illuminations on Market Street started off as a journal I was writing when I worked in an AIDS housing program in San Francisco in the mid-1990’s, writing about sex and the people I knew, many passing from this life to the next. Those who died or disappeared from my life never quite seemed to leave. They were always around reminding me. Memories everywhere. Reminders everywhere. So I wrote about them, especially during those 12 to 8am graveyard shifts on Market Street, in the quiet hours, in that messy space between my San Francisco history and ghosts. This was a space where we were asked  to live another way. 

Benjamin Heim Sheperd

Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai, the Russian revolutionary who wrote The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, said of sexual liberation and revolution: “Nothing is more difficult than writing an autobiography. What should be emphasized? Just what is of general interest? It is advisable, above all, to write honestly and dispense with any of the conventional introductory protestations of modesty. For if one is called upon to tell about one’s life so as to make the events that made it what it became useful to the general public, it can mean only that one must have already wrought something positive in life, accomplished a task that people recognize. …”

Illuminations grapples with similar public and private sentiments. But when people sleep with you or you get to know them before they are dying, they are not giving you permission to write their story. So a few embellishments feel more fitting. 

One of my college history professors wrote about living through World War II on the Western Front. I asked about a paper he wrote about it. And said of course it didn’t really happen that way. He was just embellishing a bit. In other words, he never let the truth get between him and a good story. I whole-heartedly concur. 

48Hills Are you dismissing the importance of telling truths? That seems a little dangerous in today’s world.

BHS No. But I for one don’t believe in truth with a capital T. That seems more about power. Neither science nor theology are outside the influence of cultural bias or interpretation. No one has a monopoly on the truth.  Instead, all we have are stories to help us interpret and create meaning within a rapidly changing world.  That said, there is science and there is peer review. There is historic evidence. Climate change is real. So are the genocides dictators like deny.

I am talking about stories people tell here. In this case, we can differentiate between questions of narrative truth and historical truth. There is validity to both. With life stories, sometimes we get to a more honest story, a more compelling fiction by liberating ourselves from the restrictions of non-fiction.    

48H San Francisco is depicted almost as another character in your book. Do you think that AIDS and displacement has destroyed the connection between today’s city and the 1990s one you write about?

BHS Displacement is a phenomenon taking place all over the world. Cities are always grappling with patterns of migration, community formation, and displacement. This is a story of capital. It is the story of the Brooklyn where I live now and the San Francisco where I once lived. I was trying to write about the people who arrived, the people who came after World War II and never went home, the ‘49ers, the cabaret performers, the Beats, the Hippies, the Gay Liberationists, even the people with AIDS who came from Mexico seeking treatment unavailable elsewhere, all of whom came and created a community. I was not in San Francisco for the displacement years. But that might have been my blind spot. AIDS is not over and neither is displacement. But I don’t think San Francisco is entirely over either. 

I have always felt that San Francisco is a place with exquisite never-been-so-lonely beauty. But its place in which I’ve never felt more lonely. I always felt that way living here. I still feel that way decades later. 

Benjamin Heim Shepard. Photo by Erik McGregor

48H One of the interesting things about your book is that it is almost a book within a book. Cab is possessed to write everything down. What does this plot device allow to say about our memories? 

BHS Cab is a person observing a person observing a city, whose moved to the city, whose lost in the city, learning its ok to be lost in the city, but the only way to not be lost in the city is to excavate his Southern past, the bad relationships, the racism that the culture is built around, that is lingering in  the ways the country treats those who are sick, the poor, the outsiders. Cab is a historian of the self, writing a life story. Every life story involves a necessary degree of giving and taking details. 

Think of Blanche DuBois. Studs Terkel said during an interview with Tennessee Williams in 1961 at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. “Think of Blanche for a minute,” Terkel chimed in. “I’m asking you, the creator, to think of Blanche . . . She represented so many good things too, despite the sham that she seemed to evoke.” “Well, as she said, ‘I don’t tell truth. I tell what ought to be truth.’

She had the courage to admit that she occasionally embellished upon the real facts. And when her back was to the wall, she had courage, truth, and eloquence, I thought,” noted Williams. There is something prophetic in those “ought to be the truths.” To be that’s what San Francisco stories are all about.

Everyone reinvents themselves here. Everyone retells their story here.

48Hills:  Your book joins a long and still growing lineage of work exploring San Francisco’s history and politics. Do you have any particular literary event inspirations for it? 

BHS: Living in San Francisco, I was inspired by the AIDS writers, sex positive queer writers, David Feinberg, Patrick Califia. Kathy Acker. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which just came out when I moved to San Francisco in 1992. Pat Conroy, whose daughter was a friend of mine in town, traced a way of moving beyond the South while honestly looking at what happened. 

And then the San Francisco writers, Jack London and Armistead Maupin trace ways of finding new stories out in the West. Most of all, Allen Ginsberg and Harold Norse, traced poems about leaving old stories behind, finding new narratives here. My father dropped out of college when he read Howl, moving to join the Beats here. I felt it when I got to San Francisco.  

48 Hills: Does San Francisco’s activist scene of the 1990s have anything to teach us today? Or are we just being nostaligic for nothing?

It says there is always a time to fight, care, and get organized. Let’s not let what we can’t do get in the way of what we can. It’s always a good time to fight back and take care of each other. Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living. Even with a little sartorial spender, a wink, a smile, a little camp, mixed with a bit of anger, as the queer movement has always brought to the process.

Illuminations on Market Street West Coast Tour

Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM
With authors: Aya De Leon, Kate Jessica Raphael, Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Liz Mariani
The Octopus Literary Salon, Oakland
More info here.

Wednesday, August 21, 7pm
45 Thought Crimes and Illuminations on Market Street
With author Lynee Breedlove
Green Arcade Bookstore, SF.
More info here.

August 22, Castro and 18th Streets, 11am
Guerrilla outdoor reading with Benjamin Shepard and Michael Petrelis
Public Reading and conversation about illuminations, AIDS activism and sex.

Beyond the valley of the gig economy

Steven Hill

Spanning the month of July, this year’s incarnation of LaborFest, the 26th annual, includes history talks and walks, union gatherings, films (including Sorry to Bother You), book readings, conferences, workshops, forums and yes, a closing party. There are panels—a host of them—and there is poetry (the Revolutionary Poetry Brigade gathers on July 13).

The overarching theme of this year’s fest is “Labor On the Edge: Dystopia or a Future for Workers,” and one of the events most relevant to that pressing concern is “The Gig Economy, AI, Robotics, Workers and Dystopia San Francisco.” For a window into the subject matter, which is applicable to anyone living in the Bay Area today, I caught up with one of the event’s trio of speakers, Steven Hill, author of 2015’s influential Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.

48 HILLS How would you say the symbiotic relationship between San Francisco and Silicon Valley has changed over time?

STEVEN HILL When you ask about the history between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I go back to the 1950s. People think of Silicon Valley as Facebook, Google and Apple, but really the basis of Silicon Valley is military funding. That’s what it’s been since the 1950s. The semiconductor industry, the first big tech companies that were funded by the military here, became the basis for everything else. That’s why you can have an ecosystem in which seven out of every 10 startups fail. It’s gambling at this point. The only reason you can do that is this solid, consistent funding going back decades from military spending.

With San Francisco, despite its alternative roots in the ‘60s and ’70s, there was always an undercurrent of wealth here that was based on that spending. It’s ironic, since it was a hotbed of counterculturalism. But the wealth basis of it to a certain degree was military spending.

Within what we think of as Silicon Valley—Steve Jobs and the like—there was always an undercurrent of alternative left and right. You had the alternative left, but the alternative right was sort of a libertarian right that didn’t like government.

It sometimes has been called the California Ideology, this hybrid of left and right. Both didn’t like government for their own means. The left didn’t like government because they were against the Vietnam War and the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The right was against government because they didn’t want government intervening in their businesses. Someone like Stewart Brand was this unique, iconic figure who represented this hybrid of left and right.

When you talk about alternative San Francisco, you can kind of cherry-pick your own version. But from my point of view, it was always this odd mix. At any given time, one of them would be a little more current than the other.

The latest version is more of the politically right version—Travis Kalanick from Uber, a devotee of Ayn Rand and hyper-libertarianism that says get the government the hell out of our way. “I’m going to make a great product or service, you’re going to love it, I’m going to make a billion dollars—what could be wrong?” That’s the latest twist of this ongoing narrative that goes back many decades.

48H So much of tech and the “sharing economy” hinges on the idea that all new developments are good. What would you say to the inverse argument that tech critiques are driven by Luddite or more precisely retrograde tendencies?

SH I’ve been hit with that all the time. When Raw Deal came out in October 2015, many organizations, such as the New York Times, media organizations in particular both locally and nationally were going through this honeymoon period [with tech]. The reaction was, “Oh, Steve, your book is too extreme. You don’t get it—the work is going to come to all these freelancers. It’s going to flow to them. They’ll have flexibility and they’ll be able to command any price that they want.” I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me – this is not going to end well.

Now, here we are, four years later. It didn’t take long for the truth to come out. Uber is a disaster in many ways, unless you’re a person who has no other way to get around. I’m sympathetic to [local] people who use Uber—you’re living in a city with a terrible public transportation system. Also, I live in the Outer Sunset, where it would take 40 minutes just to get a taxi. I understand why people want a transportation alternative, but Uber was not it.

One of my greatest fears about San Franciscans and Americans in general is they they don’t even know what a good public transportation system looks like. I spent a lot of time in Berlin, for example. From 2016 to 2018, I was there more than I was here because of two different fellowships. I never had a car. You could get anywhere you needed to in the city with public transportation—whether subway or tram or the bus, there was a stop no more than a six- or seven-minute walk away. You’d wait no more than three or four minutes for the train to show up. It works.

San Francisco and Americans in general, they can’t even conceive of what a public transportation system might look like. If you can’t conceive of it, you’re not going to spend the money to create it. So here we are with a new service that decided, well, well just flood the streets with cars. It was pretty predictable how that played out: congestion. Everyone who uses it, even if they like it, is stuck in traffic. Those who use it, they don’t want to admit that yes, you tap the app and a car shows up in a few minutes, but you’re stuck in traffic for 20 or 25 minutes longer sometimes because congestion is so much worse.

48H Ecologically it’s not sound either, putting more cars out on the streets driving aimlessly.

SH Absolutely. At a time when we’re supposed to be reducing our carbon footprint and San Francisco is supposed to be a leader in that, you can’t blame Donald Trump and the Republican Congress and Fox News for the mess that San Francisco has become. Democrats did this. We could have a long conversation about which Democrats and what they did and didn’t do, but that’s the reality.

48H When you think of 20th century industrial cities like Detroit that went through severe depression to become relative ghost towns, do you think San Francisco has put itself in grave danger as far as its future goes, because it is so besotted with tech and the gig economy?

SH Detroit became what it became because the auto industry collapsed. I don’t see that happening. I don’t see any imminent collapse. Especially when you have investors from all over the world, global capital just looking for a return. They don’t care where they get that from, so you have huge amounts of Chinese money here.

48H There’s the Pacific Rim aspect.

SH Exactly. But at this point this iconic American city has been transformed. It has been stunning to see how quickly it happened, when you just flood it with money, a certain type of money. At this point there’s a housing crisis, there’s an ecological crisis, a transportation crisis—all these crises. I know many member on the Board of Supervisors, they’re all good people. But when I see the proposals coming out of City Hall, it doesn’t seem like they have an idea about what to do.

They’re overwhelmed, and again, I don’t think many of them know what a good public transportation system looks like. I had a meeting with a member of the Board not that long ago. I said, There’s a housing crisis. If you look at Vienna, the way they deal with housing is that 50 percent of their housing stock is what’s called social housing. About 25 percent of the whole housing stock is government-owned, and another 25 percent is all non-profit housing development. You can only do that if you use public land.

I asked if San Francisco was looking into public land and this person said, “Yes, we are.” I said, how about public golf courses? I was at Lake Merced not that long ago, taking a walk there, and there were about 150 people using that golf course, all from a very narrow demographic—basically white men. On that piece of a 163-acre plot, you could probably build housing for at least 7500 people. His eyes got big: “Oh, no.” We have six public golf courses here, why don’t we put one of them to use for housing if it’s really that’s big of a crisis?

That’s when you realize that the real challenge is that we’re in what has been called the twilight of the elites. Even when good people get elected, they’re still part of the elites. They say it’s a crisis all the time, but do they really understand the extent of the crisis, and are they willing to do truly radical things to deal with that crisis? I’m not sure they are.

48H Since Raw Deal has come out, have you dealt with blowback from Uber or Airbnb and their higher-ups? Also, a mainstream publication such as the Chronicle, I looked at their review, and there was overt investment in these businesses driving the review of the book. They basically were in agreement with your beginning and closing arguments, but when it came down to critiquing specific businesses, they didn’t want to deal with what you were saying.

SH It was an odd review, you’re right. I’m not aware of anything explicit [in terms of blowback] but there was this kind of effort to marginalize the book when it came out and say it was too extreme. I would get that in some of the interviews.

I was actually invited to Uber after the book came out, to meet with one of their mid-level executives. It was a rather strange meeting. I basically told them, You should all get your resumes ready because your business model is doomed to fail. You guys are subsidizing 50 percent of every one of these rides, and that’s why you’re losing billions of dollars. If you ever try to get to profitability, you’l have to double your fares and your user base isn’t going to use you anymore. It’s not clear how you guys are going to get to profitability, and you’re never going to get there by waiting for automated cars. That’s 15 to 20 years away, if ever. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get automated cars. That was the conversation.

With the Chronicle, certainly they are the business newspaper, that is part of their constituency. I have no information that they’ve somehow overtly or covertly campaigned to support the businesses. Carolyn Said has written some decent articles about Airbnb. Finally the problems got so bad that even the Chronicle couldn’t ignore it.

48: The LaborFest panel you’re on has “gig economy” in its title, but Raw Deal critiques the notion of the “sharing economy” as presented to people using these companies. Since Raw Deal has been published, have there been any popular newer terms that should provoke a sense of wariness?

SH They now are calling it ride hailing rather than ride sharing. A lot of the attention focuses on companies like Airbnb and Uber, but other companies like Upwork and TaskRabbit, the labor brokerages, are in some ways more potentially damaging down the road.

Upwork claims to have 10 million freelancers on their platform all over the world. It’s basically an auction in which labor is bidding on jobs, and you can watch the race to the bottom. You have people from Thailand competing against people from the United States. Someone from the US says, I’ll take 60 dollars an hour for a job and someone from Thailand or the Philippines says, I’ll take two dollars an hour. They’re skilled, they have access to technology and the Internet, they can upload the job when they’re done. you can see a whole range of occupations on this platform, from lawyers, architects and engineers to translators, graphic designers and journalists—you can hire just about anybody who doesn’t need to be working with anyone else as part of a team. They can finish the job and upload it to you through the internet or the cloud.

You’re basically competing against workers from all over the world, and more and more of these companies are using these types of platforms to access the freelance labor forces. Of course, the freelancers are not getting any kind of safety net, and they’re not paying any taxes. Those companies don’t get a lot of attention, but in some ways they’re even more potentially destructive.

48H Do you think the freelance economy is continuing to splinter more and more into a servant class since Raw Deal was published? Has the momentum been continuing?

SH Yes, I would say it’s continuing. The unemployment rate has been going down, but it’s not just the quantity of jobs, it’s the quality of jobs, and the quality of jobs has declined since the economic collapse of 2008. You have more people working part-time, temp, freelance, who don’t have access to any safety net and don’t have any job security. The companies try touting these gig workers and there’s been a bunch of different organizations trying to count them that conclude there’s not that many of them, but what they are missing is that more and more workers work a very complicated labor profile now. They may have a regularly employed part-time job for 15 or 20 hours, but then they supplement that by driving shifts for Uber or some kind of gig work.

More and more workers are having to figure out how to stitch their economic lives together. The unemployment survey isn’t well-suited for this type of complexity of a labor force.The unemployment survey, the household survey, the business survey, they just ask you, Are you employed, yes or no? Do you have a second job, yes or no?

We don’t have a portable safety net for workers, which is one of the ideas I propose in chapter 10 of my book. Other countries already have this type of thing in place. A country like the Netherlands, about 50 percent of workers work part-time at this point, and they earn enough to make a living, they have a potable safety net, they have the things they need, because they’re gearing their laws and system towards these types of work. In the US we’re just letting the workers fend for themselves. The ownership society has become the on-your-own society.

48H Does this dovetail economically with what’s been happening under the Trump administration?

SH It’s been going on before Trump. Obama, in his 2016 State of the Union address, did endorse my idea for a portable safety net. Senator Mark Warner introduced a bill. But the Democrats have not been that much better than the Republicans. There is a bill in the state legislature, AB-5, to turn a lot of these freelance occupations into regular employees. That would be a step in the right direction. We’ll see if it actually makes it through the legislature and gets signed by [Governor] Newsom without being gutted by spineless Democrats. I suspect that’s what’s going to happen.

48H Would you say there’s any presidential candidate on the Democrat side that has a direct engagement with what we’re discussing?

SH The two are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The rest of the candidates are pretty clueless.

48H You were talking earlier about transportation systems, and more recently about the Netherlands. What other suggestions would you have about switching the direction we’re going in with the gig economy?

SH One is to upgrade the laws so that the law sees occupations that are employees and not contractors. The loopholes now are so big and the laws are not being enforced. The is one step, but in addition we have to have the portable safety net idea, which is just that every worker would have established for them what’s called an individual security account. Any business that hires that worker, regardless of that worker’s classification, whether they’re freelance or regularly employed, that business contributes a certain amount that is prorated to the number of hours that you work for them. If you just work 10 hours a week for that business, you get what would be like a quarter of a safety net contribution into that individual security account. A worker then uses those funds to buy their Social Security, Medicare, health care, unemployment, paid sick leave – all these sorts of things.

On top of that we need to enforce anti-trust legislation. We’ve gotten out of enforcing anti-trust in this country. Clearly these platforms are a form of monopoly. Elizabeth Warren has introduced some legislation regarding that.

When you talk about specific companies such as Uber and Airbnb, there’s a whole bunch of things that need to be done. For a lot of these companies it comes down to who controls the data. For example, everyone talks about data in terms of Facebook and Google, but with Uber, San Francisco should be getting the data about who the drivers are, and then that data should be given to the drivers so they can organize.

So many of these platform companies have been creating what is called a distributed labor force. These are workers who don’t work in any one place together, so they don’t know each other, they can’t find each other, they can’t organize. By getting the data from these companies, including Airbnb, to enforce the laws around these workers, that’s another important step.

There are other things that I propose. Digital licenses—if you think about any traditional brick and mortar business, Ford Motor Company can’t just set down in California with an auto plant and do whatever the hell they want. They have to sign up to a lot of business licenses and permits and environmental laws that say you can do this but you can’t do that. But these platform companies can exist everywhere and nowhere. They can set up servers anywhere in the world and beam into anywhere in the world. They take advantage of this to basically follow nobody’s laws or rules but their own.

The idea of a digital license is to say to Google or Facebook, If you want to operate in Spain or Europe or the United States or California, here’s our digital license for you to sign up to, here’s our rules that we want you to follow, and if you don’t follow them, you’re not going to be allowed to operate. This seems radical because we had this dream that the internet was going to be this wide open beautiful thing with information free-flowing and governments [not able to] control it.

That’s the dream that’s dying right now. At this point we have several different versions of the internet. We have the US, which is basically the Silicon Valley version. There’s the Chinese version—they’ve got their own companies and their own rules. And increasingly there’s more of a European version that is kind of a tweak of the Silicon Valley version—the general data protection regulation, the European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, who has cracked down on Google and Apple and all these companies. That’s three different versions of the internet out there already, and we have to start making these companies act like traditional brick and mortar companies. Not all that much is different. They’re just conducting business in a different way. The idea is that the things that have worked for companies in the past we can apply to these new companies. We just have to get around our mindsets, which have been injected with Silicon Valley values. These are just companies. They have a product, they have a service, and we need to regulate them to get the good from them and leave out the bad.

48H Whether one-on-one or in critical discourse, what sorts of positive responses have you gotten to Raw Deal since the book was published?

SH The book was a mini-bestseller in China. It’s had a good run. It’s been part of a wave of critics of Silicon Valley that now at this point is dominant. Silicon Valley is backpedaling pretty fast. Raw Deal was one of the first books to say, Hey, hang on, this is not going to work out.

LABORFEST: THE GIG ECONOMY, AI, ROBOTICS, WORKERS AND DYSTOPIA SAN FRANCISCO
July 10, 7pm, free
ILWU Local 34 Hall
801 2nd Street, SF
laborfest.net

**Due to a transcription error, the figure “75,000 people” was originally erroneously used. The correct figure is “7500 people.”

An audience with Marc Huestis, ‘Impresario of Castro Street’

Marc Huestis. Photo by Steven Underhill

Legendary event producer Marc Huestis is famous for organizing lavish tributes to Hollywood stars including Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Jane Russell, Karen Black, Patty Duke, and John Waters, at the Castro Theatre.

But Sun/23, Huestis, who has just released his autobiography, Impresario of Castro Street (Kindle, $9.99; Deluxe Color Print Edition, $29.99; Black and White Edition, $19.99)—which details all the blood, sweat, and tinsel that went into this labor of love, and his own life—is going to get some much-deserved love in return from the community that he’s supported artistically for the past 45 years. In typical Marc Huestis fashion, he’s coordinating it, himself.

“No one else’s gonna do it,” he joked. “I feel like on one hand, it’s self-indulgent, but it’s the kind of tribute I wanted to give myself and now I’m creating this show that’s all about me and in my own words. A good circle of friends who’ve been with me over a long period of time are going to be there and I think it’s going to be very special for me.“

Huestis is an artist in his own right. Decades ago he performed with fabled theatre group the Angels of Light, co-founded the Frameline film festival, and produced the 1982 camp classic film Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? as well as some of the earliest AIDS docs including 1987’s Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age and the award-winning Sex Is… This special ‘Marc Huestis: Impresario of Castro Street tribute event (Victoria Theatre, June 23, 6:45pm), part of the Frameline Film Fest, is long overdue.

Part of the Frameline film festival, which Huestis helped launch in the mid-’70s, the showcase will include readings and performances of the filmmaker and event producer’s memoir by Poseidon Adventure star Carol Lynley, comic Bruce Vilanch, film critic Jan Wahl, and photographer Dan Nicoletta, as well as archival footage from his ’70s stage appearances and clips from his films, Castro tributes, and Lauretta Molitor’s upcoming documentary Impresario.

Huestis spoke to me about why it was finally time to write a book, his encounters with Harvey Milk and Robin Williams, how he survived the early AIDS crisis, overcoming meth addiction, and what his more low-key life is like today in his cabin in the woods.

48 HILLS Why did you decide to write a memoir?

MARC HUESTIS I just wanted a legacy. My friend Lawrence Helman and I have this joke that if you want a good obituary, you’ve gotta write it yourself. And it’s true, I’ve seen a lot of my friends die and their obituaries are not representative of who they are. So I thought I’d write my own obituary while I’m still alive.

48 HILLS Your coming of age in the ‘60s, which you describe in depth in the book, was so different than that experienced by young gay boys today. Talk to me about the difference.

MARC HUESTIS It was like forbidden fruit, and in a way, it was more exciting because it was verboten. I’m thrilled it’s not that way anymore, and I keep thinking if I had grown up in a very different time, maybe I would get married. But in our day and age, the thought of marriage was completely foreign to us and the way we met was through sex. I kinda liked that. I met a lot of really nice people through sex.

48 HILLS You’ve also met so many legends over the years—way too many to mention in our interview —but I want to talk about two of them. Let’s start with Harvey Milk.

MARC HUESTIS The [pervading] Harvey Milk story is the biggest cliche right now, and everybody asks, “What would Harvey do if he were here?” Nobody even knew who he was, and who knows what he would have been like had he lived? But people created this really boring saint around a real-life person. So part of the reason for the book was to break those cliches and talk about what was really going on the way I saw it.

48 HILLS In one memorable section, you describe arguing with him about the tactic the gay community should take at Pride. He insisted on a very button-down approach and you wanted the community to be themselves—drag queens, leather daddies, power dykes, and all.  It had to be intimidating to go toe to toe with Saint Harvey, right?

MARC HUESTIS Absolutely not. I was going toe to toe with somebody whom I considered an equal. I was certainly younger than him and didn’t own a camera shop, but I was also really involved with the arts and didn’t see him as somebody above me. He was very condescending, and he saw me as somebody below him, for sure. He saw himself punching down, but I didn’t see myself punching up at all.

Marc and Debbie Reynolds. Photo by Steven Underhill

48 HILLS Then some years later, when you worked at a local video store, you’d regularly encounter Robin Williams.  What was your impression of him?

MARC HUESTIS He had the worst taste in movies. He would rent the cheesiest, stupidest Hollywood new releases. Like are you actually going to watch this? But he was very sweet. He, of course, was concerned about AIDS as well, and he watched my Chuck Solomon film after I gave him a copy.

But he did appear depressed all the time. There wasn’t a lot of lightness around him. But he was a gentleman and had an aura of integrity. When he committed suicide, I really felt for him, but it made sense to me. I saw that person that killed himself in the video store.

48 HILLS You write about losing so many dear friends and colleagues in the early years of AIDS and becoming positive, yourself. What got you through that intensely difficult period?

MARC HUESTIS It took making the Chuck Solomon movie, basically. It made me feel alive again and gave me purpose and strength. The fact that it was able to get international recognition and that people outside my community saw it and just going on the road and talking about being HIV positive at a time when very few people did that because you could lose your job, family, and friends. But that became my purpose, mission, and goal and I was thrilled to do it.

And then after the Chuck Solomon piece, I was dedicated to doing AIDS work. Even that stupid Hawaii movie that I did [1990’s Men in Love] was AIDS-related and of course, Sex Is… was not specifically an AIDS film but was one because it was a time that people were coming back into their sexuality, realizing that “Sex is Death” did not have to be so.

Marc Huestis with Karen Black

48 HILLS With the prevalence of “Meth Equals Death” campaigns since the early 2000s, I’d imagine that many younger gay men, in particular, have been fearful of exploring sex on crystal, and if they have dabbled, they’re not telling. But in the book, you’re very open about your dalliances before you finally quit both. I appreciate your honesty.

MARC HUESTIS My book is honest. I talk about how speed is the best drug for sex and it is the devil’s drug. But not a lot of people talk about why it was so attractive.  I enjoyed it every three months and always looked forward to the next time, except that you can’t get a hard-on and can’t cum.

Still, the mind is an incredible thing when you’re on that drug. You don’t even have to talk. You just feel an aura and all this closeness. I loved all those semi-homeless tricks of mine. That’s what the drug did. People talk about how horrible it was, but I wanted to write about the attractive nature of it, because if you don’t write about that, then it doesn’t make sense why people were so into it at that time.

48 HILLS As someone who was once very sexually active and now categorizes themselves as being celibate, how do you go without all that intimacy today?

MARC HUESTIS First of all, when I was having sex, it wasn’t all that intimate. It was kind of an addiction and I never got much enjoyment out of it. There were momentary enjoyments, but I was always searching and never finding. You never knew what you had because someone better was always around the corner. And it was a lot of work.

And as I write in the book, you get older and they come to your door and they say, “I don’t think it’s gonna work,” and you say, “Whatever.” And you get to the point that you don’t want that rejection anymore. I certainly do masturbate⁠—I’m not totally unsexual⁠—and I have my attractions when I see people, but I love not having sex.

Photo by Steven Underhill

48 HILLS You’ve also had to go without producing shows at the Castro Theatre for the last few years. When you walk by the theatre today and don’t see your name on the marquis, does that feel like yet another loss?

MARC HUESTIS I feel very profoundly like I am no longer there. For the upcoming show, I’m putting together these clips and I do this one montage of the entrances of the stars and a couple of really fun moments, and I was like, “These shows were really fun.” You don’t realize when you’re doing it, because it happens and then it’s over. And particularly at the end, I felt so belittled, because everyone was saying how tired they were. But you always need to know when to step off the stage.

48 HILLS Today you divide your time between your cabin in the woods and San Francisco. What inspired the decision to get a home out in Kyburz, California?

MARC HUESTIS My brother died and he was worth some money, so all of a sudden, I was gifted with a nice chunk of change. It was not in my crystal ball for the future and it completely changed my life.

I was getting sick of San Francisco for all the reasons we all know, so six years ago, with the money he left me, I was able to purchase a small cabin in the woods 30 miles from Lake Tahoe, right by the American River.

When I’m at the cabin and I hear the birds chirping and the squirrels and the bears and the fish, that’s contentment to me. I’ve done so much in my life that I enjoy relaxing now.

MARC HUESTIS: IMPRESARIO OF CASTRO STREET
June 23, 6:45pm, $15
Victoria Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here.

Race, labor, and activism on the waterfront

For those unfamiliar with the radical history of dockworkers leading the fight against economic and racial inequality for workers across color lines, Peter Cole’s book Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area will be a revelation.

Who knew that longshoremen were at the forefront of the antiracist movement decades before labor supported civil rights by integrating, supporting and fighting for Black workers, despite Jim Crow?

Who can imagine a predominately white trade union in the 1930s opening up its membership to Black workers to be both paid and treated as their equals, despite the shared beliefs among white workers in the US about how Black workers would steal the white man’s job?

And for those who do know about the progressive ILWU Local 10, this book also offers a comparative historical analysis on the relationship between Black dockworkers in Durban, South Africa and their similar, but also incredibly different, struggle with unions during apartheid.

Exploring the intersections of race, class and power, Cole’s book exemplifies the nuances of the often-forgotten history between the civil rights movement and labor. Rather than taking the easy way out and studying two distinct port cities in the US like the Bay Area juxtaposed with New York City, he instead explores the parallels of how dockworkers on two different sides of the world, stood together in solidarity during the most racist, anti-leftist, and pro- capitalist period of the 20thcentury.

Dockworker Powerweaves in and out of the histories of Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area, while illustrating the successes and set-backs longshoremen had in combatting systemic racism and oppressive governments that would openly pass laws that were meant to eradicate union leaders, in both a literal and figurative definition, if they fought for equitable work conditions for workers, despite their class and color.

Still, Cole doesn’t shy away from the imperfect realities of trying to organize the working class within a white supremacist, imperialist, and capitalist society. He makes it known that not every white dockworker was an ally and not every union member in both South Africa and the Bay had a moral obligation in dismantling discriminative work practices. He also focuses on how in the past, big labor like the AFL-CIO was often an obstacle for dockworkers when they refused to promote racial and economic equity within the collective labor movement.

But there are highlights on the shared goals between labor and the Black power movement, and a brief history on how the ILWU Local 10 made Martin Luther King an honorary longshoreman in 1967, months before his assassination. And the touching reflection on how longshoremen in the Bay Area shut down all their ports when Dr. King was killed, showcasing just how much the dockworkers regarded King as one of their own.

And once Dockworkers takes you through the tumultuous history of labor and race in South Africa and the US it then examines how technological advances have affected the longshoremen workforce and their membership, and what this means for the present-day working class and the radical leftist movement as a whole.

I was able to attend Peter Cole’s presentation onDockworkersat San Francisco State University and we spoke briefly about his thoughts on the present-day labor movement.

He said, “we are in the midst of a resurgence of worker power” and with the return of the strike, “workers’ are inspired by other workers actions and its creating momentum. But will that momentum keep?” He also noted that with Trump being elected, student debt loans piling up and economic security, people are looking to organize.

Dockworkers is worth the read. It’s riveting and distinguishes itself from the mainstream labor and civil rights history we have come to know. And with strikes occurring left and right from Oakland to West Virginia, it is imperative to learn about the unionist, particularly the dockworkers, who paved the way for a more inclusive, radical and progressive labor movement.

Dockworker Power
Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area
University of Illinois Press
$35. Paperback

BOOKS: ‘Liar’s Paradox’ is the best new thriller in years

Talyor Stevens is my favorite thriller writer – and she’s got competition. I have read every Lee Child (Jack Reacher) book. I love John Sandford (Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers). Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch) is consistently great.

It’s hard to do continuing-character thrillers; the protagonist has to develop or get stale. It’s easy to become formulaic (see: Reacher). Stevens gets it; her first character, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is the only person in this genre who exists in two genders. Munroe is a deeply twisted badass, someone who emerged from a brutal childhood to become a principled warrior.

I read Stevens’ first book, The Informationist, out of curiosity; it arrived at the Bay Guardian, where I used to work (and review thrillers), along with dozens of other books, and I gave it a try. Five pages in I realized I had discovered an incredible talent. I was not alone – that book was a huge breakthrough, a bestseller optioned for a movie by James Cameron, widely hailed as the debut of a blockbuster writer and character.

She followed that with five more Munroe books, which reflected her astonishing personal story. Stevens grew up in an apocalyptic cult. She was denied anything more than a sixth-grade education; when she tried to write, her pages were taken away and burned. She left as an adult, wound up in Dallas with no employable skills – and somehow managed to write and sell a book that put her on the literary map.

I loved all of the Monroe books. But none have caught fire like the first one, and Stevens has been struggling with the difficult world of modern mass-market publishing, where you are either an A-list writer or lost in the miasma of competition, bookstores closing, marketing problems, and readership of anything creative generally declining.

So she’s done something very different: She’s created new characters, started from scratch so to speak – and come up with a book that is not only my favorite since The Informationist, it’s the best thriller I’ve read in years. Nothing else comes close.

Liar’s Paradox – named after the classic concept that when a person who doesn’t tell the truth tells you they are lying, then they are telling the truth, and lying – features twin siblings, Jack and Jill, who were raised by a mother who taught them survival, spycraft, and elite special-forces-level combat skills, and left them scarred for life.

Jack and Jill love and hate each other. The fight viciously – and since they are particularly good at it, they can cause serious damage. They also love, hate, fear, and respect their mom, Claire – although even as adults, they have no idea who she worked for, who their father was, or why she raised them in this weird world of weapons, stealth, and traumatic psychological games.

They are 26 when the book opens, with one of the great scenes in modern literature. Jill is a party girl, in a world of drugs and clueless lovers (and an uncertain source of income). Jack has to talk to her – but that involves bursting into a party, grabbing his half-naked sister, locking her in the trunk of a car, driving to a quiet place – and then dealing with her anger when he opens the trunk and she beats the shit out him, grabs his gun, sits on his chest and threatens to shoot him.

This will make a spectacular movie.

Jack, the straightlaced guy who might still be a virgin, tells Jill, who is struggling with an opiate problem, that Claire wants to see them. Mom has a secret off-the-grid safehouse, but when they get there, it’s been breached and she’s been kidnapped.

Or maybe she hasn’t; maybe this is another trick, another game to get them to follow her. Or maybe something’s going on involving so much international intrigue that the only way they can find her, and survive, and maybe figure out what the fuck is up here, is to become the fighters she trained them to be.

And at that, they set off on a wildly entertaining, crazy adventure that involves so many puzzles, mysteries and – yes, liar’s paradoxes — that you almost need a scorecard to keep track.

I called Stevens after I read the book to tell her that this was her best book since The Informationist. She told me that she’d always wanted to write about siblings – but of course, since she’s Taylor Stevens, they are nothing close to normal, although they have what in many cases are normal feelings about each other: Affection mixed with jealousy and deeply hidden emotions tied to their feelings about their mother’s (possible) favoritism. Throw in a desire to be normal (or self-medicated) in a world where they clearly don’t belong, and you have a delicious mix for a book of this genre.

In the end of the book, there’s a hall-of-mirrors episode that reminded me of the classic 1972 Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon. Stevens told me she had never seen the movie. Maybe it’s just some kind of psychic connection between brilliant scene-makers who think about the bizarre world of mirrors.

Some of the better continuing-series writers who create new characters sometimes let them mix (Davenport and Flowers). That’s not happening here, Stevens told me: The worlds of Vanessa Michael Monroe and Jack and Jill are so far apart that it’s almost impossible to imagine them connecting. Almost impossible – but so is the whole Taylor Stevens story, so I hold out hope.

It wasn’t easy to get this done; nothing in Stevens’ life has been easy. The publishing world likes predicable outcomes (every Jack Reacher book is exactly the same in many ways, and every one sells). Some readers said she should just stick to Munroe. But she takes risks, which is how her life has worked. She’s had the support of a Patreon group (if you love her work the way I do, you can sign up here). And she hangs in, against all possible odds. Just like her characters. And in the end, they are winners.

Liar’s Paradox

Kensington Books

$26 hardcover.

Fearless artist Keith Haring’s sister tells his tale, for all ages

Kay Haring celebrates the release of her book about her brother this Saturday at the LGBT Center.

LIT World AIDS Day, marked every December 1, is usually a solemn occasion, a reminder of how far we still have to go to end the global crisis. But even while we mourn the lives we’ve lost, it’s humbling to also realize how remarkable so many of them were, and how much was achieved in such a short time before AIDS claimed them. 

This is especially true in the case of artist Keith Haring (1958-1990), whose massive output of drawings and paintings was matched by his community activism and drive for gay visibility and representation. You can’t help but smile through the tears when thinking of his vibrant, iconic art and life. Despite basing most of his life in New York City, Haring was a true global citizen—and a patron saint of San Francisco, where his art is one of our public mainstays and has been celebrated with huge exhibitions (and giant parties) in the SFMOMA and De Young museums.

Now his sister Kay Haring has written a book for kids about him, Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, with illustrations by Robert Neubecker. The book is such a fabulous reminder of Keith’s genius for living (and the illustrations so lovely), that it’s great for any age, even cynical mid-lifers (cough cough). 

Kay’s coming to San Francisco Sat/8 for a special Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing extravaganza, noon-4pm at the LGBT Center, also featuring DJs, art activities for all ages, storytelling by drag queen Honey Mahogany of RuPaul’s Drag Race, an art sale of Haring-inspired works created by international artists, and a kid’s fashion show by Emily Payne, designer of Devon Rose & a Project Runway alumni. I spoke with her via email about Keith’s art, legacy, and meaning today. 

Kay Haring

 48HILLS Why did you decide to write this book about your brother? How did it come about?

KAY HARING I had this idea more than a decade ago. I had drafted numerous outlines and storylines over the years. “But it wasn’t until six years ago, when I joined a writer’s group and needed something to present to the group, that I resurrected those drafts I had made over the years. I knew this was a project that had to come to fruition. I started to explore the process to publish, and joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I found an agent the first time I made queries about the project, and within three months we met with four publishers and had two offers. It’s taken three years to get to print. Much of this time was spent on carefully integrating Keith’s artwork with Robert Neubecker’s illustrations, and selecting artwork and obtaining permissions to publish Keith’s work.

The actual content of the story was easy to write. I wanted to give children an example of Keith’s generosity and his easygoing, fun-loving personality. There were dozens of scenarios I could choose from where he gave away his artwork or his time to benefit others. Over the years, there were a few situations that stood out to me as hallmarks of Keith’s dedication and his care for other people. The difficult part of a story like this is to edit it down to a reasonable length! Many scenes had to be cut or trimmed back and with the help of my editor we selected the final content which best demonstrated Keith’s personality. 

48H What do you want people to know about your brother?

I always wanted to tell my brother’s story emphasizing his generous nature. Keith was an extraordinary person and gave away countless drawings and an inordinate amount of his time and money. He was always drawing when he was out in public, and it was not unusual for dinner guests or complete strangers to go home with an impromptu drawing on their clothing, a napkin, or a spare piece of paper. 

My book tells the story of how Keith kept drawing, no matter who questioned what he was doing or why. I hope the passion he had as an artist is apparent to the kids who read it. I also want to highlight his philanthropy and hope that it inspires children to give back in their own community. 

48H What do you want kids, in particular, to take away from this book?

KH Dream big, work hard, give back! 

Keith’s drive to share art with people, to paint and draw where all people could experience it, is demonstrated by the murals he did on the streets in New York and in the subway and the six-story building he painted at the Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, France. He did these, as he often did, for no compensation. And in the early years, he painted without permission and often was fined or criticized. But that didn’t stop him. 

I also want children to know that success comes with hard work. At Keith’s first big exhibit in New York I remember hearing from many people on opening night that Keith’s work was so different, vibrant and fun, but they also raved about how hard he worked to paint the walls and hang as much artwork as the space could hold. They had not seen another artist work with such a sense of obligation. Keith was so humble and accommodating—he signed autographs and talked to people all night long. He never turned anyone away. 

Keith used his work as a tool for organizations to raise money, to raise awareness and to disrupt society norms. He bequeathed most of his estate to the Keith Haring Foundation in 1989 to expand and sustain his artistic and philanthropic legacy through the preservation and circulation of his artwork and by providing grants to underserved youth and those affected by HIV/AIDS.

To highlight his philanthropy and inspire youth to give back in their own community, I am donating 25% of my proceeds to a youth organization in our family hometown in Pennsylvania, the Berks County Community Foundation Youth Advisory Committee.  I encourage parents to challenge their kids to find ways to donate their time, energy, and creativity in ways that will make their neighborhood a better place.

KEITH HARING: THE BOY WHO JUST KEPT DRAWING
Sat/8, noon-4pm, free (donations requested)
LGBT Center, SF. 
More info here.

A showcase of ‘young blood’ Asian American writers

Poet Barbara Jane Reyes. Photo by Peter Dressel

The Pilipinx American Library, a non-circulating library in the reading room at the Asian Art Museum, has bean bag chairs, a table with books laid out, and shelves brimming with titles by Filipino American authors. It feels very comfortable to the creator, PJ Gubatina Policarpio. 

“This is like my living room,” he says. 

When some people at the Queens Museum of Art asked Policarpio to do a day-long “activation” at Jackson Height’s Diversity Plaza, he decided on a book fest, and invited Filipino America writers like Mia Alvar, Gina Apostol, and Bino Realuyo.

The authors read on a platform in front of a barbershop, he says. 

“Gina loved it,” he said. “She came up to me and said, ‘Well, this isn’t Barnes and Noble.’”

Policarpio and co-creator Emmy Catedral started going to events like “Diversify the Space” and thinking about different ways they could present the library. When Policarpio moved out to San Francisco to take a job as the youth program manager at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the senior educator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, Marc Mayer, asked about doing the library here. 

Policarpio is particularly excited to have it be indoors. A quote on the wall reads, “I dreamt of a place to gather . . . ” from the historian, activist and poet Al Robles. Along with the books installation—many of them from his collection—Policarpio has been facilitating  events throughout the month of August, including one on oral history, a screening of a documentary about Robles, and readings.

On August 30, they will host the Kearny Street Workshop’s Interdisciplinary Writers Lab Final Reading, where artists who have been in a three-month program will present their work.

Books at the Pilipinx American Library

Policarpio intended the library to highlight Robles, poet Barbara Jane Reyes, and the Kearny Street Workshop, an arts organization that supports work by Asian Pacific Americans, founded in 1972 at the International Hotel on Kearny Street. 

The first time Jason Bayani heard about KSW was when one of his professors at San Francisco State got his work published by the organization. Now he’s the artistic director. He says the organization gives Asian American artists opportunities not otherwise available and seeing the authors they published and hosted at readings, made him believe he could be a writer. To see those writers’ books now at PAL means a lot, he says. 

“KSW provided artists visibility and an opportunity  to explore their culture,” he said. “For someone to walk into PAL and see all these books is significant. There’s a lot of talk about representation with Crazy Rich Asians, but that’s not the main thing for me. It’s to see a whole spectrum of experience.”

Reyes, who moved from Manila when she was two and grew up in the Bay Area, says reading Jessica Hagedorn’s acclaimed Dogeaters when she was in college at UC Berkeley made her realize she could be a writer. 

“Just to see this language, especially colloquialisms and swearing and the way people interacted with one another was pretty familiar and weird to see in a book that was getting so much attention outside of Filipinos,” she said. “That was a big light bulb that if this girl who was a scrappy Filipina teenager in San Francisco could do this thing, there’s no reason why I can’t pursue writing as well.”

Kearny Street Workshop and Robles were also important to Reyes’ development as a writer, she says. She would get invited to events and parties to read her poems, and Robles was always welcoming, she says.

Al Robles would come to events and always talk about, “You young bloods are the future,” and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m one of the young bloods, yay!’ He had so much enthusiasm, and he was so excited to see young people writing and caring about writing and about our communities”

Now young people are coming to the PAL events, like the one on oral history, Policarpio says. 

“A lot of the students came, and for a lot of them it’s their first time here at the Asian Art Museum,” he said. “It was inspiring  to have 18-23 year-olds teaching each other to collect their narratives, and to see a lot of these books come alive in a different ways for them.”

KEARNY STREET WORKSHOP’S INTERDISCIPLINARY WRITERS LAB 2018
August 30
Asian Art Museum
Tickets and more info here

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