Lit

Dare to be a ‘Brave Sis’? It’s all in the planner

From 'Brave Sis'

Anyone who knows local arts leader Rozella Kennedy knows she’s a force of nature. Definitely one of those hyper-achievers that spur you to ask, “How on earth does she do all that!” Now, Kennedy’s coming out with an answer to that question: a day planner and journal bursting with gorgeous images, birthdates, and bios of historically important and fierce women of color, each a “Brave Sis” (and many not too well known to general audiences). Thus, the name of the project, Brave Sis, which is currently up on Kickstarter and definitely worth a look.

I talked with Rozie about the Brave Sis genesis—inspired by a visit from an ancestral mother force!—and what it’s like to get a project like this out into the world, which speaks directly to and about our time of rediscovering and valuing women of color and their achievements.

48 HILLS What inspired you to do this project?

ROZELLA KENNEDY After going through a bit of a tumultuous life passage, I had determined to focus on wellness and mindfulness, so I started looking at journaling as a way of creative release and centerin. Every self-help guru has a planner they try to sell, and the ones I looked at were horrible!

They were like bullies; one (from an author I admired) was full of quotes and wisdom from people like Tony Robbins and Arnold Schwartzenegger. WTF – these “Me Too” guys were not people I wanted to invite into my intimate headspace; I was so offended. Another one was like, you needed a Ph.D. in geometry and architecture to figure out their method. And then the ones that were soooo dedicated to white blondes doing yoga on the beach. The ones for Black women were also ridiculous, so stereotypical and mainstream and totally, totally not me. A lot were religious, others were like generic AF inside.

I was really upset. So I thought about building a journal for myself. And my friends: What would we want from a tool like that? We are all pretty smart women and demanding; we’d want to learn something substantive and be in dialogue with that learning. We would not want to be forced to buy washi tape and stickers and go all scrapbook (unless that was our thing, which it hadn’t been for me in like, ever!) … But most of all, on Christmas morning, I literally had a “visitation” from an ancestral mother force. She was saying “tell my story.” I jumped out of bed and started researching women in history. And being a Black woman with a lot of friends who are Brown and Asian (and white) I just wanted to uplift women of color, and create these impossible dialogues of juxtaposition.

It’s like being a novelist insofar as I wanted to create a world and a point of view. And from the very start, I thought of my peeps and just knew this was something they would cherish. So it has felt like an offering.

Rozella Kennedy

48H Divine inspiration! I would have absolutely no idea how to put a planner together. What was your process for writing and constructing it?

RK Well I was reading our dear friend Elaine Elinson’s book about civil libertarians in California, so I really got inspired to write about heroes hardly anyone had heard about. I made a spreadsheet calendar of the year and spent the entire Christmas-New Year’s break looking up birthdates of women of color I found notable. (Note: I could not find one for each day, though I am sure there are. I’d love to do a “Your Brave Sis,” where people crowdsource and nominate their grandmothers and others!)

Anyway, I’d worked in nonprofit fundraising and communications for a long time, so I knew how to do the graphic design; I went online and found some templates to modify and let myself have a creative moment. I started looking at my library of books and other sources for quotes and ideas that inspired me. Friends started sending me suggestions. I went to an online forum of young artists and found this incredible illustrator whose style I liked. I actually checked out several illustrators. There was one who was very polished, like an advertisement, very Lichtenstein/Duran Duran, but it felt cold. There were several who were cartoonish. I love that I ended up working with a high school student who just had a beautiful eye and hand. She told me that she had put on a “wish bracelet” on Christmas Day, because she hoped for 2020 to be part of something big. Our discovery and working together has been just so beautiful. She’s off to art school in the fall… or maybe next fall, given our world right now.

Then I started doing all the business stuff and marketing stuff. Given my work background, I have a fair amount of acumen for all that. But at the end of the day, I now have a wonderful new “day job” and so I’m scaling back the ambitions of being a business owner, and all that. It’s a bit of a racket. I’m just enjoying the ride of putting this out there and building a community around it and seeing how it can serve people. When I started this, we were not in a pandemic, so the world was really different.

Amazingly, it fits into our present paradigm really well (which will be our 2021 paradigm): How can we be mindful, quiet, inquisitive, humble, celebratory? What do the foremothers want us to know? It’s just great, I love it!

48H  The art is so gorgeous, can you tell me a wee bit more about it?

RK I’ll tell you one more thing about the artist. Her name is Marketa, and she is a young woman who is white. But you know, her generation, they are really cosmopolitan and not befouled by racism the way older folks are. I didn’t know anything about her when I saw her artwork, so it was a really blind selection. I wanted an illustrator, not an “artist” with their own artistic voice, if you know what I mean — because I had a clear idea of what I wanted the book to be and I needed something that fit with my editorial vision and flow.

But what is so cool is that we both learned a lot from each other working together. She and her friends are real admirers of Black American culture, like a majority of young people, and it’s not a big deal to them). It’s just what they love. So she was thrilled to learn more about the history of the past 200 years in America and what some of these women went through. It was like an honor for her to learn about these stories and figure out how to get the “essence” of each woman into the drawings. We worked from photographs, but some of the women are from so long ago, or so unknown, there wasn’t really a reliable source for what they looked like. So we just imagined it. And that was friggin awesome.

Another thing, the color scheme changes from month to month. I owe that to Rhianna and Fenty Beauty, to be honest! My daughter and I came up with a palette of colors of hues of women of color for each month, from darkest to lightest (deliberately in that direction, foregrounding dark skin!) but in the end, the light colors were not readable on the page, so we simplified a bit. I’m not trained as a graphic designer, so there were some intuitive things in there, but it’s like a crazy quilt of reverence.

Future versions may be more polished, but it feels like your BFF you can snuggle up with on the couch. And it’s 7×9 inches and linen, so it’s tactile and yummy. My daughters say their college friends will love it. My two sisters, who have HS degrees, can’t wait for it. My niece, who is a federal judge sworn in by Chief Justice Roberts, also cannot wait to be sitting with her staff and pulling out “her planner” and feeling proud. I’m really thrilled that there’s a universality to it.

48H How did you choose which women to feature? I see one of my favorites, Etta James, in the preview … 

RK Marke I hate to disappoint you, but I had to take Etta out. The women who were deceased less than 100 years, and with names with commercial value were possibly going to be problematic, because of licensing issues. It’s still unclear to me what the threshold is, because arguably, and by legal precedent, this is educational and not commercial (look at ads, or those t-shirts with famous women on it, in contrast), and also the portraits are drawings, so there is a clause about artistic license.

But I have a friend in New York who is a big IP lawyer and she frankly freaked me out. I wrote a few of the estates of people like Toni Morrison (no response, though her photographer granted us permission to interpret his famous profile portrait of her); Ruth Asawa (they wanted too much money to use the photo); Audre Lorde (they literally scolded me for doing a coloring book element, as if that wasn’t serious enough), etc. I just didn’t have the energy, so when I decided to pivot and focus on women hardly anyone had heard about, it added a richness and devotion that really appealed to me!

And along the way, I did reach out to the children of some of the more-recently departed women (when I could locate them) and have ended up having some really wonderful exchanges. They’re all thrilled I chose to honor their mothers’ legacy in this way. It’s been so beautiful and heart-warming. 2020 has not been an entirely awful year! It’s too bad about Etta because we had a really wonderful portrait of her. I kept the short biographical sketch on the blog, but maybe someday those estates will come to us to ask to be included. We shall see!

But you know, a lot of these women didn’t have children. And several were gay, even if closeted. There are stories behind the stories, and that interests me as well, from a historian’s viewpoint (which I am not, but history is really essential to understanding the mess we are in today, and how to get out of it…)

On another note, it was imperative to include Black women, Asian, Latinx, Native American, and Hawaiian. I have so many intercultural friendships, and it’s just such a valuable part of my life. But we are also of a 21st century generation; a lot of the women I might have wanted to include, I didn’t, because back in their day, they would have associated with being white, and would have been insulted that I would claim “woman of color-ness” of them. This was particularly on my mind with some “Hispanic” and South East Asian, and Arab women. Their immigration experience might have given them cover in a way that Japanese, Korean, and Chinese women never had, due to our oppressive history. And our Indigenous women (Hawai’ian, Native American) deserve so much more visibility than they are usually given. Of course there are a majority of Black women in there because our story is just so inherently woven into the history of America. And you know, there’s a lot to be proud of!

48H How are you hoping this will inspire and sustain readers, especially in these times?

RK My neighbor asked me, Rozie did you plan this to come out now? I was like, yeah, sure I planned a social revolution to coincide with my journal release! The fact is, all women, and many men, can really benefit from creating an intimate space for themself and their story. I knew this from working in the arts as long as I did, and also being a mom and a sentient being. You get to explore things when in that meditative space of reflection that you can’t do in the normal day. And at the same time, you can’t really read about some of what these women went through and sit around feeling sorry for yourself; so there’s a strength and purpose there that I hope folks will get. Each “birthday portrait” ends with a prompt that will give you the chance to consider what wisdom the story has for you in this moment in your life.

It was important to me in building this to consider it as a welcoming space for white women too. Marke, the majority of my friends are white women (and for the most part, they’ve read White Fragility, so they aren’t Karens, ya feel me?! They totally embrace the idea of de-centering themselves from the narrative.) And based on the quality of our conversations and relationships, I knew they would be as authentically and humbly excited about these stories as my Black and Brown sisters would be excited, and proud to be centered. And I really think all my years in the locker room at ODC, talking with my friends about our lives and the world, gave a special kind of sensation of togetherness to my life that I also wanted to honor in this book. That’s a shoutout to the 8:30 crew; they know who they are!

On the website, I tried to encapsulate the idea of a Brave Sis, to take it from “just” this Journey-Journal to an actual “movement or message.” With a true inclusive and intersectional lens, I came up with this:

A Brave Sis is:

A Black Woman using history to better know & love herself—& other Women of Color.

A Woman of Color embracing story & intercultural joy.

A White woman entering a circle of learning, de-centering & celebration.

Women & Womxn who dare to be brave.

Us changing ourselves & the world.

I’ve spent a lot of time, as a woman and a friend, talking, listening, sharing, learning. I wanted to find a way to codify all of that practice into something portable, intimate, and fun and to make sure that if you start with it on January 1, you will remain motivated to keep at it. And each spread has a space for Gratitude, as well as Attitude. I don’t want anyone to be fake with themself. Sometimes you are just annoyed as hell and you need to get that out, too!

And given where we are in the world right now, I literally think for as much energy as we are putting out there revolutionizing the world, it is also sustaining to spend a little time with the foremothers, and learning from them how to keep it going, and how to keep ourselves going. So it all just feels like it’s exactly the right moment for Brave Sis to be born.

Lastly, I will add that when shelter-in-place hit, I felt I had to create a streamlined version that was a digital journal, because we were all so anxious and a simple practice of journaling and centering felt like it made sense. Because it’s digital, without the illustrations and bios, I could be a lot more flexible who I included. That’s why your girl J-Lo in in there. Just birthday shoutouts and some cool quotes, and five simple ruminations for each day: What do/will/did you celebrate, give thanks for, reflect upon today? How do/will/did you move your body and nurture your body and spirit? 

The July-September version just went up on the website. It’s totally free, it’s just my little contribution to the community in this moment.

Our publisher’s ‘must-read’ history of US protests is out now!

Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States” by 48 Hills publisher and arts editor Marke B is out today on Lerner Books (available everywhere, but please support your local bookshop and Bookshop.org). It’s already been called “a must-read for understanding our current times” (Book Riot) and “a thoroughly representative book” (Kirkus Reviews), and received positive reviews from School Library Journal and ALA Booklist.

The colorful, image-packed book—which is great for adults, too—details the history of protest in the territorial United States, from America Indian resistance and slave rebellions to Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes and #MarchforOurLives. Along the way, “Into the Streets” covers such pivotal moments in resistance history as the Great Railroad Strike, the Women’s Suffrage Parade, the Occupation of Alcatraz, the Attica Prison Uprising, and the Ferguson protests—alongside more familiar movements like the Civil Rights Movement, Stonewall, the Delano Grape Boycott, and the Vietnam War protests. Through it all, the leadership of youth, the cultural expressions, and the deep work that goes into protest movements are highlighted.

To tell you more about the book and its context, we’re reprinting this interview-conversation with Marke by writer Elizabeth Dulemba, which originally appeared on her website on June 11.

With the recent protests, Marke Bieschke‘s new book INTO THE STREETS: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States suddenly became even more relevant. Lerner Books bumped up the publication date. So, I am proud, proud, proud, to have Marke here today to talk about this important book.

e: Marke, This is an incredibly timely book. What was the spark that inspired the making of Into the Streets?
Marke:

Hi, Elizabeth! Thanks so much for having me here, virtually. Into the Streets came about when Zest publisher Hallie Warshaw and I were brainstorming book topics that hadn’t been covered too much in the past, and which would naturally flow from my last book, Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens. That book pointed out how much LGBTQ rights depended on marginalized people bravely raising their voices in protest, sometimes rioting and putting themselves directly in physical danger—and also social danger, since being “exposed” as gay or lesbian in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the contemporary gay rights movement began, could mean loss of your career, your home, and your family. We wanted to expand on that history and dig deeper into the origins of US protest itself. Hallie hit on a general history, which encompassed a lot of current events, and voilà!

e: Lerner moved up the publication date in response to what’s happening as a result of the George Floyd murder. What’s been your reaction to the recent protests against police violence?
Marke:
I live in San Francisco, a very small big city, where anything that happens can be felt by everyone. The protests have been so lively and engaging, surrounding my neighborhood, and we’ve had some looting as well. I have been absolutely fascinated by the creativity of the protests both locally and nationally, with childrens’ marches, skateboarders riding in protest, brilliant street art, and young peoples’ leadership. Much of the iconography is familiar from previous protests because, unfortunately, these incidents of police violence keep happening. But this truly has the feeling of a popular uprising, in which a broad spectrum of people participate.

e: How has it been to suddenly have such a strong spotlight on your work and unexpectedly sooner than you were thinking?
Marke:
It’s funny, but Into the Streets has been timely in more ways than one. The book was originally set for release earlier this year, but was delayed due to COVID. And then it was pushed forward due to current events. So it’s truly been sailing the crosswinds of recent history! That said, I did originally feel this book was going to be especially timely because of the upcoming election—now, with the conservative protests against the COVID shutdown followed directly by the current Black Lives Matter uprising, it’s feeling a little bit too on the nose! But in a broader sense, a book on the history of protest will, and should, always be timely because protest is one of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and we should exercise it regularly.

e: Amen. With the research you did for Into the Streets, you must have a good objectivity to the extremes of protests throughout American history. How does what is happening now compare to protests in the past?
Marke:
This is such a great question. To begin with, these current protests are obviously huge but also broad, reaching into the smallest US towns and across the world. In this way they remind me of the 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq, which were global protests that also occurred on very small scales throughout the US. They also remind me of the Great American Boycott or “Day Without An Immigrant” protest of 2006, which encouraged people who usually don’t protest to come out into the streets—in that case undocumented people and children of immigrants, in this current case people who have been moved by their own experience of discrimination and sympathy for others’ experience. Both of those protests remain among the biggest in American history.

There are also more direct correlations. As I pointed out earlier, these latest protests are more of a continuation of contemporary Black American-led protests, rooted in the 1960s Black Power movement and the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, and continuing through Ferguson in 2014. But protests against racial injustice and police violence stretch way back throughout our history, and quite a bit before the country was founded, as I detail in the book. The Boston Massacre was an instance of “police” violence which killed a Black man, Crispus Attucks. Protests against that murder helped spark the American Revolution.

e: Have you been an active protester and are you one now?
Marke:
Yes, definitely! I love protests of all kinds, the energy and the strategy—or even lack of either, which can be instructive in itself As a journalist, I get to cover many, and as a participant I get to go to many more. I was an out gay young person during the late 80s and early 90s, when I faced both the homophobic discrimination of the AIDS era and the very real possibility that my friends could be drafted for the Gulf War. It was also a great time of activism in the Black community, and I was fortunate to live in downtown Detroit. It was a very turbulent moment to be a college student. I discovered a voice and a community through organizing and political action. Today I’m just blown away at how much protests have grown creatively and as a natural part of our civic life.

e: What are some ways that protests don’t work? (i.e. a ’thumbs up’ in facebook) And what are some ways that do?
Marke:
I think we have to first define “work” in terms of a protest. I think many people believe that protest must bring about immediate change, of laws or with other government actions. But there are so many other ways that protest can function successfully. On the most basic terms, a protest can make you feel like you’re not alone—others share your beliefs, and that simple affirmation can be so life-changing, especially in a country as large and spread out as ours. Even a “like” on Facebook can make someone else feel heard.
Going to a protest can also be a moral act. The giant marches against the invasion of Iraq didn’t cause the US to withdraw or change the government’s actions one iota, but just being there and speaking out is something that almost every participant looks back on and cherishes. (Some politicians wish they could say the same.)
All that said, I do often see a lot of energy and anger online that doesn’t always lead in the most productive direction. I think the Internet is tremendous in allowing so many more people to participate in protest, but I don’t think we’ve fully grasped its power to help or hinder real action and connection in the world.

e: Not everyone hits the streets to protest – what are some other ways people can make their voices heard or offer solidarity?
Marke:
It’s a cliche, but money can really help! So many great causes depend on individual donors, and things like bailing protesters out of jail or supplying masks and hand sanitizer for protesters require direct contributions. It’s not the ideal system, but it’s the one we’ve got.
But beyond that—and so many of us are hurting for money and resources right now—I recommend direct engagement. Talk to your friends and family about the causes you believe in and what you see going on in the world. It can be very difficult and you can hit some brick walls! But while huge protests can bring about change, it’s often the hard, grassroots work of talking one-on-one and sharing information that helps the most. Listening is a great skill to hone, as well! Sometimes allowing people to say their piece is the best thing you can do, especially if they feel isolated or silenced.

e: Did the protests that you cover in Into the Streets lead to change? Does that leave you optimistic about the future?
Marke:
Americans have an almost metaphysical belief in the power of free speech, and it’s hard not to feel optimistic overall about things if you trust in the idea, as I do, that free speech and assembly are essential to democracy, and that democracy is the highest form of government.
I like to think of the history of protest as one of evolving struggles—where the protest is really just the visible tip of an iceberg of cumulative action. The Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 was a carefully planned spectacle that gave a needed public push to decades of legal and individual agitation to win the right to vote for women. During the classic Civil Rights Era, images of well-dressed Black people beng firehosed and set upon by dogs helped change public opinion toward adopting the Civil Rights Act, but that idelible, terrible moment was just part of a tremendously coordinated strategy to enshrine and protect equal rights.
So we see that the public protest part is often really just the highly visible manifestation of an issue, it takes a lot of work behind the scenes. As long as people are doing the groundwork as well as showing up when needed, there’s the possibility for great change.

e: Does Into the Streets offer a message of hope?
Marke:
Yes! This is a book for young people, and it’s full of protests started by young people, from the schoolchildren of the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade and the high school walkouts of 1968 Los Angeles, which launched the Chicano Movement—all the way up to Greta Thuneberg’s climate strikes and the Parkland school shooting survivors’ March for Our Lives. Here in San Francisco last week, 17-year-old Simone Jacques of Mission High School organized and addressed a 10,000-person George Floyd protest. Young people embody our eternal hope that we can change the world for the better. The fact that they continue to lead us on the biggest issues of our day fills me with tremendous hope for our future.

e: Is there anything else you hope people will take away from Into the Streets?
Marke:
I hope young (and older!) people will read the book and see what a tremendous history of speaking out this country has. So much of this isn’t taught in schools—but as we see right now, we can’t avoid talking about what matters forever.

A laser, a dog, and grape gum lead to feminist superpower in ‘Equality Girls’

Aya de León, author and lecturer in the African American Studies department at UC Berkeley, reads a lot of books to her 10-year-old daughter. Even in ones she liked, though, she often found generic villains and a lack of politics.

De León strongly believes in putting politics in her books. She has written a series, Justice Hustlers, about social justice issues with sex workers as protagonists. (The most recent one, Side Chick Nation, dealt with Hurricane Maria and climate change and got enthusiastic praise from Naomi Klein, who called it “gripping feminist heist fiction”). With her latest book, Equality Girls and the Purple Reflecto-Ray, de León decided to write about sexism for kids around her daughter’s age. 

The idea for the book came, indirectly, from the Captain Underpants and the Super Diaper Baby series. De León found them funny—and wanted to write a funny book with a group of girls that would make sexism seem ridiculous. 

In the book (available from Booklandia), after an accident involving a laser, a dog, and Double Super Purple Grapeity Grape gum, fourth-grader Daniela gains a sort of superpower: When she gets angry about sexism, purple lasers shoot out of her eyes. And the targets—boys who won’t play soccer with her and her friends, a puppeteer who treats his female assistant dismissively and won’t answer the girls’ questions about why the princess in his act is so helpless—act out the stereotypes they have about girls.

In a first version of the book, Daniela received her powers when she was on a walk in the woods with her mother and found a mushroom which let off a puff of pollen when she picked it up. The editor suggested going a different way.  “She pointed out it set up kind of a magic realism vibe,” de León said. “Like the magic of nature versus lasers. Lasers made it more sci-fi, and I liked that.”

IN the beginning, Daniela’s anger is a rough power she needs to control to make more effective. She hears that the president, who has refused to sign the Gender Equality Bill, is coming to town to judge a tween beauty pageant, and Daniella’s friends Malaya, Jalisse and Kerry work with her to help her learn to use her powers for good. 

De León says she wrote the characters with the vitality of her daughter and her friends in mind.  

“There’s no drama among them, so it’s a little utopian,” she said. “There are these stories for girls with so much angst – ‘Am I popular?’ ‘Are my friends trying to stab me in the back?’ There is that toxic girl culture, but I thought, let’s have some non-toxic girl culture.”

Aya de Léon

De León also wanted the book to show that “girl” doesn’t mean just one thing. 

“One of dangers for younger people is girl is a box that has a frilly dress and pink outfits,” she said. “I wanted their to be other ways to be a girl, so there’s a sporty girl, a girl into fashion, and an animal loving girl.”

De León decided to self-publish the book since she wanted it to come out while her daughter is still the target audience—and before the president is (hopefully) out of office. And although she has no formal training in art, she also illustrated it herself since she had such clear pictures in her head. 

She has thought about making a series with the four girls, but that may have to wait since she’s working on two books for adults, a young adult book, and one for middle readers. 

“I like the idea of a series [for this book] and them setting up experiments to see if they could share the power. Or each girl could have a book,” de León said. “I’m really interested in a book about climate change and this could be a good group to do that with.”

In Phuc Tran’s memoir: grammar, tattoos, and the refugee experience

Phuc Tran, by Jeff Roberts Imaging

When Phuc Tran, who will be in conversation with author Viet Thanh Nguyen this Fri/26 evening, was asked to do a TEDx talk a few years ago, he decided he might as well put everything he had into his story, which was called “Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive.”

“It was sort of about refracting the refugee experience for me through the lens of language, and how I saw that playing out in my life at the time,” he said. “I had this platform to talk about my story, so I sort of threw the whole kitchen sink in—everything from John Hughes and ‘80s pop culture to grammar and language. I sort of swung for the fences, so even if the audience didn’t connect to it, it would feel authentic to me.”

Audiences did connect to Tran’s talk. National Public Radio played it on its TED Radio Hour. An agent heard it and asked Tran to write a book about leaving Saigon in 1975 with his family and moving to a small town in Pennsylvania. Tran said if he thought about writing a book at all before, it was maybe when he was in his 70s and retired, not when he was teaching Latin, working as a tattoo artist at Tsunami Tattoos, and parenting two young daughters. 

“I think to the regret of my wife, I hardly say no to anything,” he said. “No adventure starts with ‘No.’” 

So Tran wrote Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In. In it he discusses the racism his family faced as the only Vietnamese family in town; getting beaten and made to kneel on uncooked rice; using the McDonald’s drive-through to avoid being stared at inside; getting into skateboarding and punk right before high school, and finding a group of friends where he fit in. These friends make a huge difference in his life, supporting him whatever he chooses to do, including his academic achievements. 

“They were so free of judgement,” Tran said. “It was antithetical to my family and their constant litany of all of my shortcomings.”

He and his friends talked sometimes about getting out of their small town. Tran saw literature as the path for him, and when he came across Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan, he followed it, plowing through William Faulkner, Henry James, Molière, and The History of the Peloponnesian War. If nothing else, he thought, it would make him sound smart and hopefully get him into a good college.

But he loved the books and the connection he found the characters’ struggles and search for their place. He’s named the chapters in Sigh, Gone after books, including The Metamorphosis, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and The Scarlet Letter, and in each chapter, Tran explores the themes of that book and how it relates to his own life.  

Tran says now he is reading and enjoying contemporary fiction such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. 

“In high school, I was leaning into classics so heavily as a life preserver,” he said. “To read for pleasure is so freeing. It’s taking the pressure off of books to save me.”

Tran didn’t read other memoirs when preparing to write his own. 

“I know this about myself: I’m really subject to cross-contamination. When I was in a band in high school and college, the song that I would write was like last best song I heard,” he said. “I decided to not second guess myself and go with what was truest to me and my own instincts.”

Tran is somewhat surprised by the reactions to Sigh, Gone, with some people telling him how hilarious it is and others finding it tragic. He’s enjoying readers’ responses and the details they tell him about their lives. 

“I got to tell my story the way I wanted to tell it,” he said about writing the book. “And people tell me things like about being in high school and being closeted, and it’s eye opening. When you’re 16 or 17, you think everyone but you has these perfect lives. I’m grateful they’re sharing their story, and I hope it’s an invitation for all of us to listen to each other’s stories.”

ACCENTED: VIET THANH NGUYEN IN CONVERSATION WITH PHUC TRAN
Fri/26, 6:30pm
Tickets and more info here

Generations of activism: Checking in with Cleve Jones

Cleve Jones. Photo courtesy SF Pride

The LGBTQ community has already survived the tragic loss of Harvey Milk, the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the AIDS pandemic, and decades of discriminatory legislation.

But lifelong activist Cleve Jones, the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, is worried that the demise of “gayborhoods,” like the Castro, may be the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Q-munity.

“I think a lot of us are ignoring something that really frightens me for the future of our community,” says Jones, who’s set to receive the Gilbert Baker Pride Founder’s Award for his monumental contribution to the LGBTQ movement, later this month. “This was an issue before COVID-19, and now it’s even more urgent.”

I spoke to Jones — who appears as part of The Commonwealth Club’s virtual Lavender Talks (Thu/25) event with his fellow awardees, author Gabby Rivera and artistic director Mike Wong, and then also at the Generation Pride: Reclaiming Our Radical Roots event (6/27)— about celebrating Pride 50 virtually, what young queers can learn from their predecessors, and why the preservation of the gayborhoods is literally a matter of life and death. (You can read more about Pride’s virtual events here.)

48 HILLS What does it mean to you to be the recipient of the Gilbert Baker Pride Founders Award?

CLEVE JONES It’s a nice honor, but also very sad because Gilbert Baker was a very dear friend of mine and there’s not many of us left from the early days. I miss him every day.

48 HILLS How do you feel about Pride being celebrated virtually this year?

CLEVE JONES It’s frustrating. I will be curious to see how the online version of Pride plays out, but I am going to miss the real thing. More than that, I want to be out in the street protesting the murder of George Floyd and supporting all the young people who decided to push for police reform. But I’m in the high-risk group, so I’m sheltered in place.

48 HILLS As a longtime activist, who’s taken part in myriad protests and led the 2009 National March for Equality in Washington, D.C., have the recent Black Lives Matter protests inspired you?

CLEVE JONES I am inspired by seeing these enormous and diverse crowds led by young people, especially young people of color and young queer and trans kids. It does my heart good.

48 HILLS Looking back, what’s the legacy of the incredible work you did in launching the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the AIDS Memorial Quilt?

CLEVE JONES I am proud of not just the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, but all the AIDS organizations around the country. It’s quite a remarkable story how all of these HIV/AIDS organizations that grew out of grass-roots volunteer-based efforts then became institutions.

I don’t think there’s any question that the quilt helped change the way America looked at AIDS and, to some extent, the way America looks at gay people. I think it helped connect communities, revealed the humanity behind this disease, globalized resources, and condemned the government’s inaction.

48 HILLS You wrote your first book Stitching a Revolution 20 years ago, consulted on Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning 2008 film, MILK, and published your own memoir When We Rise, in 2016. You were featured in Randy Shilts’ classic book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, and the 1995 documentary The Castro. What early-AIDS-era stories have still not been told?

CLEVE JONES There have been so many stories that were lost because those people didn’t live long enough to tell those stories, so there was an unfortunate disruption in the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.

But another thing that has been lost is how our movement was born out of anti-war movements and the civil rights movement, but it was a sexual liberation movement. I hear young people speaking about Stonewall and they speak about it with such certainty, but it doesn’t bother me. I just accept that they don’t really have a clue about what they’re talking about. I don’t fault them for that. I think there’s not much understanding of our roots.

48 HILLS What can today’s younger LGBTQ generation learn from those who preceded them?

CLEVE JONES Probably not much. [Laughs] They’re busy creating their new world — and I think, every now and then, I have some advice to offer — but the most important thing is that they have to endure. The changes we want to see in the world, they’re not going to happen at once.

So when I am asked for advice, I tell them to find a way to contribute that they enjoy. I fucking love what I do. I do it because I love the work, which has enabled me to endure a lot of tragedies and horrible stuff.  I think that is very important, especially for young people who are now committed to overhauling the criminal justice system. That’s a huge undertaking and the resistance is going to be ferocious.

48 HILLS Talk to me about your work with UNITE HERE!, which fights for hotel and restaurant employees. I have to imagine that many members are struggling right now in light of all the recent closures, due to COVID-19. 

CLEVE JONES I haven’t seen the numbers for this week, but well over 90 percent of UNITE HERE!’s members have been laid off. With that layoff, also comes a loss of healthcare. So our members are eager to get back to work and the industry is eager to put them back to work.

But it feels coercive because the threat is if you don’t go back to work, you’re not going to get unemployment anymore or health insurance or be able to feed your kids. And, by the way, we can’t guarantee that your worksite is safe. So all of us are grappling with this and the workers in industries UNITE HERE! represents.

What keeps me going with UNITE HERE! is we take on some of the biggest multinational corporations in the world and we win by organizing immigrants, women of color, and LGBTQ people. When we win those victories, those workers go home with more money in their pockets, better healthcare, and safer working conditions — and are treated with more dignity and respect.

48 HILLS Are LGBTQ people particularly vulnerable to discrimination in these industries?

CLEVE JONES Before shelter-in-place orders, I was involved in an organizing drive for the people that work for HMSHost, which had the exclusive contract to run airport food services for Starbucks.

So here you have a company like Starbucks, which projects a queer-friendly/trans-friendly persona, but we did a survey of hundreds of HMSHost/Starbucks workers at airports across the country and discovered many people, including cis-gendered heterosexuals, complaining about homophobia and transphobia in the workplaces, which is why we’re organizing.

Before the Supreme Court’s momentous decision last week, in places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana, there were no protections for LGBTQ people from discrimination for their orientation or identity. Through UNITE HERE!’s collective bargaining, we negotiated a contract that provided protection from discrimination and harassment.

48 HILLS What are some of the other issues LGBTQ people should keep their eyes on over the next year?

CLEVE JONES A movement like ours is never finished because the victories we’ve won can always be undone and we have a president today who’s doing everything he can to undo the progress that we’ve made, whether it’s respecting trans kids in schools or permitting same-sex couples to adopt. There’s an attack on so many fronts, so it’s important to be vigilant.

Also, gayborhoods are going away. Just looking at our city, I’d say there are less than a quarter of the venues that used to exist. Now with this new disaster, of all the businesses that are shuttered in the Castro, for example, how many of them are going to be able to reopen?

When we lose the gayborhood, we lose political power, cultural vitality, and access to the social services needed by the most vulnerable among us, including people like myself who are HIV positive, transgender people, our kids looking for a safe place, and our elderly, whose own biological families may or may not have continued their affection for them.

The physical neighborhood is a terribly important part of saving our lives and building a culture that, at 50 years old, remains very new, young, and fragile.

LAVENDER TALKS: A CELEBRATION OF SF PRIDE’S 2020 AWARDEES, PRESENTED BY THE COMMONWEALTH CLUB
Thu/25, 12pm, online
More info here.

GENERATION PRIDE: RECLAIMING OUR RADICAL ROOTS
Sat/27, 11am-5pm, online
More info here

Tom Ammiano’s feisty new memoir tells all, from Milk to mayoral run

Tom Ammiano at a 1978 gay teachers rally. Photo by Cathy Cade

“It’s not about votes or vetos, it’s about building movements,” veteran politico and revered gay activist Tom Ammiano tells me, surveying the current local political scene. “What the Board of Supervisors and the State legislature continue to miss is that there are movements organizing and mobilizing around certain issues—be it immigration, or the unhoused, or police reform. Instead of tapping into that peoples’ voice, they’re concerned more with immediate power. It’s so out of touch.”

But there’s more than just laser-sharp political analysis in Ammiano’s new memoir, “Kiss My Gay Ass: My trip down the Yellow Brick Road through activism, stand-up, and politics,” published by Bay Guardian Books. The self-described “Mommy Queerest” applies his penchant for outspoken, often hilarious quips to his journey from good New Jersey Catholic boy through San Francisco teaching career, political organizing with Harvey Milk to defeat the homophobic Briggs initiative, stand-up comedy at the Valencia Rose, election to the Board of Supervisors and State Senate, 1999 mayoral run, and beyond.

(Join Tom online for a virtual launch party and reading on Zoom, Sat/9, 3pm-4pm. More info here.) 

There’s plenty of juicy tidbits along the way, including how the title of the book came about. In 1999, when Mayor Willie Brown invited Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Fairmont Hotel, Ammiano left yelling ‘Kiss my gay ass!” A national media/culture wars brouhaha ensued. (Schwarzenegger responded by vetoing a benign piece of legislation introduced by Ammiano with an acrostic that spelled out “Fuck you.”)

And of course Ammiano is full of hidden history. “How’s the Stud?” he asked me about the bar I co-own when I called him. “You know in the ’70s, we used to dance there until it closed and then we’d go next door to the Universal Life Corral. It was a space set up like a church so it could stay open all night, and everyone would have sex and do a lot of drugs. There was a woman at the door—I think her nickname was Quaaluda or Quaalina—who would give you the run-down before you went in. ‘Oh there’s speed here tonight, it’s not good.’ Or, ‘don’t buy your downers from the skinny guy.’ She was like a Wal-Mart greeter for the orgy.”

I spoke with Ammiano a bit about the book and the world of politics in general.

48 HILLS You’ve lived more lives than a dozen people. How on earth did you summon it all for the book? Have you been keeping journals or notes?  

TOM AMMIANO No, nothing like that—it’s all in the brain, although I did do a one-man show at the Marsh a few years ago that helped me get the material together. It was purely a kitchen table thing, where I sat down with help of my editors Tim Redmond and Jon Golinger. They finally put down the bong and said, ‘Tom, it’s time.’

48H How did it feel to relive something like your “Run Tom Run” mayoral campaign in 1999—something that brought a lot of young people like me (at the time!) into direct action San Francisco politics? Was there any temptation to settle scores, especially since you ran in such a contentious environment against Willie Brown? 

TA You know, it was thrilling to relive running for mayor, because I think we really started something. We picked up on Milk’s legacy and connected it to what was going on then, not just with LGBT issues but broader social justice ideas and movements.

And there were specific moments, too. Willie actually had Jesse Jackson call me in the middle of the night and tell me not to run. There I was in my cucumber mask and hair curlers taking a call from Jesse Jackson in my kitchen. I almost shit my pants! He said, Why are you running agains Willie—he’s good on the gay thing, he’s progressive on this and that. He wanted me to wait to run, next time. I politely thanked him for the call, but said that our approach was channeling a real grassroots energy, not the same old machine politics.

48H What were some of the other positive things you recall from your political career? Obviously defeating the infamous Briggs Initiative that would have expelled gay teachers…

TA The return to district elections, which we put on the ballot for 2000 and won. It went back to the way it was when Harvey was elected. We may not have had all our candidates elected that year, but it really pissed off Willie Brown, which is something I always loved to do.

Healthy San Francisco. Coming from my background in working-class New Jersey, I saw my family suffered from lack of healthcare. During my last term as supervisor, I saw that we had the infrastructure —teaching hospitals, a great healthcare workforce. Why couldn’t we provide universal healthcare access here, if the country wasn’t going to do it? Everyone predicted it would never happen and it did.

I’ve always been and strong advocate for police reform, again going back to going up in Jersey, where the cops would beat the shit out of my friends for being gay. I did a lot of that on the Board, and followed through in Sacramento, helping defeat all these terrible bills. This comes together with my advocacy for public education—I was very much against Kamala Harris’s bill to tie incarceration to truancy. And that came back to bite her big-time in the Presidential primary.

Ammiano at last year’s rally for Bernie Sanders at Crissy Field

48H What are some of the immediate things you see that continue to need work?

TA Definitely support for education, especially with people like Betsey DeVos in charge. This pandemic is really getting people into the groove of appreciating how important teachers, and nurses, and other community workers are, and the many ways we keep failing to support them with what they need. No one is trying to get rich by becoming a teacher. And while schools have come a long way around LGBT issues, there’s so much left to do. And we have to advocate more for immigrants; rights. We need to recognize that movement more.

48H Finally, what are some of your thought on the current SF political scene. 

TA It’s frustrating to see how the Brown-schooled mayor is dealing with issues, especially with the pandemic. We have a tremendous problem with the unhoused right now, because we’ve politicized the issue forever—and continue to do so. However, it’s not just about one person. We need charter reform for the Mayor’s Office in general. There’s all kinds of things that happen behind those doors that we know nothing about. It’s too powerful.

But I’m also really hopeful we’re approaching a turning point, with the election of people like Chesa and Dean. Young people are saying, “Willie who?” I think we’re entering a new era. It’s very exciting.

You can purchase Tom’s book here

Tori Amos: ‘Artists will be the second round of responders’

Tori Amos. Photo by Des Willie

Singer-songwriter Tori Amos is quick to applaud the first responders—the doctors, nurses, and EMTs—who are currently risking their lives to save others during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the “Silent All These Years,” “Cornflake Girl,” and “Spark” singer told 48 Hills that after the darkest days of COVID-19 have passed, it will take a second round of responders—the artists and writers—to give voice to our collective pain and, in so doing, begin a second wave of healing.

Amos is used to creating meaningful art in response to extreme personal and political traumas. Her 1991 single “Me and a Gun,” about being sexually assaulted, shed a light on the rape epidemic. Her 2002 album Scarlet’s Walk was a response to the devastation that befell the nation in the wake of the September 11 attacks and 2017’s Native Invader was a reaction against the politics of hatred that swept the country after the 2016 United States election. Her foray into theatre with the 2013 stage musical The Light Princess, a feminist take on the classic fairytale, confronted widespread sexism and misogyny.

Drawing from her creative highs and lows, the experiences that inspired and shaped them, and the life lessons she’s learned along the way, Amos’s riveting new book released May 5, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, offers her fellow artists a blueprint for similarly pushing back against “patriarchal power structures” through art.

Tori Amos spoke to me last month from her home in Cornwall, in the South West of England, about art as a form of political resistance, her biggest artistic crisis, and how her fans continue to inform her music.

48 HILLS In Resistance, you describe the ways in which art can be an antidote to personal and political traumas. How, in your opinion, should artists be using their mediums amid the current pandemic?

TORI AMOS Once the doctors and nurses will have done such an incredible job in healing people physically, the writers and artists are going to need to be a healing spiritual and emotional balm.

I do think there will be art coming out from all kinds of artists that will express what we’re hearing at this time from what people are going through. There is a value to that and it will be needed after losing people and the grief of that. Art, like Irish Keening—where the keeners go up and sing into your ear to bring up things with their voices and their music that you’re feeling but haven’t been able to express—is important. So I absolutely believe that the artists are going to have an important role to play.

There’s a value in storytelling, so I just want to encourage artists because they are needed. We need to feel the calling. Some days I have a good cry and then it’s like, “Dust yourself off, Tor. Come on back to the piano and let’s channel this.”

48 HILLS In the book, you describe a time, early in your career, when you were chasing commercial success instead of producing music that was meaningful to you. What did you learn from this experience? 

TORI AMOS I chose to believe the business suits over the piano and the muses, and that’s where I found myself at a huge artistic crisis in my mid-20s. I really then had to crawl back to a place where I asked myself that question that really smacked me back to life, “How do you go from prodigy to bimbo?”

And so there was a whole kind of grieving that had to go on and responsibility. I had to see my part in it. I made those choices. I couldn’t blame anybody else. The piano forgave me much quicker than I forgave myself, but then I never betrayed her again. The gift was I’ve been able to stand my ground because I know what it feels like when I betray her.

48 HILLS One of the most powerful chapters in the book was about how 9/11 shaped you and your subsequent tour and album. What did you learn from that experience that serves you as an artist today? 

TORI AMOS Wow, what a question. Doing the Strange Little Tour after 9/11 when a lot of artists were being encouraged to cancel, there were a few things I learned. When [John Lennon’s] song “Imagine” was being banned on the radio because the drums of war were raging and nobody wanted the narrative of “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” I learned that some songs can be “dangerous.”

Also, people were coming up to me and saying my music is really a backdrop to gather, share intel, and get to the truth. Artists owe it to their audience to listen to what they are saying and channel that into their work. Art had to imitate life, so I wrote Scarlet’s Walk on the Strange Little Tour. Just like my next record is changing because of what’s happening now. Some people are talking about losing their freedoms and when the virus is gone, will all those freedoms come back? So there’s a lot to think about.

48 HILLS In Resistance you explain how meet-and-greets and reading fan mail inspire the subjects that you tackle in your music. Should more artists be doing this? 

TORI AMOS Look, they are my intel. I trust them more than the CIA. There are hundreds of letters and it takes time to go through them, but I’m always amazed at what I learn from them. It’s not always tragic stories where you learn, but also you learn from somebody just sharing what they’ve learned, like, “I learned this today where I was working at a coffee bar,” and you go, “Wow, you’re my Buddha at this moment. That’s just wisdom.”

So I can’t get my head around it when I show up at a venue and someone at the door goes, “Most stars don’t [talk to their fans]; they don’t have that relationship.” I don’t know what crap they’re smoking, but then the gold is falling through the cracks because that is the magic right there.

48 HILLS Several artists have been “cancelled” for complaining on social media about how the shelter-in-place order has impacted them — when they’re already so advantaged. How does an artist find the balance between expressing themselves and coming off as insensitive right now?

TORI AMOS Wow, that is a good question. Getting that balance right is… sometimes certain artists aren’t about balance. Certain artists can take this to extremes because that’s their craft. So I feel like if it’s coming from a genuine place of expression, then people need to express themselves right now.

If you’re a non-artist, you might be feeling something similar but don’t have the platform, so so many emotions are coming up and so many issues are coming up, such as issues of control. We’re in a controlled state of being right now. When someone might say, “If you look at it like a Buddhist retreat,” my grumpy British husband might say, “I’m not in a Buddhist retreat. I’ve got a full house with two vegans and two non-vegans. I wish I could be alone. So anyone who’s lonely, trade places with me and sleep with my wife.” [Laughs]

48 HILLS What can non-artists take away from your book?

TORI AMOS For those who don’t see themselves as creative, I wanted to write a book that talks about the process and takes the lights and the makeup off of some of it, so they could have a relationship with art in a different way, so that it’s not an “us and them” kind of thing.

I really wanted to expose my personal struggles as an artist, so people who care about artists can understand it and how sometimes the only way out of the struggle is to create toward it and with it.

A Drag Queen Story Hour star and activist publishes her own kids’ book

Lil Miss Hot Mess hosting Drag Queen Story Hour. Photo by Joe Tekippe

For the majority of Americans, drag queens are performers they catch every Friday night on RuPaul’s Drag Race or at their local gay bar (pre-pandemic).

For former San Francisco performer Lil Miss Hot Mess, drag queens and kings have a broader appeal. They’re the brave warriors, who fought on the front lines for LGBTQ rights at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 and New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969. Over the years, a slew of local queens have even run for public office—from the late José Sarria and Sister Boom Boom to Joan Jett Blakk, Anna Conda, and Honey Mahogany.

Drag queens have shown up at protests, volunteered and raised funds for community organizations, and, in the case of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, provided community-based security at major events.

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down their efforts or lessened their reach. Many performers, including Juanita More, are now putting on digital drag shows to raise money and support community organizations, including the SF Bay Area Queer Nightlife Fund, which supports out-of-work LGBTQ nightlife workers.

Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), founded by queer author Michelle Tea in 2015 to inspire a love of reading in children while encouraging an appreciation for diversity, has gone virtual, as well, streaming book readings to kids everywhere via Instagram Live and public library websites.

One of the original DQSH hosts, who currently sits on the organization’s national advisory committee, Lil Miss Hot Mess pays tribute to all the tireless drag activists out there in her new children’s book The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, out May 5. This parody of “The Wheels on the Bus” children’s classic encourages kids of all types to be their most authentic selves. The book is vibrantly illustrated by Olga de Dios Ruiz and features some of SF’s landmark attractions, like the Castro Theatre sign.

I spoke to Lil Miss Hot Mess, who currently lives in Los Angeles, about writing her new book, continuing to fight Facebook’s “real names” policy and discriminatory comments on the social media site’s DQSH page, and how she’s handling life under quarantine.

48 HILLS Why did you decide to write a children’s book?

LIL MISS HOT MESS The book grew out of my work with Drag Queen Story Hour. While there are many wonderful books out there with diverse themes and representation and many that deal with queer and gender themes (with even more on the way), there weren’t any kids books about drag queens.

It felt important to be able to offer kids an easy way to understand what a drag queen is, and to spread the joy of DQSH beyond events — especially in communities where we don’t have chapters yet.  What I love about this book, too, is that it teaches kids, but it’s not didactic. There’s no “Drag 101,” but it gets them swishing and shimmying and twirling, so they can embody and celebrate some of the things queens do.  If they like it, maybe they’ll want to be drag queens when they grow up, too.

48 HILLS Why did you choose The Wheels on the Bus as the structural model for your story?

LIL MISS HOT MESS This really was just a stroke of inspiration on my way to a DQSH event a few years ago.  I wanted to do a bit more than just read stories, and I was thinking about kid-friendly songs, but wanted to make them more specific.  And I liked the idea of creating a safe space for kids to experiment.  As an effeminate child, I was made fun of for being too swishy, and I wanted to let kids embrace that.

Plus, parody is a common trick of the trade of drag (and something I loved as a kid), so it seemed like another good way of not watering down drag, but simply adapting it to be kid-friendly.

But I truly didn’t think consciously until afterwards just how well some of the verses mesh up with the original: the hair going up, up, up (instead of the people going up and down), the jewels going bling, bling, bling, (instead of the lights going blink, blink, blink).

48 HILLS What can readers take away from the story aside from the fact that drag queens are amazing?

LIL MISS HOT MESS It sounds cheesy, but I hope that they take away the diversity, joy, and creativity that really are what make drag possible. The book isn’t meant to have any specific message, but I hope kids (and adults) think about drag as not just about gender or glamour, but as about really making your outer appearance reflect your inner sparkle. That’s so much of what drag is about—living that fantasy until it’s an undeniable reality.

Photo by Tracy Chow

48 HILLS Talk to me about being a founding member of Drag Queen Story Hour. How did you get involved and why is DQSH important?

LIL MISS HOT MESS DQSH was started by Michelle Tea, the brilliant author who founded Radar Productions in San Francisco. She had just become a parent and was looking for queer family programs, but wasn’t finding much. Honestly, I’m just so in awe of her genius. It’s such a simple concept, but also requires a lot of dedication and bravery to pull off. So, the first DQSH events were in SF in late 2015, and I was one of the first queens to host in NYC. And now I’m on the national leadership team for the DQSH network, which has 50 chapters and growing.

In terms of its importance, DQSH really is unique in offering a taste of queerness to kids, whether they have queer parents/families, or for straight families wanting to teach their kids about LGBTQ cultures.  Many of the stories we read have social justice themes and hopefully also encourage a love of reading and learning.  But I think the real value is in cultural literacy.  It’s hard to know how to teach kids about LGBTQ issues in age-appropriate ways (even though it’s part of K-12 curriculum in California). DQSH offers one way that is unabashedly queer, but also really connects to kids on their level.

48 HILLS In 2014, you helped fight Facebook’s “real names” policy and now you’re fighting trolls on the DQSH page. What can you tell us about that?

LIL MISS HOT MESS Oy vey. Facebook is a challenge. We won some great victories with the #MyNameIs campaign, though I still get messages from people whose accounts are blocked for the same reasons (and from some of the same people!). And, of course, this was before Cambridge Analytica and many of Facebook’s other scandals.

The problem with trolling really stems from the same problems as the “real names” issue, though. Facebook sees many of its most vulnerable users as “edge cases” that aren’t worthy of investing resources in to solve problems.  For them, trolling that happens to one percent or 10 percent of their user base is a drop in the bucket, but that’s still millions and millions of people!  Of course, there are always going to be haters, but frankly Facebook needs to do a better job of offering tools, systems, and support to prevent attacks.

With DQSH, we’ve simply been asking for the ability to turn off comments on live videos, so that kids don’t have to see hateful messages from trolls. That isn’t hard, but it’s an uphill battle with Facebook. The other issue now is that, because of the pandemic, many of their content moderators are furloughed.  Things weren’t great before, as many queer folks have either seen offensive hate speech deemed “not a violation” or truly innocuous queer-themed content deemed to be “inappropriate.”

I have a feeling that things are about to get a lot worse before they get better. Like the public health pandemic, a lack of preparedness means that bad and unjust policies on Facebook are only being amplified now.

48 HILLS How have you been handling quarantine? What is your daily life like now?

LIL MISS HOT MESS Quarantine has been up and down for me. By day I’m a PhD student, so my work has mostly been from home, though I do genuinely miss working in libraries and coffee shops! I’m also a “spoonie,” meaning I have a chronic illness and limited physical energy, so my life, over the past few years, hasn’t been quite as go-go-go as I used to be and fewer club nights.

So, it’s interesting to feel less like I’m missing out now that we’re all connecting digitally. And I’ve actually been performing more than I had been, because I can finally do drag numbers from my bed and bathtub. As someone who’s more vulnerable to this virus, I’m also grateful that so many in my community and society at large are taking this so seriously. It’s really quite moving, though I wish that the federal government had planned better to mitigate this. And all that said, I can’t wait til we can safely gather and hug again.

The mother who stoned San Francisco

Meridy Volz. Courtesy of the author

Alia Volz, the author of Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco,  knew she had a good story on her hands.

Every time the San Francisco native told anybody about her upbringing as the daughter of Meridy and Doug Volz, the heads of the City’s largest “edibles” bakery in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, delivering over 10 thousand extra-strength brownies a month to locals, their eyes would grow to the size of saucers as they hung on her every word. People found it astounding that she grew up the way that she did.

But when the self-described “reluctant memoir writer” decided, 12 years ago, to put her story in print, she quickly realized through her research that it was even stronger and more potent than her eccentric parents or their wildly successful business. Dubbed Sticky Fingers, her parents’ brownie company famously brought relief to countless AIDS sufferers decades before apps like Eaze made weed deliveries commonplace.

So instead of writing a simple family history, she broadened her project’s scope to include the stories of legendary figures like Supervisor Harvey Milk, activist Cleve Jones, and superstar singer Sylvester, who collectively fought to make the City vibrant, colorful, and inclusive before it was crippled by the Jonestown Massacre, Milk’s assassination, AIDS, and the Loma Prieta earthquake.

I spoke to Volz about writing Home Baked, which fittingly comes out on 4/20 with a brownie bake-in, about the most challenging chapters, why weed has never been her drug of choice, and the lessons from the AIDS era that can be applied to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

48 HILLS Why did you decide to write a book about your family’s experience in the budding pot industry in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s?

ALIA VOLZ I started the book 12 years ago when I started recording the interviews for the book. I only had a vague notion of what it would be. I knew that we had a great story, but I hadn’t really found the heart of it.

The heart of the story came to me in 2016 during the lead-up to Proposition 64, which legalized the adult use of cannabis in California. I noticed that in the conversations and debates around that legislation that there was almost no mention of HIV/AIDS. But I thought that was what drove it.

So it felt like an erasure of a piece of history that I found incredibly important, poignant, and instructive, as far as how to survive or build a grassroots movement when you’re faced with an impossible situation. So that became the impetus to reframe the book and this is why it has to happen now.

48 HILLS The story seems to be as much about San Francisco in its much written about gay golden age in the ‘70s as it is about your family’s own experience in the edibles industry.

ALIA VOLZ Yes, the pieces of my hometown that meant so much to me were just disappearing and being edged out. So it was the desire to tell these forgotten stories about my city in the ‘70s and ‘80s that drove me to write the book.

“Sticky Fingers Logo” by Doug Volz, Courtesy of the author

48 HILLS Was your mother on board with your book idea from the get-go?

ALIA VOLZ She was. My mom isn’t exactly a shy retiring flower and is a bit of a stage hog by nature and does indulge in some self-mythologizing, but I think she never saw herself as a pioneer because she was just making decisions according to her own sense of right and wrong, hippie oracles, and what seemed fun. So on a day-to-day basis, she was just living her life in a way that she found exciting.

So it really wasn’t until I presented the story to her in the way that I contextualized it with my research that she started to think, “Oh well, maybe I did do something that mattered.” I think she’s still trying to wrap her head around it.

48 HILLS Was part of the impetus for writing the book to give your mother some long-overdue credit?

ALIA VOLZ That may have emerged later for me. But I didn’t understand how much my mom was a pioneer in that world until I really dug into the history of the medical marijuana movement and saw where she fit in.

I tried for years to find a business of that size or scope that came earlier and just couldn’t. The more I understood about the historical context, the evolution of medical marijuana, and the evolution of San Francisco culture and politics, I saw that her piece of the puzzle was connected to more elements than I ever imagined.

I would have been happy just to tell a quirky family story, but I found something much richer and more interesting. Then it started to matter to me and became part of my mission plan. It was a nice surprise as a writer to realize that the story you were telling is more consequential than you thought.

Meridy and Alia Volz, circa 1983. Courtesy of the author.

48 HILLS You describe several painful chapters in the City’s history between the Jonestown Massacre, Harvey Milk’s assassination, the AIDS era, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. How challenging was it to write about these monumental events?

ALIA VOLZ Two of the most difficult parts were the Jonestown Massacre and Harvey Milk’s assassination, because how do you do justice to something like that? How do you write about it in a way that captures the intensity and horror without glorifying it and bringing something new to the conversation when it’s a topic that’s been written about so often? So that was emotionally hard and technically challenging as a writer.

The hardest part, though, was researching and writing about the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It was devastating for me. I spent maybe three weeks where the only thing I did was go through the Bay Area Reporter obituaries and track various threads of names to try to find survivors who were also Sticky Fingers customers to talk to and it was just crushing to discover how many people died.

Then there was a breakthrough where going through obituaries, I found Dan Clowry [a regular client of Meridy Volz’s who worked at Castro’s Village Deli] who connected me to other people and it just opened up. But those weeks combing the beach for survivors were incredibly sad.

48 HILLS One of the City’s most renowned artists to die of AIDS was Sylvester, who happened to be a regular customer of your mom’s. What are your memories of him?

ALIA VOLZ When I was a kid, I would go with my mom to his house in Twin Peaks, which was three stories and all outfitted with this boudoir vibe with lots of velvet, beads, and erotic art on the wall. But I have this clear image of him, always in a caftan or lounging pajamas, a turban, and a lot of jewelry, draped on a fainting couch and smoking a joint with my mom.

As a kid, I had a strong affinity with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I had this association in my mind of Sylvester as the caterpillar smoking his hookah. He seemed magical to me, which is not entirely uncommon. He was just so charismatic.

Alia Volz. Photo by Dennis Hearne

48 HILLS What was your first experience with Sticky Fingers brownies?

ALIA VOLZ It’s a little hard for me to answer that question because when you grow up in a weed family, it’s sort of everywhere. But it’s not like I was getting high as a kid. I grew up with the idea of pot being the purview of grown-ups, the way the evening news is. You wouldn’t want it.

I’m sure I snuck some crumbs because they tasted good…it was just so casual. That’s part of why I never got into it as an adult. It doesn’t have any mystique. It’s just not that interesting to me or a right of passage for me. In some form, it was always there. For some people, it’s a step toward adulthood or rebellion, but it wasn’t that for me.

48 HILLS Are there lessons that readers can take from your book, particularly from the passages about the AIDS era that can be applied to the current COVID-19 pandemic?

ALIA VOLZ I think what is instructive about it and what we’re seeing play out again is that state leaders, local leaders, and individuals have to organize on a grassroots level to face the pandemic in the absence of governmental action because the federal government is clearly letting us down as the Reagan administration did during the AIDS era.

But I have civic pride that San Francisco has been a leader in taking it seriously and taking drastic action, which also happened during the AIDS crisis. I’m glad to see we can still pull it together.

So, what do kids say about living in San Francisco?

Katie Burke grew up in a family of five children in Phoenix, Arizona. She felt, like she thinks many children do, that she was always struggling for attention. That may be why she loves being around them now, and hearing their perspectives. 

“I always wanted to be heard,” she said. “I’m a very direct person, and I love how direct children are. They rarely have an agenda. I wish everybody would tell the truth, and you can count on children for that.”

Burke, a family attorney who writes the column “Noe Kids” for the Noe Valley Voice, has her debut book out, Urban Playground: What Kids Say About Living in San Francisco. For the book she interviewed 50 San Francisco children, ages five to nine, about subjects including favorite foods, their families, their heroes and what they’d like to do as a job when they grow up. The book also includes book a series of conversation exercises so parents and kids can do their own interviews at home.

Burke got a master’s in counseling, then went to law school “sort of by accident,” she says.

“I always planned to work with families,” she said. “When I was in counseling, I felt it was too passive, and I wanted to do more for clients.”

Burke has taught creative writing to children and adults and she writes quarterly judicial and attorney profiles for San Francisco Attorney Magazine. In 2017, her mother asked her to do a family project writing answers to questions from her six nieces and two nephews, who live around the country. That led to the column for the Noe Valley Voice and then to working on this book, which Burke says brings together her love of children and the city she’s lived in since 1999.

Burke says San Francisco became a bigger place to her while working on the book talking with children who live in neighborhoods she hasn’t spent much time in like Mission Bay and Mission Terrace.

Author Katie Burke

She spoke with kids like eight-year-old J.P. who lives in Visitation Valley and likes walking his dog in McLaren Park, riding his bike to Candlestick Point, and going to the sports bar and grill 7 Mile House. And there’s nine-year-old Amelia who lives with her two dads in Noe Valley and can play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” on the ukulele. She also likes going to the pizza place, Mozzeria, where the owners and servers are deaf. She can say, “thank you,” “milk,” and “good morning” in sign language. 

Burke says the children she talked with are aware of and saddened by people who are homeless , who one kid called “abandoned people living on the street,” and she says because of things like the tech boom, the children are living in a completely different city than the one before they were born. 

Burke had lots of readings and events planned for her book launch,which have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But The Booksmith, God love them, is hosting a virtual launch on Thursday, April 16 at 6pm.