Bay Area Book Fest

I’m not sure how I previously missed this book festival in my backyard, now in its third year. But newly aware, I hopped on the train today and headed east to rub elbows with the literati of the Bay Area. Whenever I emerge into Berkeley, I fall in love with it all over again, and today was no exception—sun shining, book nerds coalescing, scrappy jazz band playing clarinet/upright piano/trombone/trumpet in the street while families gather in a line for free ice cream samples.

The festival itself is a combo of lots of free outdoor events plus lots of ticketed (or wristband-accessible) events to hear authors indoors. An amazing assortment of booths lined the square behind City Hall, all catering to book lovers—local bookstores, authors, and all sorts of tempting treats for people in love with the written word. I picked up a magnificent magnet with Virginia Woolf’s portrait and a fabulous “holster” for my pen to attach to a moleskin notebook. Also a free copy of the Koran and pamphlets about Muslim women—what a fantastic idea, we’re all so curious about this religion that’s causing panic on the right, and what better idea than to staff a booth with a friendly guy answering question and handing out free copies of their book?!

I bought priority tickets to see Roxane Gay in conversation with Rafia Zakaria and Masha Gessen in conversation with Orville Schell, so after enjoying the upright piano/clarinet/trumpet/trombone magic on the street of John Brothers Piano Company I headed to Freight and Salvage and was overwhelmed by the huge crowd of women waiting to get in for Roxane, who was up first.

Notes from Roxane Gay’s interview:

  • “After Sandy Hook, I stopped believing in institutions.” We can no longer rely on institutions to make things right.
  • Best way for white people to help? Stop calling yourself an ally, which puts a barrier between you & the problem. Start feeling the oppression. “Make the oppression your own. That racial oppression is mine. That transgender oppression is mine. Disabled oppression is mine.”
  • References to Who Gets to Be Angry (NYTimes, June 2016), the Nov 10 interview with Kamau Bell on Politically Re-Active that I’m listening to right now.
  • Difference between rage and anger? Anger is more focused, rage is collective.
  • How to respond to someone who says “you sound angry” — they’re being lazy. Are they reachable? If not, fuck ’em.
  • “I don’t have low self-esteem about my writing.” (Hell yeah!) When she writes a good paragraph, she feels a “rush of energy beneath my skin” (this in response to an audience question, does she feel blown away when she reads the stuff she writes).
  • Re: hope. “If we don’t have hope, what are we fighting for?”
  • Living in the flyover states, she sees plenty of rage, but it’s “rage born of entitlement… ‘I did not get the white dream, I am really angry.'” We need to educate these folks about their real oppressor, rich white men.
  • Hilarious comment about LA, where you think everyone is just thin (Roxane has a book coming out about her struggles with weight): “People in LA are so self-absorbed that they’re not worried about you.” e.g. you’re overlooked, you get a pass.
  • What she’s reading? An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Ellen Pao’s upcoming memoir. 
  • She hasn’t tweeted in 9 days, what’s up? Roxane mentioned having given a talk at Twitter HQ yesterday, but said she’d taking a break b/c she isn’t paid for the emotional effort she puts into fighting the trolls on Twitter—it isn’t worth it, she needs time off. Fuck you Twitter, fix your system.

Notes from Masha Gessen interview on Truth, Lies and Totalitarianism in Russia and the U.S.

  • Damn, I wish I was as smart and well-spoken as Masha Gessen. Her eloquence and intelligence will haunt me to the end of my days.
  • Of course the conversation turns to what she thinks about the current political climate in the U.S. She’s “not surprised, but always shocked.”
  • She moved to the U.S. at age 14 in 1981 before Gorbachev had unleashed perestroika & glasnost onto the world—her emigrant family wanted to believe the worst to justify their fleeing the Soviet Union.
  • Totalitarianism is all about the destruction of the fabric of society, of shared experiences. The huge absence of these things makes it impossible to recover from the big boot stamp of totalitarianism.
  • Rise happening now? The West lost the cautionary tale that existed in the Soviet Union. (THIS IS HUGE) Western democracies have steadily become less democratic since.
  • She doesn’t believe history has a direction, but rather believes in the “mess and idiocy narrative.”
  • Tim Snyder of NYRB said it best, that Putin is the person that Trump plays on TV. Trump sees Putin’s power and popularity and wants it.
  • Estonia is “one of the best places in the world.” !!!
  • The story around her article, Autocracy: Rules for survival, was fantastic. Apparently, she’d been tapped to write the reaction essay for Russia’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s win for the NYT. “They did not have a plan B.” The A-team had gone home and Gessen emailed the on-call editor suggesting that she write rules for survival instead of a reaction piece. The junior editor nixed the idea, and Gessen offered it to NYRB. It was so successful it broke her smartwatch because it overheated after getting so many notifications about the piece.
  • We have a real problem of imagination. We couldn’t imagine Trump would get the R nom. We couldn’t imagine he’d be president. “The present defies imagination.” Thus we use crutches like, “Russia interfered!” instead of digging into the icky reason why millions voted for the Cheeto in Chief. We also immediately grabbed at straws thinking that he’d be “presidential” or maybe the electors would step in to not cast their votes for him.
  • Probably the most shocking comment was when she was asked her opinion of Russia, her home country. “Hopeless. Layers and layers of tragedy and awfulness.” After laying out this bleakness, she revealed that some of her friends have moved from big picture projects to small projects—small charities like an orphanage to handle disabled kids instead of tackling the whole system of orphanages. Moving to changing the world via one life at a time, which we know is somewhat futile.
  • The view of the world as “basically rotten” is the fascist view, and one that is being peddled mightily by the right. As a society, we need to return to talking about ideals.
  • Will America be able to resist totalitarianism? There is no such thing as American exceptionalism. The force that oversimplifies and says it can put all fears to rest is hard to resist. We will succumb.
  • Question about what the person-on-the-street likes best about Putin, what changes he’s made to their day-to-day life. Putin has not done anything to improve their particular life, but he projects a strong image that people like. He made Russia great again. This public vs. private self– public self identifies with strong country, likes that. Private self feels like it is always getting screwed by government, always being defrauded. Bifurcation of identity.
  • The U.S.’s Reichstag moment was 9/11. !!!
  • Wikileaks involvement in election: Julian Assange is “his own agent of destruction.” (Masha recommends watching Laura Poitras’s Risk, but I couldn’t take the inflated ego of Assange on display, which is her point.)  Ultimately, the NYT and WaPo share some blame for forging ahead with the material gained from the poisoned tree. Perhaps this will start a conversation about how the media does function as political actors. You can’t just shrug and say, it was out there, and publish it.