“When this crisis is past, we’re going to need a place to come together,
take a deep breath, and share the stories.”
A Q&A with Cherilyn Parsons, BABF’s Founder and Executive Director
For interview, email [email protected]
Due to the COVID-19 situation, you’re no longer having the in-person 2020 Festival. Can you talk about what your original plans were for the 2020 Fest?
To begin at the beginning: our team started planning the 2020 Festival almost as soon as the 2019 event wrapped up. By late fall, we’d landed on a theme that addressed the polarization and disparities of the current political, economic, and social landscape with a hopeful and forward-looking view: “Books Build Bridges.” Our Festival has always tackled complex and timely issues. But in 2020, being an election year, so much seemed to be reaching an urgent boiling point: political divisiveness, climate change, housing scarcity, income equality. With all the anxiety and turmoil in the world, our goal was to highlight authors and books that bring hope, that celebrate beauty, and that offer opportunities to solve problems and make a difference — that bridge from despair to hope, paralysis to action.
And we did just that. By the second week of March, we’d been steadily updating the 2020 Sneak Peek on our website; and we were almost ready to upload our full, complete schedule: all 265 confirmed authors and speakers, all 130 interviews, panels, and other presentations. We’d created programming that centered issues like voting rights, homelessness, authoritarianism, and climate activism: issues that are both global and local, acutely important. We had bold-faced names alongside exciting debut authors. As always, we prioritized diversity. We had writers from all over the country, including many rooted right here in the Bay Area, plus writers flying in from Japan, Mexico, Mauritius, many European countries, and even Greenland. We had dozens of grade-school, middle-grade and high school students who were excited to interview writers onstage and read their own original work on our Young Authors Stage. We had some stellar installations, such as a Virtual Reality pavilion made of living walls; and we had more volunteers sign up for 2020 than ever before.
“How can we still be there for our community during a time of fear, isolation, and uncertainty?”
Then, on March 11, in light of the escalating COVID-19 situation, we of course made the decision to cancel the 2020 in-person event, which would have brought more than 25,000 people together over the weekend of May 2 and 3 in downtown Berkeley. (For more details about what led us to that decision, and how we’re pivoting to serve the community in a different way during this sheltering-in-place era, see these thoughtful stories by Berkeleyside and The San Francisco Chronicle).
Our top priority is the safety and security of the community we love, and canceling the in-person event was 100% the right choice, even though it was heartbreaking. But we were left wondering: How can we still provide a platform for brilliant authors whose voices need to be heard in these turbulent times—and whose book tours and in-person promotional events have all been canceled? How can we help boost sales for the independent bookstores whose very survival is threatened by the current circumstances? And, most importantly of all, how can we still connect with, inspire, and be there for our community during a time of fear, isolation, and uncertainty—a time that calls, more than ever, for a bridge to be built?
Did you find answers to those questions? How are you pivoting in the wake of the in-person event’s cancellation?
A brand-new vision and an exciting, ambitious plan sprung from those questions raised by the cancellation. We’re now pivoting to produce a virtual Festival, one whose aim is still to build bridges with books locally and globally, but in a way that’s unrestricted by geography, time, and space. We even have a fitting new name for this virtual incarnation of our Festival: The Bay Area Book Festival #UNBOUND. Over the weekend of May 1-3, when we’d originally planned for the in-person Fest to take place (we’ve turned it into a three-day weekend with one extra day), we’re launching a series of riveting programs on our YouTube channel that will continue to roll out through June, at the least. At this point we’ve created four categories of programs: voting rights (which was to be the centerpiece of the physical festival), wellness, literary conversations, and children’s programs.
We were thrilled to receive widespread, immediate enthusiasm for the idea. The authors unreservedly said “yes” when asked if they’d be interested in being part of this new venture. A dozen other renowned literary festivals all over the country have expressed a desire to share our voting rights programs with their own audiences (we’ll offer the other ones too). Our wonderful, literature-loving Festival attendees—seniors, kids, students, millennials, and everyone in between—are eager for the programs. Their passion for books and reading, for the life of the mind and imagination, is our inspiration.
“We’re aiming to offer literary antidotes to the many difficulties that our community is facing right now.”
Planning a virtual Festival has been a nonstop whirlwind, and the learning curve is steep, but we’re really glad we’re doing it. We’re learning to produce high-quality video content in a way that replicates, as closely as possible, the experience of being there in person. Our programs will be polished, bug-proof, and effortlessly user-friendly, so that their content—absorbing, illuminating sessions with leading novelists, journalists, historians, children’s authors, activists, and so much more—can shine.
Of course we hope that the Festival will return as an in-person event in 2021, with all of the amazing exhibitors, installations, interactive outdoor fun, and joyous atmosphere that makes it so special. But we’re starting a new chapter with BABF #UNBOUND, one that’ll continue as a brand-new, enticing year-round complement to that in-person programming.
Unfortunately, because we lost a lot of revenue in having to cancel the in-person festival, we don’t have the resources to replicate in virtual format all 130 programs planned for the 2020 Fest! We expect that with current funding, we can do only about 105. But we’re making it count. We’re selecting programs that we believe are especially relevant, meaningful, and supportive for this moment. We’re aiming to offer literary antidotes to the many difficulties that our community is facing right now.
What kind of programming will be featured in The Bay Area Book Festival #UNBOUND?
To give some structure to #UNBOUND, we’ve set four program tracks: voting rights, which we consider among the most important issues facing our democracy today; health, wellness, and self-care, for obvious reasons; smart, provocative literary conversations, because literature can provide solace, insight, escape, and pleasure; and a full slate of family and children’s programming.
In this hugely consequential election year, we wanted to use our platform to help people learn about voting rights, especially voter suppression, a major threat to fair elections. We created an extensive Voting Rights program as a centerpiece of our in-person fest, and for the first time planned to include activists on stage with the authors. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, the right to vote is under greater threat than ever before. We’re reproducing sessions exploring voter disenfranchisement, the movement to abolish the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and more, featuring thought leaders like Carol Anderson, David Daley, and Jesse Wegman. We’ve just added a panel addressing the latest developments: “Courts, COVID-19, and Voter Suppression,” featuring the perspectives and insights of top experts examining vote-by-mail and the role of the judicial system in this unforeseen moment in American electoral history.
Health and wellness are other crucial concerns during our current time of isolation and stress. We’ve selected a few of our 2020 programs on these topics to present virtually. Our program on end-of-life planning was a perfect fit. We’ve noted many health care workers talking about finally completing their own living wills, and we all know that these conversations and plans are difficult to get underway. For the in-person Fest we had already assembled authors with new books on the topic, giving people tools and information, both emotional and logistical, for launching these processes. But for the virtual program, we also were able to tap Sunita Puri, MD, who heads up palliative care at UCSF and is working on the front lines on these issues with COVID patients. She’ll moderate this discussion. We were worried about taking up her time but she was eager to share her expertise. What’s more, she herself is an author with a recent, amazing memoir on what she’s learned from palliative care work. This truly is a must-see program.
“We’ve set four virtual program tracks: voting rights; health, wellness, and self-care; smart, provocative literary conversations; and family and children’s programming.”
Another wellness program is about parenting in an age of crisis, addressing the particular stresses, concerns, and considerations of raising kids during a time fraught with existential and concrete threat. This conversation includes Sarah Jacquette Ray, Madeline Levine, and Christine Carter, moderated by Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Another program that bridges our wellness and children’s/family programs is a conversation with New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, author of How to Raise a Reader. Now is a perfect time to help kids discover joy in reading. Books aren’t just about school assignments!
As for those children’s and family programs, we’ll have tracks for little ones with top kids’ picture-book authors and illustrators holding storytimes and drawing demonstrations; popular middle-grade authors being interviewed by teens from Bay Area schools; and general YA as well as voting rights programming for teenagers—not only those who will be first-time voters in 2020, but the pre-18-year-olds who are already becoming activists. Truly, it’s the high social engagement of young people today that’s giving me hope.
Finally, of course, there are the more traditional literary programs. We’re bringing you virtual versions of our highly popular Writer-to-Writer series, featuring intimate, insightful conversations between two prominent authors who are fans of each other’s work. Our virtual Writer-to-Writers include a discussion about art, sex, and power with acclaimed novelists Garth Greenwell and Lidia Yuknavitch, made possible by a sponsorship from the California Institute of Integral Studies and moderated by Keiko Lane, a poet, writer, and former CIIS faculty member. We’re also bringing you a fascinating conversation we’re calling “Queens of Mystery,” featuring two bestselling powerhouses of suspense, Rachel Howzell Hall and Meg Gardiner. In the works is a conversation with Scandinavia’s biggest blockbuster crime authors—stay tuned!
We live in a high-tech age where so much discussion happens online. That’s one reason why the real-time discussions that take place at the Festival are so special. Now that the in-person 2020 content is pivoting to virtual programming out of necessity, how do you plan to sustain that sense of interchange, dialogue, and interaction with the community?
It’s true that the atmosphere fostered by the in-person Festival is singular and special. There’s something remarkable about the experience of 25,000 diverse people coming together in person in this digital age, not for a sports event or even a music event — but to talk about and think about books. People aren’t looking at their phones. They’re conversing about meaningful things, because the air around them is full of ideas that spark those substantive discussions. People think, learn, laugh, eat, discuss — in community. And, by the grace and generosity of that community we love, we’ll be back in 2021 to once again turn downtown Berkeley into a bustling literary village full of independent authors, small presses, bookstores, book-related artisans, and stimulating interactive activities that get kids excited about reading. We’ll once again fill beautiful downtown Berkeley venues with crowds excited to see leading authors brought in from all over the world. We’ll once again have a joyous kickoff Gala, and long chatty book-signing lines of perfect strangers bonding over their love and admiration for a writer’s work….
Ah, but I digress! It’s just that we can’t wait to make that in-person magic possible again, because there’s nothing like it.
But if there’s anything this public health crisis has shown us, it’s that there’s more than one way to build and sustain a sense of community, togetherness, and solidarity. In these times, we have to get resourceful in order to reach each other—even if it’s from a distance.
“Reading is an activity we do by ourselves, but ultimately books make us feel much less alone. I think this is doubly true in times of crisis, or in times of isolation.”
Most of us initially fell in love with literature and books from a place of solitude. Reading is an activity we do by ourselves, but ultimately books make us feel much less alone, no matter how far from home, or from each other, we are. I think this is doubly true in times of crisis, or in times of isolation.
Books give us strength that comes from a place of intense vulnerability—the vulnerability of the writer, of his/her characters, and of us, the readers taking this leap into the unknown with them. In a time of collective vulnerability—a time like the one we’re experiencing now—we want our programming to give people strength. We want it to create a space for inquiry, stimulation, hope, and even courage. We want it to stand as a form of communication because in a time of physical human distancing, it’s one of the few means of touching, and of being touched, that we still have.
Our beloved Bay Area community members have made it clear how much the Festival means to them. We can’t even list all the testimonials we’ve received about the Festival’s impact on people’s lives—testimonials from the writers we feature, as well from the thousands of adults, kids, and families who feel nourished, galvanized, and seen by their experience at the Fest. When we announced our decision to cancel the in-person event and our intention to produce virtual programming, we received so much validation from that community—validation that books and reading matter more than ever now, and that having conversations about them, even on a screen, is a way of coping, of bonding, of making it through.
I mentioned above that our theme this year was “books build bridges.” BABF #UNBOUND is all about bridging—bringing meaningful conversations by smart, creative people who have thought a lot about the topics (aka, authors) right into your living room. We’re bridging that physical distance.
Aside from BABF #UNBOUND, in what ways will you communicate with your audiences during this tough time?
We’re producing much more original written content now, not only to inform our audiences but, just as with the programs themselves, to connect with our community and give them something stimulating and absorbing to engage with during a tough time. We want to send them messages of love and solidarity and comfort.
We’re putting out our newsletter, “Between the Covers,” three times per month instead of one, and filling the issues with original author interviews, profiles of indie bookstores that capture how they’re coping and how we can help, personalized book recommendations, and literary links and food for thought. You can subscribe here!
We’ve also started a regular series in our newsletter and blog, “Literary Sustenance,” that delves deep into how Festival authors are dealing with the current situation: what they’re reading, how they’re seeking and finding solace, what’s giving them hope. These portraits have been very moving and relatable. They’re glimpses into authors’ daily lives in the midst of these trying circumstances, and they’ve been very raw and open in sharing with us what their challenges and inspirations are. Many of them, caring for elderly relatives or very young children, are trying to balance home-schooling their kids, teaching their classes virtually, writing, caretaking, and in some cases figuring out how to stay afloat. They’re still finding, in the midst of it all, little glimpses of beauty and hope, whether it’s as minor as some fleeting scene glimpsed through their living room window, or a virtual happy hour with a faraway friend, or an act of charitable kindness they’ve witnessed in their community. We’ve been talking to so many wonderful writers—Carolina de Robertis, Cara Black, Dan Chiasson, Oscar Villalon, Matthew Zapruder, Vanessa Hua, Marie Mockett—and are looking forward to talking with several more, and sharing their words and insights with our community.
Speaking of sustaining a sense of community, how are you planning to do that for the members of Women Lit, your year-round series focused on female and female-identified authors, during this social-distancing era? In-person events and intimate receptions/salons have been such an integral part of the community-building aspect of this series.
We love our Women Lit members, and we’ve been so lucky to have built our membership significantly over the past year. It’s such a beautiful forum for book-loving women in the community to learn about each other, bond, make new friends, have unforgettable conversations with authors and one another in gorgeous and peaceful settings. In the past year, we’ve had several members gift Women Lit memberships to their friends, so they can experience the magic of these events together; and we’ve had so many events—with Jenny Offill, Amber Tamblyn, Terry Tempest Williams, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, and more—that were nothing short of transformative.
Because of COVID-19, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some of the Women Lit events we’d scheduled for spring and summer, including ones with Victoria James and Alexandra Roxo. But we’re producing a new sheltering-in-place series, “Women Lit Lunch Hour,” as part of our Unbound virtual programming. The first videotaped lunch hour, coming in May, will be an interview with debut author Chelsea Bieker, whose novel Godshot is causing a big stir. We have another Lunch Hour underway with author and aging expert Louise Aronson.
“It’s important to still have a place to interact and learn about each other, even if it’s virtual.”
We’re also starting a special project we’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t had the bandwidth for: a Women Lit newsletter, “Literary Lighthouse,” that’ll go out to our members monthly. It’ll contain exclusive interviews with Women Lit authors, book reviews, personal reflections, and profiles of our amazing Women Lit members.
As soon as shelter-in-place began, we knew it was important to still have a place to interact and learn about each other, even if it’s virtual. That’s what we intend “Literary Lighthouse” to be. For our members, we want it to feel like having a book-loving pen pal that sends them a literary letter each month and invites them to write back with their own reflections, reading suggestions, and thoughts. We really want to incorporate that interactive aspect, that element of sharing and riffing off one another’s brains and passions.
Another way of preserving that aspect is through our popular salons, which we’re going to still be holding virtually for members at certain levels. A group of brilliant women, a visiting author guest, great conversation, and a virtual clinking of glasses (they call them “quarantinis”): it’s a way we can keep our connection strong and hold each other up while we weather this strange time together.
Of course, we’ll be back with some stellar in-person events once it’s safe again. We’re already booking Women Lit authors for fall, including some very big names we can’t yet reveal!
Besides the necessary switch to virtual programming for 2020, how has the Festival changed over its six years? And what’s next for the Fest, once we’re able to gather in person again?
After the 2016 Presidential election, the Festival became more overtly activist and focused on social justice. The night of the election, I remember having a moment of wondering, in a kind of shell-shocked daze, “Do literature and writing matter right now?” Like millions across the country, I was afraid, demoralized, uncertain. It was a kind of mourning, one that hasn’t really stopped, for any of us. Of course, the answer was obvious: literature and art matter more than ever in the wake of that night, and in the midst of everything that’s followed: increasing income inequality, brutality toward immigrants and refugees, the rise of racist and nativist sentiment and actions, the unrelenting scourge of gun violence, the escalating climate crisis.
In the past four years, we’ve seen an outpouring of literary voices that have so brilliantly risen to the occasion of documenting, eliding, doing justice to the precariousness of these times, through art. There’s that Percy Bysshe Shelley quote, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” that puts it in perspective: art and literature can illuminate aspects of our reality that aren’t graspable or expressible by any other means.
“Books change people, and thus books change the world.”
So, if anything has changed for us over the years, it’s been that we’ve grown even more purposeful about creating a platform to highlight books we think are important in public conversation. We look at potential books to feature at the Festival through this lens, not exclusively but as part of our general rubric around selecting books that matter. Books change people, and thus books change the world.
Some things about the Festival have stayed the same, of course, and one of those things is our belief that a book festival must encompass all kinds of people: both established and emerging authors, local and international, of every color, creed, gender, ability, and more. Diversity of all sorts is a major priority. We take care to present a spectrum of authors that reflects our diverse community and the wider world, and we prioritize underrepresented voices. We look for authors who bring perspectives that haven’t been heard in so-called mainstream public discourse. We welcome voices that radically broaden that discourse, that define it on new terms, that challenge and inspire others to create a world of greater justice and greater beauty that, as with ecology itself, relies upon diversity. That’s one tenet of our Festival that will never change.
As for what’s next, after we move on to life post-COVID-19: a lot depends on our community. There’s no question that we have the team, the passion, the know-how, and the commitment to come back, stronger than ever, with a stellar in-person Festival in 2021. What is in question is whether we’ll have the financial support to sustain our operations until then. Like so many event-based nonprofits, indie bookstores, and arts organizations across the country, we lost a huge amount of revenue due to COVID-19; in our case, we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, sponsorships, exhibitor fees, and ticket sales.
“Donating isn’t just about supporting the Festival anymore. It’s about saving it.”
We’re rallying right now to bring our community something amazing in the midst of a terrible time for everyone, but doing this is a very big (and somewhat terrifying) leap of faith on our part. It’s one we’re happy to make. But we live in a new normal now, and we need the members of our community who love the Festival, and value what it brings to their lives and the life of the Bay Area, to step up and help us stay afloat so that we can keep going.
I can’t stress this enough: donating isn’t just about supporting the Festival anymore; it’s about saving it. In doing that, you can save a cultural lifeline that brings stimulation and joy to so many, and has a big positive effect on the economy of our region, from Downtown Berkeley (where our Festival normally takes place) to indie bookshops, independent authors and artists, and the many small businesses, venues, hotels, and more involved in the event.
Any final words? What else keeps you going?
In times like this, everyone is dealing first with the emergency at hand, which is totally natural. We are too! But there’s something to be said for looking forward, looking beyond our immediate reality, and asking ourselves: what kind of world do we want after this? What are we going to need, to want, to long for, to benefit from, to heal with, once the peak of the crisis is past?
Some of those things are painfully clear: a healthcare system that works for everyone; a safety net that holds us all up; an infrastructure that values and protects every life equally. But we’re also going to need a source of comfort and connection and protection that’s intangible, but just as vital. We’re going to need art. We’re going to need literature. We’re going to need to tell and listen to the stories, and we’re going to need to come together to share and learn and grow from those stories.
With the support of our community, that’s what we envision for our 2021 Festival, knock on wood: a cathartic, beautiful space for all of us to come together, take a huge breath, and revel in the endless variability of the stories that connect and bond us to each other.