Oakland Book Festival 2015 by Nicole Fraser-Herron (web)

Ideas Behind the Oakland Book Festival

It happens once a year now: Oakland’s City Hall is transformed into the venue for a daylong free festival of ideas.

Timothy Don and Kira Brunner Don, founders of the Oakland Book Festival, set out last year to harness the energy of what was already happening in the city. The longtime staffers of Lapham’s Quarterly rooted the festival in a theme — cities — and, with the help of partner organizations like the Before Columbus Foundation, PEN/Oakland, Litquake and the Oakland Public Library, curated a series of panels and readings to examine that theme via its polar opposites: utopia and dystopia. Thousands of people filled the city center and participated in timely and often passionate discussions.

“What we want to do every year,” Don said over coffee, “is choose a theme that has a lot of local, specifically Oakland-based urgency to it, but also has a much wider sort of global valence, and international valence, so that we can really embed our panels and our work in the concerns that face Oakland, but also make Oakland a part of a much wider national-international debate, conversation, exploration of ideas.

“One thing that was really gratifying last year was to see the extent to which people seemed to respond to the idea of this having a throughline to it, and not just being sort of a collection of readings,” he said.

This year’s theme, Labor, is broken into categories such as confinements, which Don says includes “everything from the New Company Town, and models of how companies are essentially organizing workers’ lives for them, including gyms, haircut places, even lodging — all the way through to a couple of panels on prisons and imprisonment.” Other categories include Struggles, Voices and Jobs.

“It’s really important to us, especially when touching on large political subjects, not to come at them from only one perspective,” said Brunner Don. “So we deliberately, when putting together a panel, attempt to invite speakers who may very much disagree with one another, so that there’s a conflict in the panel. That’s more exciting for the audience, it’s more interesting for the panelists, and it actually makes you think differently.”

The festival abounds in authors and non-writers alike, with more than 200 appearances by a range of historians, poets, writers, sociologists and activists. There’s a full day of youth programming — Children’s Fairyland presents storytelling, and Chapter 510 and the Department of Make Believe is building a pop-up shop where kids can fill out applications for permits to make-believe. Local booksellers and publishers will have booths in Frank Ogawa Plaza, and a Nomadic Press-organized marathon in the amphitheater will feature three-minute readings by authors.

An opening-night gala on Friday will be free for the 100-plus volunteers and the presenters; it’s ticketed for the public, in the hopes of bolstering OBF’s crowdfunding campaign to cover temporary staff wages and visiting presenters’ accommodations. That campaign runs through the end of May.

See the entire program at oaklandbookfestival.org.


Oakland Book Festival: 10:30 a.m. Sunday, May 22. Free. Oakland City Hall, Frank H. Ogawa Plaza.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Nicole Fraser-Herron

Additional listings

Paul Madonna celebrates a limited hand-bound release of his new illustrated novel “Close Enough for the Angels” at the opening reception for his first solo exhibition in five years, featuring framed original drawings and text panels from the book (7 p.m. Thursday, May 19, the Dryansky Gallery, 2120 Union St., S.F. Free).

Radar Productions continues its popular series Hella Close with the theme “Stories of Black Queer Intimacy,” curated and hosted by Arisa White and featuring Joshua Merchant, Jezebel Delilah X, Brontez Purnell and Ramona “Mona” Webb (7 p.m. Friday, May 20, Strut, 470 Castro St., S.F. Free).

Writers With Drinks presents International Goliardos Prize and World Fantasy Award-winning Guy Gavriel Kay, Yangsze Choo (“The Ghost Bride”), David Lau (“Virgil and the Mountain Cat”), Kwan Booth (“Black Futurists Speak: An Anthology of New Black Writing”) and Ariel Waldman (“What’s It Like in Space? Stories From Astronauts Who’ve Been There”) (7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21, the Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., S.F. $5-$20).

Literary Death Match returns for its 61st S.F. show, featuring Janis Cooke Newman (“A Master Plan for Rescue”), Lambda Literary Fellow Baruch Porras-Hernandez, Na’amen Tilahun (“The Root”), and Sarah Ladipo Manyika (“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun”) (7:15 p.m. Saturday, May 21, Elbo Room, 647 Valencia St., S.F. $7-$10).

City Lights presents a reading featuring old-school and new-school Bay Area poets, both of whom they recently published: Joanne Kyger (“On Time”) and Julien Poirier (“Out of Print”) (1 p.m. Sunday, May 22, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Free).