What makes Oakland special? If you ask Timothy Don, it’s a “kind of buzz, and a very active zeitgeist.”
With that in mind, Don and his wife, Kira Brunner Don, moved to Oakland from New York City less than two years ago with a singular goal: to create a world-class literary festival. They weren’t looking for any old town to host the event — they wanted to be in The Town.
“We want to do it because we perceive there’s something really cool going on here in Oakland,” Don said of his wife’s hometown, where the second annual Oakland Book Festival takes place on Sunday at City Hall.
More than 100 writers are participating in 40 panels, conversations and readings over seven hours. Authors include Pico Iyer, Melissa Gira Grant, Ellen Pao, Fred Moten, Larissa Macfarquhar, Mary Roach and Michael Eric Dyson.
The couple took inspiration through their longtime work with Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal that, Don says, “takes huge trans-historical themes and then curates readings and art around it.” With a focus on the East Bay’s anchor city, the Oakland Book Festival is designed around a central theme — this year it’s “labor” — that is “broad enough and flexible enough that people aren’t just showing up and hearing what they already know,” Don says.
Jane Ganahl, who co-founded San Francisco’s Litquake and, according to Don, is a friend, partner and inspiration, said a literary landscape is as important a measure of a city as anything else. “What Litquake did 17 years ago is begin the process of recognizing and celebrating San Francisco’s rich and storied literary past, present and future,” she says: “This is exactly what the OBF is doing for Oakland: celebrating its amazing [and under-recognized] history of authors, from Gertrude Stein and Jack London to Maxine Hong Kingston and Ishmael Reed.” (Litquake co-founder Jack Boulware moderates the panel “The 100 Year Call of the Wild” at 12:15 p.m. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of London’s death.)
To put on such a large-scale event, the Dons needed more than a good idea. Oakland Public Library and City Hall quickly came on board, and after about 18 months of planning and outreach, the Dons moved to Oakland in September 2014. The first festival was in May 2015.
“I was deeply impressed by the intellectual depth of the festival, finding panels that were bold and courageous, unflinching,” says Justin Desmangles, describing last year’s event.
Desmangles, chair of the Before Columbus Foundation, a 40-year-old Oakland nonprofit that champions contemporary American multicultural literature, organized 2016 panels including: “Multiracial Literature in America” featuring Victor LaValle, Emily Raboteau and John Keene at 11 a.m.; “Confessions of a Number One Son: Chinese-American Literature Now,” featuring Frank Chin, Genny Lim and Calvin McMillin at 11 a.m.; and “The F.B.I.’s War on Culture,” with William J. Maxwell, Seth Rosenfeld and Frank B. Wilderson III at 1:45 p.m.
While Don hopes people learn at the festival — in discussions about “labor, utopian thought, and to what extent labor should, in a hard-leftist view, have a role in the notion of social progress and to what extent you have to put it aside” — he also wants attendees to have fun: “This is a festival of ideas, and thinking is hard work — it’s challenging, it can be unsettling, and it demands attention. But it’s fun, exciting work.”
Echoing the sentiment, Desmangles praised the festival for “articulating the depth and magnitude of Oakland’s contribution to our national literary culture. It is the most important step in that direction taken by our city in years.”
IF YOU GO
Oakland Book Festival
Where: City Hall, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 22
Note: The festival offers free activities for kids and families, as well as a $100-per-person opening gala at 7 p.m. May 20 at Starline Social Club.