As writer, artist and community activist Shizue Seigel was sheltering in place during the pandemic, she was forced to confront the essential truths just outside her Richmond district home office.
She saw the dudleya blooming in her backyard, the salt air emanating from Ocean Beach and essential workers of all backgrounds serving the community at nearby liquor stores, bakeries and restaurants.
“It made me realize what a magical place we live in and how many people are in my life — just in my neighborhood— that make my life rich,” says Seigel, 74.
Her renewed appreciation for the everyday people who make up the colorful fabric of the Bay Area inspired the Write Now! founder’s fourth anthology, “Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color,” due out June 30; she’s hosting a virtual reading at 7 p.m. that day with many of the contributing writers.
All of the poems, essays and artwork from the 130 creators in “Essential Truths,” are, at their core, about ordinary people of color overcoming major obstacles in order to live their best lives in extraordinary times.
Seigel made three contributions. “City Snapshots. Spring” is a four-page poem about life in The City during COVID-19. For “Imperatrix Mundi,” a riff on Ingres’ iconic 1806 portrait of Napoleon, the artist replaces the warmongering French emperor’s face with that of a Japanese immigrant grandmother who leads with compassion. Finally, with “Luko Loco,” a more modern mixed-media photograph, Seigel makes a pointed statement about Asian visibility and invisibility.
The seeds of the anthology series were planted when Seigel launched Write Now!, with six BIPOC-centered writing workshops in the Fillmore district and Japantown in 2015, to give Black, Brown and Indigenous locals the opportunity to share their memories of the Western Addition before redevelopment and gentrification.
There was so much interest, she kept both groups going for a year before merging them into one ongoing assembly at the San Francisco Public Library.
From the initial round of workshops, she generated enough material to publish 34 writers and artists in a 140-page book titled “Standing Strong! Fillmore & Japantown” in 2016. Over the next three years, she published two more anthologies, “Endangered Species, Enduring Values” and “Civil Liberties United, Diverse Voices from the San Francisco Bay Area.”
“Each one got bigger, but the same themes endured,” Seigel says. “It’s about standing strong in the Fillmore and Japantown. What is valuable about the old inner-city communities that are being erased by gentrification? Not only in the buildings, but in the nature of how people interacted with each other as a village where everybody had a place.”
Seigel, a third-generation Japanese American who moved to The City in 1956, didn’t begin her career leading community writing projects. But in the 1990s she took a job to help combat the AIDS crisis, and was tasked with developing HIV prevention stories with Black women living in public housing for half-page flyers that outreach workers passed out with condoms.
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“My job was to get women—who never felt their experiences mattered because they never saw their beauty and importance reflected back to them—to tell their stories,” she says.
She later volunteered at the National Japanese American Historical Society in Japantown, where, as editor of the organization’s quarterly magazine, “Nikkei Heritage,” she helped incarceration camp survivors recount their histories.
Her first book, 2006’s “In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment” was about white allies who railed against anti-Asian injustice during World War II.
Now that “Essential Truths” is complete, Seigel is eager to start working on her own two-volume memoir and hopefully, a fifth anthology of local BIPOC stories.
“The thing that’s magical about the Bay Area is that you can run up against all kinds of people, and you never know what their stories are,” she says. “That‘s the purpose of these books. They’re little snapshots that introduce us to a succession of really interesting people.”
Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color
Edited by: Shizue Seigel
Published by: Pease Press
Note: Seigel and 18 writers appear in free virtual reading at 7 p.m. June 30 through the San Francisco Public Library; visit https://sfpl.org/events/2021/06/30/write-now-writers-color-essential-truths-book-launch. A reading with an East Bay focus is at 7 p.m. July 22, visit https://oacc.cc/event/essential-truths-east-bay/.