Two years ago, Kira Brunner Don and her husband, Timothy Don, packed up their two kids and moved back to Oakland, where Kira grew up, after 20 years in New York. They work for Lapham's Quarterly – she's the editor at large; he's the art director - which uses primary source material from history to examine a specific theme in each issue, such as "Foreigners," "Time" or "Youth."
They wanted to put down some roots in their once-and-future hometown, so they decided to found a book festival.
"We had done some festivals in New York, so we said, 'Let's do what we already know how to do,'" says Kira. "We wanted to make this a festival that we would want to go to."
And they did. The first annual Oakland Book Festival was held May 30 at City Hall, and it was cool beyond belief.
It wasn't just a collection of readings, and it wasn't just a trade show of people selling books, either. Instead, it was a curated festival of ideas. Kira and Tim chose a concept and created panels and readings around it.
For the inaugural festival, the concept was "Cities," both the upside and the downside.
"The upside is that we find in cities the highest expression of utopian dreams and projects – including diversity, tolerance, and a cosmopolitan outlook – and Oakland is an expression of that," says Tim. "The downside of course, is the dystopian outcome that sometimes happens with utopian projects."
They turned all of City Hall's hearing rooms into panel rooms and filled them with 35 different panels, including:
An examination of the life and works of the late journalist Alexander Cockburn, featuring Bruce Anderson, the founder/editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a quirky community-based newspaper in Boonville; activist/historian Frank Bardacke, one of the leaders of the anti-war movement in Berkeley in the late '60s; and writer/historian Leo Hollis, who flew in all the way from London for the occasion.
"What Does It Mean To Lead A Radical Life?" a comparison of the Black Panthers in Oakland, the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the Anti-Apartheid movement in Johannesburg, featuring former Panther leader Elaine Brown, documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor and UC Irvine professor Frank Wilderson, one of the few Americans who worked with the African National Congress in the 1960s, when most of the world still thought of Nelson Mandela as a thug.
And "What Is Gentrification?" a panel featuring urban planners Lance Freeman, a professor at Columbia, Malo Andre Hutson, a professor a Cal, and author Gordson Young, moderated by local writer/poet/journalist Dashka Slater.
Outside on Frank Ogawa Plaza, 40 different independent booksellers were selling their books while the Oakland Youth Chorus, the Oakland School for the Arts Classical Guitarist Ensemble, and rappers Dizzy, J-Mal and Khafre Jay from HipHop4Change provided entertainment.
The youngest generation wasn't left out, either. Throughout the day, staffers from the Oakland Public Library read children's stories to the little tykes, while interactive storytellers from Children's Fairyland told the tales of Tweedle-dee and Little Miss Muffet.
And it was all free. No tickets, no need to sign up online. "We wanted to make sure that people who don't have credit cards or computers would show up," says Tim.
Next Year's concept: "Labor."
For more information, visit oaklandbookfestival.org.