Critical Mass

NBCC in SF: Cultural Convergences Panel


The Book Passage branch in San Francisco’s Ferry Building was jam packed last foggy Thursday night, when the NBCC hosted the first in a series of events leading up to the announcement of NBCC awards finalists on Saturday night. (Panelists, from left:Michele Marcom, Al Young, Jeanne Houston, Daniel Alarcon, Jim Houston, Sylvia Brownrigg).

Moderator John Freeman, NBCC prez, kicked off the conversation by asking Jim Houston, novelist, essayist, and an editor of “The Literature of California” where California literature began. Native American literature (chants, songs, and stories) came first, Houston said. “Then the Gold Rush made San Francisco a multicultural city, where immigrants felt they had a place.” 

California Poet Laureate Al Young (author of the brand new ‚ÄúSomething About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry” and an editor of “The Literature of California”) said the DNA of the Gold Rush had an influence on California poetry, as well. So did the days when California was an outpost of Mexico where “you could work off your debts or your crimes penal colony style,” he added. And there was a fair amount of huckstering in the mix; the nineteenth century San Francisco poet Joaquin Miller, an absinthe drinking Bohemian, cut a swathe through literary London wearing a fur coat, under which he was “buck naked.”

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, co-author of “Farewell to Manzanar,” her memoir of the Japanese American internment camps during World War II, pinpointed the origins of the Asian influence in San Francisco:“San Francisco is the portal for Asians,” she said, “Angel Island is where they arrived.” She explained how hard it was to get her Manzanar book published 35 years ago;East Coast publishers had no interest, but the small San Francisco Book Company, which was distributed by Houghton Mifflin, took it on, and the book is now in a 71st printing.

“In the U.S. I’m a Peruvian guy, in Peru, I’m a gringo,” noted Lima-born Daniel Alarcon, author most recently of the novel”Lost City Radio.”  On a recent trip to South America, he said, ” I was accused of being an imperalist because I write in English.” He also is an editor for the Lima-based literary magazine “Etiqua Negra,” which he describes as “making a mix tape every month,” combining essays, fiction, poetry.

Author and critic Sylvia Brownrigg’s first novel, “The Metaphysical Touch,” set in a time when the Internet was new, predates and predicts the blogging world. Brownrigg said she grew up near Stanford Univeristy, once apricot orchards, then the birthplace of Silicon Valley. But she wrote the book while living in London, (“it helped to write about the California landscape from a distance”). Her next novel, “Morality Tale,” is due out in May 08.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s forthcoming novel, “Draining the Sea,” due in March 08, the third in a trilogy, is set in Los Angeles and Guatemala. Marcom lives in the Bay Area, where she teaches at Mills College. She was born in Saudi Arabia to an American father and an Armenian-Lebanese mother, and grew up in Los Angeles with summer visits to Beirut. She said she knew nothing of California history (not to mention California flora and fauna and the indigenous people of the Los Angeles basin). She did extensive research for the book, which took four years to write.  Marcom’s novel, “Three Apples Fell from Heaven,” about the Armenian genocide, has just been optioned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jose Rivera (“Motorcycle Diaries”), whose Armenian-American wife, actress and producer Sona Tatoyan, met Marcom at a reading. The filmmaker and the novelist collaborated informally on the concept for a couple of years, Marcom said.

The panelists had a list of California writers to recommend: Joan Didion. Maxine Hong Kingston. Ishmael Reed. John Steinbeck.