Savvy culture consumers shouldn’t be surprised if they spot the likes of bestselling “White Oleander”/ “The Revolution of Marina M.” novelist Janet Fitch, poet/filmmaker Edoardo Ponti, or Emmy and Peabody Award-winning “Inside Amy Schumer” writer/producer Jessi Klein enjoying a literary pub-style trivia contest or a walking tour around the Playhouse District this weekend. Thanks to LitFest Pasadena, now in its eighth year, a diverse cross-section of 150 authors, artists and speakers will convene in Pasadena Saturday and Sunday to take up pressing questions of the day, read from new and developing works, and engage with other artists and audiences..
“Writers want to sell works if they’re available, but I think one of the things they like about it is that it’s writer driven, and it’s really about their ideas, genres and topics, and what they’re doing,” says Light Bringer Project President Tom Coston of the festival, which is coordinated by Light Bringer and the arts nonprofit’s online literary journal/“community salon,” Literature for Life, with support from the city and the Playhouse District. “It’s really not a book-selling festival. We’re an alternative to the LA Times Festival of Books.”
Coston estimates 2,000 to 2,500 people attended last year’s LitFest; this year, he’s hoping that spreading the event over two days and adding more indoor venues will double attendance numbers. Early afternoon workshops at the all-genre festival will be followed by panel discussions, workshops and open exchanges at the Andalucia, Blankspaces Pasadena, El Portal Restaurant, New School of Cooking, Pasadena Playhouse, The Stand, Vroman’s Bookstore and Walt Girdner Studio, among other venues.
Award-winning journalist and Pasadena resident Lynell George will be part of the “Class, Race and Power” panel, addressing “Octavia Butler’s Legacy in Society and the Soul” alongside American Book Award-winning novelist Tananarive Due and LA Review of Books Editor Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. George recently began digging into Butler’s papers as part of a research fellowship at the Huntington Library’s archives, and wants to focus on how the shy, Pasadena-raised “willed herself into being.”
“She did not have a lot of support in what she was reaching for in the late ’60s, early ’70s, as a black woman writing in science fiction,” George says. “She was alone; there was nobody else. So she had to create her own support, and she had to create her own structure and work life, and she had to be her own cheering section.
“That has been the thing that’s most fascinating to me as I look through her papers — not just her drafts, but her letters and the affirmations she wrote out for herself. This idea of, when you’re a writer, it’s not the work on the page; it’s all the other stuff that you have to do [laughs] so that you can get to the page.”
Writerly struggles will also inform “The Working Writer’s Life: How the Sausages Get Made,” a savory conversation between noted noir writer Gary Phillips and “Permanent Midnight” author Jerry Stahl; and “The Writing Life: Exploring the Strengths and Pitfalls of the MFA Degree,” overseen by LitFest Artistic Director Jervey Tervalon.
Numerous panels and readings will be constructed around headline-echoing themes: “The Border as Character: Storytelling About Fences, Walls and the People They Shape.” “Writing Fictional Mysteries in the Era of Alt-Facts.” “Mountain Lions, Water, & Sand.” “Poets & Allies for Resistance.” “Indigenous Hearths: California American Indian Women Writers, Warriors and Educators.” “La Bloga: Chicanx and Latinx Community.” “The Future of Publishing.” “LA Queer Lit.” Four writers with southwest Asian and North African roots — Stephanie Abraham, Lory Bedikian, Alfred Madain and Sholeh Wolpé — will discuss “redefining” themselves in LA. World Stage poetry director V. Kali will reteam with fellow Ovary Office poets Bridgette Bianca, Pam Ward and Jaha Zainabu for an “activist-based” reading. And “Politicians Who Read” — Congressman Adam Schiff, Assembly member Laura Friedman and Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek — will talk about motivating books with LitFest co-founder Larry Wilson.
According to Coston, pointed sociopolitical concerns were not “necessarily intended from the get-go,” but started to “bubble up” as authors and moderators suggested topics. “It’s reflecting the climate,” he says, “things people are thinking about.”
“The Border as Character” moderator Jean Guerrero, whose forthcoming book “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir” won the PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers Prize, recently interviewed caravan migrants in Tijuana shelters who are “fleeing gang violence” in Central America and desperate to save their children’s lives. As both an investigative reporter in San Diego and as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, Guerrero believes “it’s extremely important to get these stories out there so people can form opinions that are better rooted in the facts of what’s happening, both south of the border and at the border.”
But she insists the panel will maintain “a literary focus.” Personal stories, she notes, are more interesting and persuasive than “general overarching events.”
“The border fascinates me as a symbol and an opportunity to explore beyond what we know,” she says thoughtfully. “Crux” explores the border’s physical and metaphysical dimensions.
“What is a border? What do borders do to us?,” she asks thoughtfully. “That’s why I decided to title the panel ‘The Border as Character,’ because I do feel it comes alive. …
“Some people might say that writers who focus on the stories of people who come across the border have an agenda. But I definitely disagree that our agenda is political. As a journalist, the one opinion that I would publicly state is that I believe in the truth, and the power of the truth, and getting at that truth is complicated.”
In a follow-up comment, Guerrero adds: “People often think of the border wall as something that we’ve created. But while it’s true that we’ve created it, it has also created us in a way –– it has shaped us in many ways. The panel will examine how to bring that reality to life.”
Not everything will be topical. Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold will measure the pleasures of “Writing About Home Cooking” with Copenhagen chef Nadine Levy Redzepi, while Anne Louise Bannon, Connie di Marco and Pamela Samuels Young will advise participants on how to “Create Your Own Female Sleuth.” Mike “The Poet” Sonksen will moderate “Word,” a spoken word poetry panel featuring F. Douglas Brown, Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Jessica M. Wilson; and jazz guitarist Chuck Corbisiero and poet Bill Cushing — childhood neighbors back in New York — will explore the music in spoken language and the poetry in music for “Notes & Letters.”
“We are trying to be just a little more ‘out of the box,’” Coston says. “We want to have something a little more energetic.”
“The thing that really strikes me about the fest is it draws writers from all over,” George observes. “And because it’s so concentrated in the way it’s set up — you’re drifting across Colorado to the theater and back to Vroman’s, etc. — it really does make you aware of how large LA’s literary community is, and how many of us know one another and come out to support one another. … It’s professional, yet it really does feel like a community event where people can have easy access to writers.”
LitFest Pasadena takes place from 1 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 19 and 20, across the Playhouse District in Pasadena; free admission. Info: (626) 590-1134. For a full schedule and details about participating authors and speakers, visit litfestpasadena.org