On Saturday PEN Oakland’s 24th annual book awards honored eight writers for their literary excellence. The annual awards ceremony recognizes authors from across the country for their books published during the previous year. The ceremony was held at the Oakland Public Library’s Rockridge branch and drew several dozen members of the public. In addition to acceptance speeches, authors read excerpts of their work and signed books for fans.
“Our mission is to promote works of high quality literature written by writers of all races, nationalities, classes, marginalized people and points of view that don’t get recognized by the mainstream,” said John Curl, Chairman of PEN Oakland, a nonprofit organization that’s been supporting and recognizing writers since 1989. PEN Oakland – which stands for poets, essayists and novelists – is an offshoot of the larger and older PEN USA, which supports mainstream writers, many in the entertainment industry.
Oakland resident Nina Serrano received an award for her book Heart Strong, a collection of poems that chronicle her life from 2000 through 2012. “It was my experience of the 21st Century,” she said during a book signing reception after receiving her award. “A 20th Century person, essentially, born in 1934, experiencing the 21st Century.” The poems are about everything from war and urban life to relationships and heartbreaks, and they accompany paintings and photographs by Serrano’s artist friends.
In accepting her speech, Serrano read one of her book’s poems, “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a reflection on the many protests she’s witnessed while living in the Bay Area. “Black lives matter. It’s ridiculous to have to state. It’s so obvious because all life matters and is sacred,” she recited.
Serrano isn’t the only author whose work addressed social issues like racial tensions. Los Angeles native Akinyele Umoja, a professor of African American studies at Georgia State University, was honored for his book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. The book is a historical narrative about southern blacks in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, using armed defense to challenge racism, terrorism and segregation and acquire legal rights and political power.
In it, he tells the story of an 86-year old grandmother who offered her farm as an organizing base for young southern blacks fighting to vote. One day, a group of these young people were prevented from registering to vote at the county courthouse by white supremacists who terrorized and followed them all the way back to the farm. “But this elder came up with a plan,” said Umoja. The grandmother, he said, supplied the young organizers with shotguns and rifles to defend themselves.
Umoja related the past struggles he writes about in his book to the ongoing racial tensions happening now in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities over police violence against young African American men. “We’re at the beginning of a new movement,” he said, calling the protests over the Michael Brown shooting a creative use of nonviolent direct action. “We must assert our right to defend ourselves,” said Umoja.
PEN Oakland’s Lifetime Achievement Award went to Askia M. Toure, a prominent poet and political editor. Toure was leader of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s that encouraged African Americans to launch publishing houses, publish magazines, and open art institutions, and resulted in many African American Studies programs at universities. At this year’s ceremony, Toure was honored for his contributions to the Black Arts Movement’s community and literature. “It was an honor and as a writer and activist, it definitely was a crown jewel of my career,” he said, referring to the PEN award. In addition to writing for several publications, Toure was editor of the Journal of Black Poetry and Black Dialogue and in 1965 he founded Afro World. In 1967, Toure joined the staff of San Francisco State Univerisity where he taught African American studies. He is currently working on a film about the Black Arts Movement.
Other works honored at the ceremony include Hotel Juarez: Stories, Loops and Rooms by Daniel Chacon. Chacon’s book is a collection of short stories and flash fiction – very brief narratives, usually only a few hundred words – and deals with issues of identity and human interaction. Claudia Moreno Pisano was honored for her book, Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters, a compilation of personal letters written between avant-garde poets Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, who had an interracial friendship during the Civil Rights Movement era.
In all, eight writers were honored at the annual ceremony, but not all of them were present to accept their awards. Curl said that as long as unconventional views and ideas are ignored by the mainstream media, PEN Oakland will continue to celebrate diversity. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years and the mainstream certainly hasn’t budged,” said Curl. “We’ve become a significant force in terms of writers who are really important but are not recognized by the mainstream.”