The 2nd Annual Women’s Literary Festival Brings Female Authors to S.B.
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
For years, elementary school teacher Jennifer Adams and her mother, retired county supervisor Gail Marshall, drove to Long Beach every year to attend Literary Women, one of the state’s biggest annual literature conventions. “Every year, we’d say, ‘We’ve got to bring something like this to Santa Barbara,’”said Adams.
Finally in 2006, the mother-and-daughter team launched the first annual Santa Barbara Women’s Literary Festival (WLF). Their vision was to reach a more diverse audience and to give voice to female writers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Last year’s festival was a hands-down success, with more than 200 attendees, and speakers ranging from novelists Diana Abu-Jaber and Ruth Ozeki to mass-market crime writer Bonnie Hearn Hill. This year, the lineup of authors includes writers of poetry and cookbooks, journalism and fiction. From the Indy’s own columnist Starshine Roshell to political activist, speaker, and writer Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, this year’s authors represent the best and brightest in contemporary women’s writing.
In keeping with the festival’s mission to promote literacy, diversity, and social justice, organizers are offering need-based scholarships and are asking writers to speak to the cultural or social ideas that move them to write. Though the day is dedicated to celebrating female writers, men are welcome to attend.
“There are so many wonderful female writers out there, but they’re not necessarily the names you see right there when you walk into a bookstore,” Adams said. “We’re trying to represent diversity: Whose stories have we not heard yet?”
What follows are interviews with some of this year’s visiting authors. To read an interview with Jacqueline Winspear, author of the best-selling Maisie Dobbs mystery series, visit The Indy’s A&E blog online at independent.com.
In a festival that celebrates diversity, literacy, and social justice, Rebecca Walker is a natural inclusion. She is the best-selling author of Black, White, and Jewish; To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future; and the forthcoming Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence. She’s also the founder of the Third Wave Foundation, working to empower young women and transgender youth through organization, advocacy, and grants.
Much of your writing is very personal. How do you see the connection between the personal and the political? I write, in many ways, to survive — emotionally, psychologically, even physically. If my survival as a free, thinking person on this earth isn’t political, I don’t know what is.
Your writing and activist work are inexorably connected. For example, To Be Real is seen as a foundational work of Third Wave feminism. What do you see as the most important components of feminism’s third wave? Feminism should always be about the emancipation of human beings from ideas and ideologies that oppress and inhibit us from reaching our full potential, and the social transformation that can arise as a result of this emancipation. All my work is about wrestling unhealthy ideas of self or community to the ground in order to embrace healthier and more fulfilling modalities.
How do you see the evolution of the third wave of feminism? I think the concept of liberation is still very much alive, and I feel gratified that my work has contributed to its sustenance, especially during a period in which even the idea of freedom has been co-opted by global hyper-capitalism. On a more basic level, I’m thrilled by the thousands, even millions, of young women and men continuing to move toward healthier selves, relationships, and communities through various means. Third Wave was never about a codified movement or programmatic path toward freedom for all women. From the beginning, it was about supporting people in as many ways as possible to do the work they wanted to do to change themselves and the world. — Felicia M. Tomasko
When WLF organizers invited Dima Hilal to speak at this year’s festival, she agreed immediately. Aside from wanting to support a festival that gives voice to female writers, she likes to work toward a deadline. “I operate a little better under pressure,” she said. “It keeps me creative, keeps me writing.” Motivation to write is especially important for the Dana Point resident, who has a full-time day job doing marketing for a medical device company. It would be easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of work, but the 30-year-old knows it’s important to nurture the poetry that’s always at the center of her life. Hilal’s writing often focuses on her experience as a Beirut-born Arab American, such as last year’s libretto Raheel, and is commonly the voice for marginalized peoples.
In what way are you an activist? Poetry in general can be a form of activism. It’s giving voice to people who aren’t often heard or who are more invisible. If through my work I can humanize that aspect of my life or my people, in that sense I think my poetry is a form of activism.
Is that why you consider writing about your culture political? Yes. For example, when people think of an Arab man, it’s going to be a frightening image for a lot of people. They never see the Arab doctor who cares about his family. But I grew up with such loving male figures in my life, between my uncles and my father. So writing a poem in homage to my father, for example, becomes political because it’s humanizing.
What about women writers? Do you think they’re still undervalued? Is there still a need for a festival exclusively for female writers? Obviously, we’ve come such a tremendous way as women, but there are areas — from literature to business to politics — that are still very male-dominated. Women don’t have their own place to speak and be heard. It’s important to give a voice to people who are sometimes not given a forum to speak. — Molly Freedenberg
One of the central aims of the Women’s Literary Festival is to give voice to those who might otherwise go unheard. Though Katia Noyes has already gained somewhat of a cult following for her 2005 novel about a 17-year-old lesbian’s road trip across the nation, Crashing America, her unusual heroine and her investigations into what it means to belong make her a welcome member of this year’s lineup. The gay daughter of a left-wing Stanford University family, Noyes left home at age 13 to hitchhike up and down California. Like her protagonist, she later traveled to the Midwest, where she exploded some of her own American stereotypes.
Tell me about Crashing America. It’s about finding home. It’s about a restless street kid who leaves San Francisco, ends up in the Midwest, works on a farm, steals cars, and has a lot of adventures. It’s the opposite of a usual story where someone from the Midwest comes to California to find themselves. I wanted to challenge the stereotypes about red states and blue states. When I went to the Midwest, I found Christian punks and gay farmers — people who defied our preconceptions, our stock characters. When I traveled through America, I had a romantic notion about the Midwest. I was curious about what it meant to live in a place for several generations and feel connected to the land, but that’s not what I found — in a sense, I found more similarities than I expected. It was interesting to find a similar sense of alienation.
Is finding similarities where you’d expect to find differences a kind of a theme for you? I think it’s actually more like crashing and smashing up different things next to each other and seeing what happens — more of a dynamic relationship between opposites, challenging conventional notions about people and culture and what America is. Saying there exist similarities ties it up a little too cleanly.
What will you be sharing with your audience at the festival? I decided to talk about taking risks in the creative process. Just because you’ve written a novel doesn’t mean you know a lot more than you did before you wrote a novel, but one of the exciting things about the process is the risks you take. For me, it was risking saying something that matters. I think it’s important to write about something that matters a lot to you as a person, not just to write something with technical brilliance. I think a young woman who is interested in adventure and not just romance is significant. Maybe she made bad choices, but at least she was out there having adventures, and there aren’t enough girls like that out there in literature. — Elizabeth Schwyzer
The Women’s Literary Festival takes place on Saturday, February 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.). Admission is $60 per person and includes author presentations, lunch, and coffee. Preregistration is preferred, but walk-ins are welcome based on availability. For more information on the festival and the authors, visit womensliteraryfestival.com.