Laurel Bookstore’s Diverse New Voices: Poetry and Prose reading in Oakland on Saturday, Feb. 18, showcased Ashley M. Jones, Vanessa Hua, R.O. Kwon and Dara Barnat, who used their writing to confront the silences that they face in their own lives, in the forms of racism, grief and historical narratives.
Throughout the night, the writers addressed the meaning of “voice,” something often silenced by institutional powers, and denied by historical narratives, but emerging bravely through writing as an act of resistance and a gesture of respect to people whose voices have been dehumanized. Guests wandered in from the rainy streets and helped themselves to free brownies and cookies while discussing the rising trend of bookstores as spaces of resistance.
Ashley M. Jones writes poetry about women whose voices have been erased by history. Her debut collection, “Magic City Gospel,” is a love song to Birmingham, Alabama and a map of personal and political narratives rooted in powerful language that demands to be seen and quivers off of the page.
As she stood at the podium, Jones explained that one of her poems was written after a friend said that someone hung a noose on a tree in their yard on Martin Luther King Day.
“The noose is still. It says, you are a woman, you are black, you are in the middle of Noplace, Alabama, and if I catch you, I will wring you til you’re anonymous, til you’re not even a black girl, you’re just some damn body,” Jones read.
As the writers sat for a Q&A session, an audience member asked Jones about her writing process.
“I write when there’s a need, when something happens,” Jones said.
She recalled a story about attending a dinner party for a friend’s birthday, when the friend’s mother told her that she would be so much prettier if she only straightened her hair. Moments and confrontations like these prompt Jones to think more deeply and consciously about the politics that play out through interaction. Writing, Jones said, is the best way for her to think things through.
Barnat read poems from her book “In the Absence,” which was written after her father’s death in 2003. Barnat described writing the book as a process of deferred grief, and explained that many years passed between her father’s death and when she could confront his death by writing through it.
“Grief slips easily across borders,” Barnat read aloud. “I started speaking to grief in every language possible.”
Vanessa Hua, author of the debut collection “Deceit and Other Possibilities,” read an excerpt from her book and emphasized the importance of stories and poems to combat political narratives that threaten women and people of color. In “Deceit and Other Possibilities,” Hua gives voice to immigrant families in a series of short stories that are increasingly more relevant and necessary in our political climate.
R.O. Kwon, author of the upcoming novel “Heroics,” began her reading by telling the audience that independent bookstores feel more important than ever. Kwon said she has been working on her novel, the story of a woman who gets involved with fundamental Christians that start bombing abortion clinics, for the past eight years. Like most of the work featured in the reading, Kwon’s writing engages with women’s experiences in a politically charged environment.
Later in the evening, Jones told the audience that she doesn’t write happy pieces because she lives in this world, and draws from her experiences as a woman of color.
The mood of the evening was brave because the writers were both uncertain and truthful. Jones’ rejection of “happy pieces” in favor of writing that speaks to what it means to live in the world emphasizes the potential of writing as a space of dynamic and transformative resistance.