Finding community (and a few missing faces) at the Seattle Urban Book Expo

Ten days ago, I was in Oceanside, CA for the North San Diego Latino Book and Family Festival. I took part in a fiction panel and also spent several hours at the author's booth, copies of Hola and Goodbye in front of me. I’m a terrible salesperson, but I managed to sell a few, and I thrilled at putting my book about a Mexican-American family into the hands of other Latinos. There was a spirit of community that was comfy and nourishing.

That spirit of community permeated Washington Hall last Saturday afternoon at the Seattle Urban Book Expo (SUBE). It was exhilarating walking into that hall and seeing a roomful of writers of color displaying their books, since such events seem to occur with eclipse-like rarity. Twenty tables of authors, representing a range of genres — romance, self-help, inspirational, poetry, fiction, and children’s books — lined the hall. Some were first-time authors. Others had multiple books to their name. All were eager to engage with browsers and talk about their books.

For a number of these authors, their writing grew out of a desire to share a personal experience, to inspire their community, and to potentially offer support to others in similar situations or crises. Sharon Blake, who blogs for the Huffington Post, has written several books about overcoming pain, addiction, and low self-esteem. Her bio includes this statement: Sharon herself has overcome some major barriers in her life, she has been homeless and is an ex- addict, ex-prostitute and a domestic violence survivor. The bio also includes the fact that Sharon facilitates support groups at two local emergency shelters. She doesn’t just write about dealing with adversity, she actively works to ease it for others.

Social justice was a common thread in the works of many of the writers. Omari Amili’s book Transforming Society’s Failure, is his story of obtaining a Master’s degree after being kicked out of the Seattle public schools in the sixth grade, running the streets, and eventually spending time in prison on thirty felony convictions. Amili confronts the school-to-prison pipeline that is the shame of our institutions.

Though the title feels a bit academic, the writing is clear and straightforward, and absolutely riveting for its content. Amili teaches at South Seattle College and gives copies of his book to his students. Sales of his book are necessary to help him offset the cost of this practice. Hint, hint. You can buy the book here.

It isn’t possible to go to a book expo and not buy a book, is it? It shouldn’t be. Amili’s book is one of the five books I bought on Saturday. Among the items for sale at Emily Imani Rose Quartz’s table were a few copies of Passionate Lives, an anthology of poems published in 1998. I bought a copy when I saw that it includes work by Syracuse poet Jackie Warren-Moore. Here are the first two lines from her poem “Riot” that resonates today.

We need another riot.
Like a fire under the country’s ass

Her poem “Sizes” is about “living LARGE in a regular world.”

The sheer size of my butt before you could blot out the sun.
Size of my mind has brought men to their knees,
made them look up
to see eye to eye with me.

The poem is about courage and persistence in a world that fails to see past stereotypes.

My other purchases were children’s books, including two by Tash Creates, the pen name of Natasha Rivers whose day job is as a demographer for the Seattle school district. The other was Jeffrey (J.L) Cheatham’s book written for his daughter. All three books are wonderfully illustrated by Ebony Glenn. Both Rivers and Cheatham wrote the books to address the need for children of color to see themselves in stories.

I asked Cheatham, the expo organizer, how he gathered the participating writers. He said that he used the “if you build it, they will come” method. He posted his intention on FaceBook and authors responded. All were Black, except for Seattle Escribe whose members are Latinos writing in Spanish. He’s hoping for a greater diversity of writers of color next year.

Cheatham suggested that there was something in the works regarding a future collaboration between SUBE and the Seattle Public Library, which had a table at the expo staffed by Stesha Brandon. Such a collaboration could increase exposure and participation for SUBE and elevate its profile. Fittingly, SUBE in Spanish means rise.

There was one thing missing for me at the event. I was at the expo for an hour and a half. I think I counted two white people among the visitors during that time. That was similar to my experience at the North San Diego Latino Book and Family Festival. As I sat behind my books feeling a connection to the community around me, I also wished that non-Latinos had come to enjoy the festival and at least see the books we had written. Books by Latinos are not just for Latino readers. Books by Asian-American writers are not just for Asian-American readers. Books like Omari Amili’s Transforming Society’s Failure are not just for Black youths and their families. This expo is not just for Seattle’s communities of color.

Literary events too often center white writers. It happens in Seattle as it does elsewhere. Take for instance, the San Diego Festival of Books which also occurred last Saturday. Read Aaryn Belfer’s #bookfestivalsowhite. When a literary event centers writers of color, it’s an opportunity for white writers and readers to educate themselves about the lives and stories of black and brown people — an imperative in today’s racially charged climate.

Poet Jackie Warren-Moore writes, “It is only open hearts, open hands and communication that will connect and save us all.”

It’s what I felt at the SUBE last Saturday. Open hearts and open hands. White Seattle, come with yours next year. Remember it. Rise with it.