“The more fearless you are in what you do, the fewer regrets you’ll have,” said documentary filmmaker and writer Mollie Gregory to a large gathering of nearly 200 attendees at last weekend’s 11th Women’s Literary Festival (WLF), an event held annually in Santa Barbara.
If that sounds dangerous — and confusing since the audience was primarily comprised of readers and writers — it is. While Gregory quoted a stuntwoman, she believes it also applies to the world of scribing. One needs confidence to boost creativity and strong determination to turn obstacles into opportunities, especially if you’re a woman trying to advance a career.
And that’s the focus of the festival where women writers from all walks of life and ethnicities come together to support their work in promoting social justice, sharing insights and skills to hone their writing and celebrating their creativity and achievements.
Co-founder Sharon Hoshida welcomed WLF participants to the Fess Parker hotel with a salute to the power of words.
“Forming the words, giving them sound … it unleashes the power of the imagination, the creative spirit, touching the collective consciousness, moving the mind and the emotions into a rhythm of solidarity and oneness,” Hoshida said. “That is what we are here today to do, to savor and enjoy together.”
The festival began with renowned journalist and award-winning author Ann Louise Bardach, who exemplifies fearlessness with her successful pursuit interviews with the elusive Cuban leader Fidel Castro for Vanity Fair. She has also produced other high-profile stories on Cuba-Miami political affairs for the New York Times, The Atlantic and was featured on NPR, 60 Minutes and other broadcast programs.
Bardach understood that, as a journalist, one must be a good writer and a good detective, something she discovered when interviewing Marita Lorenz, a woman involved in an affair with and an assassination attempt on Castro.
“First of all, you’re always dealing with smoke and mirrors at a level you’ve never dealt with,” Bardach said, “and almost all Cuban stories are partially true. There’s a large part that isn’t true, and it’s your job as a reporter to figure this out.”
Crime fiction author Kelli Stanley concurred with Bardach’s insight because she tackles “smoke and mirrors” on a daily basis through her Miranda Corbie series of 1940 San Francisco noir novels and short stories.
Though Stanley’s novels are crime thrillers, they essentially deal with those on society’s margins who are voiceless. She credits this inspiration to her working class background as daughter of a man who was a son of a coal miner and a woman whose mother left school at 12 to become a factory worker.
“The ’40s I wanted to write about is a ’40s of people who don’t have a voice,” Stanley said, “who do not get called the ‘greatest generation,’ who get shoved aside in our yen to put on rose-colored glasses for this particular period of time.”
Thus, Stanley created Miranda Corbie, a private investigator with the ability to move between worlds and classes of people separated by economic divides. But more than moving across barriers in pursuit of social justice, Miranda also breaks some of her own as a female detective.
“With Miranda, my goal in the face of every rerun of Double Indemnity and just about every book James M. Cain wrote, which are all pretty misogynistic, I wanted to flip noir itself on its ear,” Stanley said. “I wanted to take a woman who had every aspect of a femme fatale — from being sexual to being smart, strong, successful, ambitious and knowing it — characteristics that have been demonized in Western literature, and, instead of being the root of all evil, I wanted to make her the hero.”
Notions of diversity in voice and experience continued to reverberate after Stanley’s talk in a breakout session involving filmmaker and writer Grace DeSoto Ferry, whose humorous and nostalgic works illustrate the struggles of growing up Mexican in San Antonio, and poet and artist Angela Peñaredondo whose writings draw upon multi-cultural experiences of moving back and forth between another country and the homeland.
Also included in the breakout session was writer and illustrator of children’s literature Kathryn Otoshi, who discussed how her background as a graphic designer and multimedia art director in the film industry informs the drawings in her books. After working for companies such as Robert Zemeckis’s ImageMovers and George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, Otoshi began to see books as mini-films.
“If you think about it, there’s this opportunity to be the set production designer where the backgrounds need to be created,” Otoshi said. “You’re directing the actors and sometimes you need to do it over and over because it’s not right, so you’re doing take one, take two, take three. And when you turn the page, that’s like a cut in a scene, so you suddenly become the editor.”
Though Otoshi’s illustrations may be as simple as color blobs and numbers, their messages of using empowerment and self-confidence to overcome self-doubt and bullying run deep with Otoshi’s ability to create tone and attitude in simplicity. While reading through her works, she asked attendees to pretend they were back in sixth grade and led them through exercises designed to engage children such as spreading their arms high above the head, making a circle, then bringing it in front of them.
“Pretend it’s a magnifying glass,” Otoshi said. “Past skin and bones and your clothing lives something called your character: Bravery, courage, kindness and being thoughtful, responsible, respectful and honest lives in here. The goal is to fill it up, up, up with all these things until it gets so full it overflows. And that’s how we can stand up straight and tall again.”
Following the morning discussions on arts and media, UCLA Associate Professor of Chican@ and African American Studies Gaye Theresa Johnson transported the audience to the idea of space in terms of social justice.
Johnson’s works explore topics of civil rights, activism and spatial struggles, particularly how occupying space can signal presence, how power involves controlling space and how people can render certain spaces as meaningful.
She presented a vast narrative of those affected by gentrification, poverty lines, segregation, immigrant detention and mass incarceration. These developments, she emphasized, are often either ignored or scantily reported in the media due to a lack of meaningful engagement to really understand what these issues are truly about.
“Writers have to be good listeners,” Johnson said. “It’s often very difficult to listen to the stories that don’t have neat resolutions like the ones that we’re paid to write about, but this is something that brings us back to this notion of community-engaged writing, because we have to look at these bigger struggles.”
Gregory, who succeeded Johnson, certainly embodies the quality of a good listener through her nonfiction works, Women Who Run the Show: How A Brilliant and Creative New Generation Stormed Hollywood and Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, detailing the lives of professional women in the entertainment industry. In addition to the risks involved (especially regarding stunt work), these women are often faced with limited job opportunities, unequal pay and sexual harassment.
“We were in a war!” one interviewee told Gregory, which inspired her to title major sections of Women Who Run the Show in military terms. Part One was titled “The Beachhead: an area on hostile shores seized and defended to secure further landing of troops and supplies.”
From these interviews, Gregory learned that these perilous challenges are more than just women trying to break into a “boys’ club” sector or crashing through windows; they also help build characters and confidence, which apply to everyone in different ways. And the real hazards are the good risks not taken.
Whether it’s investigating social issues as a journalist and academic or exploring their themes through symbolic illustrations, expressive words and detective characters, the WLF not only celebrated the achievements and triumphs of equality but also highlighted the work left to do.