The theme for Gemini Ink’s second-ever Writers Conference, “Writing for Change,” was chosen before the 2017 presidential election. Many who participated in the three-day event last weekend said it was their angst over the political climate that prompted them to attend.
But even the idea of personal change was connected to activism and politics, as one fledgling writer from Austin said.
“I tell my students and friends to take that energy and write it out,” said conference panelist, poet, and Eastside activist Antoinette Franklin. “I was a little afraid to tell my own story in college, but when I was more secure in myself, I did, and it has changed everything.” She has published 15 books of poetry, short stories, and essays.
The second half of the writing process expressed throughout the conference was to share writing because communicating experience, imagination, and ideas builds friendships, communities, and advocacy.
That appeal was what 150 conference registrants – 100 more than in 2016 – paid to hear Friday night through Sunday at El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel. A number said they would like to start writing, have works in progress, or want to be published. In any case, they voiced the desire to progress to another level.
“I always wondered if I had the talent to go on with writing other than business correspondence and grant-writing,” said Tim Plant, a newcomer to San Antonio. He has a master’s in business administration and is a licensed social worker involved in social advocacy. “I came to explore and see what I might do.”
Jeff Akins, a local attorney, has been writing poetry alongside criminal law arguments for 14 years. “It’s all serendipity,” he said. “I came to see what new friends I might make and what I might learn.”
The conference featured four intensive workshops led by accomplished poets, novelists, and a U.S. Army veteran and memoirist on topics as varied as poetry-writing in a democratic context, re-imagining other worlds through a political lens, memoir as interior renovation, and creating “three-dimensional” characters in fiction. All four were sold out long before the conference began.
Day passes to the conference ran for $35, and weekend passes between $125 and $165. Students, educators, seniors, veterans, and Gemini Ink members all received discounts. The closing panel, book fair, evening readings, and a number of other panels were free and open to the public.
Interpreting the theme of change in various contexts were 34 one-hour panel discussions presented throughout the weekend, usually four at any given time. Roughly 72 panelists discussed cultural currents any “Eastern Seaboard influence” could salute – the reference coming from retired radiologist Harold Brannan who, in his 80s, has written a trilogy of novels on Texas settlers and Comanches.
“I wanted to create something about our story,” he proclaimed while serving on a panel about contemporary fiction writing with physician-writer Dr. Mo Saidi; Jimmy Adair, editor of the local literary magazine Voices de la Luna; and Nan Cuba, Gemini Ink’s co-founder who serves as the writer-in-residence at Our Lady of the Lake University.
Panelists throughout the weekend chewed over the Texas/Mexico border past and present, the Hebrew Bible, the Harlem Renaissance, empowerment through testimonios, storytelling in the current age of anti-truth accusation, self-exploration, the changing world of publishing, local education, what it means to be an American to those who feel disenfranchised, and other topics.
The wealth of relevant topics made it difficult to decide which panels to attend, as so many overlapped. Panels with political overtones were especially well attended, including “Politics With Your Fiction or Memoir, Anyone?,” “What Does it Mean to be an American?,” and “Fact Versus Fiction: Storytelling in the 21st Century.”
In a Saturday afternoon panel, writer and motivator Jo Reyes-Boitel said writing helped her cope with “the third level of hell” which is part of her life and cultural legacy. “We’re all carrying it away,” Reyes-Boitel said. “I need to claim my story, or someone else will.”
As the Writers Conference was entering its final panel on Sunday, Gemini Ink Executive Director Sheila Black said she was gratified by the interplay of ideas the weekend had spawned.
“A lot of the visiting panelists said they were struck by the diversity of participants, more than at other conferences they’d been to,” she said. “They liked that the mixture took people out of their usual zones.”
She noted that Gemini Ink is one of only a few independent, non-university affiliated writing organizations in the country, and one of a few to host such a large conference.
So, is San Antonio experiencing a literary renaissance? Does the growing popularity of Gemini Ink’s conference, community classes, readings, and San Antonio Book Festival, point to such?
Not as long as San Antonio remains the most economically segregated city in the nation, panelists in the concluding discussion said. San Antonio is not even in the discussion when it comes to planning author tours, said Tom Payton, director of Trinity University Press. Claudia Guerra, cultural historian for the City of San Antonio, confessed that she had been “one of those New York PR people” who excluded San Antonio from literary tours because of its high illiteracy rate. Its reputation as a “reading city” is almost nil.
In more affluent areas of San Antonio, children own an average of 13 books, said Deborah Valdez, current executive director of San Antonio Youth Literacy. “For children in poverty, it’s one book for every 300 children.” This dearth affects cognition, anxiety levels, spatial relationships and other basic tools for succeeding in life, she said.
Guerrero pointed out that in San Antonio “we work in a culture that had a strong oral tradition,” another barrier to reading and its acceptance.
Traditional readers are rising from their home libraries in record numbers to attend book clubs, readings, book signings and author talks. Attendance has exploded for San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s Book Festival, which hosted its fifth festival in April.
In an earlier interview, Kay Flato, the festival’s founder and director and Writers Conference panelist, said she believes San Antonio has had an “energetic and vital literary community” for a long time. The Library Foundation’s reading series “Copywright Texas,” drew standing-room-only crowds starting in 1995.
The Book Festival is growing, she said, “not because people were less interested before, but more because they just didn’t know about it and weren’t experienced with going to a book festival.
“I also believe the very vibrant and active downtown scene and new urban lifestyle contributes to more interest and engagement in these types of cultural activities.”