Marion Mitchell-Wilson, retired Executive Director of the nonprofit literary center, Inlandia Institute, is radiant. Even in the midst of cancer treatment, her eyes are bright, her hair, which came in white after chemo, luminous. When she talks about the Inlandia Institute, which celebrates, supports and promotes the literature of the Inland Empire, she lights up even more.
"Inlandia was a huge gift that came to me out of nowhere," she says in awe as we sit in the sunny and elegant living room of her home in Riverside's Wood Streets. "I couldn't have planned something more wonderful."
Then she leans forward and says conspiratorially, "On the other hand, I have no trouble walking away."
The Inlandia Institute is having a hard time imagining itself without Marion at the helm, especially since she retired earlier than planned due to health issues ("The brain wants to keep going, but the body says no," she says). At the recent annual strategic planning meeting, her absence was acutely felt--Marion has been the soul of Inlandia, its prime visionary and cheerleader. Still, she knows the organization is in good hands. A great board is in place, and Cati Porter, acclaimed Riverside poet and editor, has taken over as Publications and Programs Coordinator and is already moving Inlandia into new, exciting territory.
"I know Inlandia will continue to define and redefine the regional voice and broadcast that as broadly as possible," she says. "If this had happened last September, when we hadn't gotten our tax exemption, I would have been concerned, but in the last few months, the sands shifted and everything was ready."
The Inlandia Institute is an offshoot of the anthology Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California's Inland Empire published by Heyday Books in 2006. When the book came out, the response was overwhelming. The Inland Empire had never had a cohesive literary identity before, and here was a diverse mix of voices--from Cahuilla creation myth to Joan Didion to young writers capturing the gritty reality of gangs and migrant camps--giving shape to our regional narrative. People couldn't get enough of it. I certainly couldn't; I was honored to have part of my novel, The Book of Dead Birds, included in its pages, and felt a real sense of community as I read through the collection, recognizing the mountains and palm trees and tacquerias that have become home to me, marveling at the range of voices our region has inspired. At the book launch, I was amazed by the energy in the room, the exciting sense that our experience, our stories, were finally being validated.
Malcolm Margolin, founder and owner of Heyday Books, was besieged with folks asking "What do we do next? What about the authors who weren't included in this collection? What about the emerging Inland Empire authors? What are we going to do for them?"
When Malcolm returned to the Riverside Public Library after taking the book launch to Palm Desert, Marion, who was then Fund Development Manager at the library, met him at the door.
"This is what I want to do," she told him, buzzing from the excitement of the series of book events she helped organize. "This is my dream job." The two of them went upstairs and spoke with library director, Barbara Custen, about ways to expand the reach of the book and use it to continue to foster local literary life. Maybe a literary organization.
"Barbara likes alliteration," says Marion. "Every time there was a chance to name
something, she used it."
"We should call it the Inlandia Institute," said Barbara.
"And Marion is the perfect person to head it up," said Malcolm, much to Marion's delight.
In August of 2007, the City of Riverside and Heyday Books entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the Inlandia Institute at the Riverside Public Library. The following year, the Advisory Council decided that Inlandia could better fulfill its vision if it incorporated as an independent non-profit organization. The Institute moved to its current space in a vintage home-turned-office on Chestnut Street in downtown Riverside after Marion's Fund Development position at the library was eliminated--a move that Marion said speaks to what she calls the "schizophrenic" handling of arts and culture funding in the Inland Empire. She describes how the day after her job at the library ended, her husband Chuck Wilson and photographer Dough McCullough--who provided the new office space within his and Dawn Hassett's company, Geographics--showed up with a truck, picked up all the copies of the Inlandia anthology from her office and brought them to the new place, where everything was set up and waiting for her.
"Malcolm told me the creativity is palpable in that space, and it is," she says. "Every day I worked there, something good happened. You seldom heard 'Yes, but' and virtually never heard 'No' or 'It can't work.' If there was an idea, there was usually a way it could be molded into being do-able."
This wasn't Marion's first experience building a cultural institution from scratch. As a young woman, Marion was Director of Orchard House, the author Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, MA. She was the first professional director there; until then, the National Historic Landmark had been run by family friends of the Alcotts, and the only programming had been a guided tour. Marion said it was a "fun opportunity to invent curriculum," which she did with gusto, creating programs where kids could come play with vintage games, and developing a partnership with the Concord School of Philosophy.
She poured similar energy into Inlandia, bringing in local writers and "culture bearers" (people who she says "aren't arts producers, but who facilitate a culture in which the arts can grow, and arts and the community can be linked") to help carry the vision to fruition. Since its inception, the Inlandia Institute has produced a stunning array of literary programming, from a diverse range of readings to the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshops (now regularly held in Riverside, Idyllwild, Palm Springs and Ontario) to the online Inlandia literary journal (www.inlandiajournal.org) to a children's poetry theater, initiated by California Poet Laureate and UCR Professor Juan Felipe Herrera, who also coined the term Inlandia. Marion inspired Herrera's central project as Laureate, "The Most Incredible and Biggest and Most Amazing Poem on Unity in the World," when she suggested he post a collaborate poem on electronic billboards--a great example of the collaborative, creative spirit of the Institute. Inlandia has also entered in a publishing partnership with Heyday Books, creating the Inlandia imprint for books that tell the story of the Inland Empire, including No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California's Deserts edited by Ruth Nolan, who initiated the first Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop in Riverside, and UCR Professor Emeritus Carlos Cortes' memoir about his parents, Rose Hill: An Intermarriage Before Its Time. The Institute recently started publishing books independently of Heyday, as well; the first, a multicultural children's chapter book, Dos Chiles/Two Chiles, by Riverside author and elementary school teacher Julianna Cruz, came out earlier this year. I love being part of these endeavors--as associate fiction editor of the online journal and member of the publication committee, I have regular access to the stories being generated in and about our region, and it gives me renewed appreciation for the world I travel daily, renewed inspiration for tapping into place in my own writing.
I also have the great honor of being the second Inlandia Literary Laureate (novelist Susan Straight, the true standard bearer for literature of this region, was the perfect choice for the first Laureate, and she's left me some big shoes to fill. Her novels and her biweekly column on KCET, Notes of a Native Daughter, have taught me so much about the area, but also so much about writing deeply about the land one calls home.) As Laureate, I consider myself a literary ambassador for the region, and am excited to both bring our stories to the wider world, and to free the stories within our changing landscape. I am so grateful to Inlandia for giving me this platform, and hope to do justice
to the judging panel's--and Marion's--faith in me.
Marion has high hopes for Inlandia's future. She looks forward to the Institute developing more anthologies from the region--Inlandia is now taking about compiling a collection of Inland mountain writings ("We already joke about how big the Inland Empire is," she says. "If you flatten out the mountain communities, it gets a lot bigger") and the Inlandia Journal is currently soliciting work for a special issue on cultural identity in Inland Southern California which may grow into its own anthology. Marion would love to see Inlandia, which runs on a shoestring budget, get more funding. Toward that end, ten regional authors, including myself, will participate in an Inlandia Book Fair and fundraiser at the Barnes & Noble in Riverside on September 15, with readings from 10am-4pm (if you use the code 10812964 at any Barnes & Noble in person or online between September 15-21, 10% will go to Inlandia). "It would be wonderful to build an endowment that would provide regular income for projects and staff," she says. "And I'd love to see us develop a scholarship program." Right now, the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshops charge a $25 entry fee, and she's hoping that can be eliminated in the future. "I have a hard time thinking that literature and literacy are only for those who can afford it," she says. She thinks about her grandfather, who dropped out of school at 16, but had a lifetime love of reading and music, which he imparted to his family (even though she wasn't allowed to touch his leather bound books); she wants that sort of cultural enrichment to be available to everyone.
"Juan Felipe doesn't say 'Read to your children' at his events," she says, "he says 'Tell your children stories.' That way even if the parents aren't literate, they can pass on values and self-esteem and the love of language to their children, and it's that love of language that is the first component of learning to read. I learned this from him about how to start with a blank slate. We want to create the next generation of arts producers and culture bearers."
Cati Porter, Inlandia's new Publications and Programs Coordinator, says that Marion's "drive and commitment to the organization and to the people in her community, from artists to businessmen to councilmen to the public at large, has resulted in the formation of an organization unlike any other, one that is built on trust and relationships and a reputation for providing programming that truly reflects the nature of its community. At a recent meeting, as we move forward without Marion at the helm, a new word was coined: 'Marionless.' But while we are Marionless, we are not without direction. This organization would not exist without her, and now it is up to us to follow her lead."