Since the spread of COVID-19, local authors who originally looked forward to launching their new books with big parties as well as live appearances and readings have had to recalibrate. With book festivals canceled and go-to author venues such as schools, libraries and bookstores either closed or not hosting in-person events, literary events in the area have all gone online.
“The book year is basically driven by two seasons — spring and fall — with fall being by far the biggest season of the year. On average, we would host anywhere from 10 to 25 events depending on the season,” notes Ken Concepcion, who owns the cookbook store Now Serving in Chinatown with wife, Michelle Mungcal. “With this pandemic, we essentially lost all of our April and May in-store events. The fall cookbook season is our craziest time of the year, and those will all be virtual.”
I want all kinds of books by and about Black people to be considered essential reading always, not just a trend. I hope people will want to hear from Black authors in the future about a variety of topics, and not just our struggles and pain.Brandy Colbert
Award-winning author Brandy Colbert was preparing for weeks of traveling to support back-to-back releases before the pandemic hit: “I had plans to do a tour for my middle-grade debut, ‘The Only Black Girls in Town’ (Little, Brown and Company), focused mostly on schools and book festivals, and then I was supposed to be heading out on a five-city tour for ‘The Voting Booth’ (Disney-Hyperion).” “The Only Black Girls in Town” follows the developing friendship between 12-year-olds Alberta and Edie, who live in a California beachside town of mostly white residents, while “The Voting Booth” takes place Nov. 3, Election Day, as strangers Marva and Duke both go to the same polling place to do their civic duty as first-time voters, but discover the many obstacles Black communities have preventing them from reaching the ballot box. “Those are my fifth and sixth books, respectively, and this was also going to be my first time going on an official [national] tour.” Now March 10 is a date she will certainly remember as, apart from being just days after the release of “The Only Black Girls in Town”, it was “the last day I was able to go out for a meal, shop in a bookstore and see a friend,” recalls Colbert, who is now promoting both novels, which have received starred reviews, from the comfort of her Los Angeles living room and is working on her next project, a YA nonfiction book about the Tulsa race massacre.
Writer, editor and journalist, Carribean Fragoza, a South El Monte native, also had two books slated for 2020 releases: “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte” (Rutgers University Press), an anthology of 31 essays covering three centuries of the community, co-edited with Romeo Guzmán, Alex Sayf Cummings and Ryan Reft; and “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You” (City Lights), a short story collection exploring the complex familial relations of Latinx and Chicanx female characters who must contend with the male-dominated societies of America and Mexico and their violent histories. “‘East of East’ came out just a couple of weeks before shelter-in-place was called,” shares Fragoza, who also contributed essays to the book, which started eight years ago as a series of oral histories conducted with community members for a public art project and evolved into a book four years in.
In the case of “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You,” originally scheduled for a fall release, Fragoza started even earlier with stories she wrote while as a grad student in the CalArts Writing Program. Due to the pandemic, that title will now be released in March of next year. “I know how difficult it is to try to push a book out during a pandemic and just massive social change in the world on the whole,” says the author. “I’m really taking it as an opportunity to fine-tune and really strengthen the collection, and really come up with multipronged, extensive publicity plans. I can’t just rely on what’s been done before. One of the great things is that ‘East of East’ has really required us to think outside the box and find new ways to get the word out.”
Both Fragoza and Colbert feel that the shift to virtual events comes with its challenges — but also possibilities. “I had participated in virtual panels a couple of times before, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar,” notes Colbert, whose recent virtual tour stops included live events for Los Angeles Public Library, Los Feliz’s Skylight Books, Brooklyn’s Center for Fiction and the Boston Public Library. “I don’t love being on camera, so I’ve had to push through that discomfort. But I feel lucky that we live in an age where technology is so advanced that we can still stay connected and talk about our books to people who want to listen during a global pandemic. In many cases, it provides greater access to author events, which is always a good thing.”
Though many “East of East” events were canceled, Vroman’s Bookstore hosted a hugely successful virtual event on May 6 with Fragoza, co-editor Guzmán and contributors Wendy Cheng and Michael Jaime Becerra. “We had over 350 people attended [online], though it was sad that we weren’t able to meet with people [in person] that had been so supportive of the project,” says Fragoza, who is seeing additional support for the title on other digital platforms. “We have had a pretty good experience with podcasts [including KCRW’s Greater LA], which play an increasingly prominent role in how we consume media, and then we have a book club we will be in conversation with.” The editors also hope to work with the El Monte Unified High School District to have the book be “part of an ongoing conversation about developing an ethnic studies component at the school district.”
Maria Quiban Whitesell, whose debut book, “You Can’t Do It Alone: A Widow’s Journey through Loss, Grief and Life After” (Hachette), explores the sudden loss of her husband, Sean, to the rare brain disease glioblastoma four and a half years ago, just had its online launch on June 22. While she was scheduled to tour major cities with the book, Whitesell is embracing screen appearances because it’s very familiar terrain: she regularly speaks to audiences in the comfort of their homes as a Fox 11 and Good Day LA news anchor. “I have that as an advantage, for sure, that I’ve been working in front of a television camera for the last 20-plus years, and I’ve developed a relationship with my audience,” says the veteran broadcaster. “Part of the reason why I wrote the book was because I felt that when my husband was diagnosed with such a horrendous disease and why he was taken from us … I wore a microphone every day. He was a writer, so we had this access, a platform, and it was my duty to shine light on this rare brain cancer.”
A book that helps people cope with illness and loss is always in demand, perhaps even more so in the age of COVID-19. “I have read a couple of comments from people about them having suffered a loss during this time, though I don’t know if it was specifically due to COVID-19,” Whitesell shares. “I do think this book is even more relevant today [with people in quarantine or mourning alone]. People need to reach out and really find that support system like we did as a family.” And she, like Colbert, feels that her book might actually have a more captive audience now “because more people are at home and not able to go out as much. I’m able to reach an audience around the country if not around the world.”
That is the case with the Now Serving bookstore, which typically could only host 40 people in the store versus the upwards of 200 people who have logged on to some of their online events. “One of the main upsides of hosting virtual events is working with authors and chefs who do not live in Los Angeles or the U.S. for that matter,” says Concepcion. “Nearly everyone we have approached was excited to do something, especially during the safer-at-home measures.” As of mid-September, the bookstore is producing 25 events per month online.
Along with COVID-19 affecting everyday life, the “massive social change” Fragoza spoke of no doubt is driving book sales as well. Current bestseller lists and popular titles at local bookstores are evidence of significant increased interest by the general public to read books exploring the Black experience in America and to support the Black Lives Matter movement growing worldwide. “I do hope this interest and enthusiasm continues year-round [for Black literature], and not just during Black History Month, or when yet another tragedy strikes the Black community,” expresses Colbert, whose books often appear on “best of” and recommended reading lists, but are now also appearing on numerous book lists circulated by libraries, magazines and news outlets highlighting antiracist literature and Black authors and stories. “I want all kinds of books by and about Black people to be considered essential reading always, not just a trend. I hope people will want to hear from Black authors in the future about a variety of topics, and not just our struggles and pain.”