PEN Oakland, the brainchild of writer and activist Ishmael Reed, was launched in fall, 1989, at the Asmara Restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland at a lunch meeting hosted by Ishmael with soon-to-be co-founders Floyd Salas, Reginald Lockett and Claire Ortalda.
Here, Reed outlined the idea of forming a multicultural branch of PEN to, as Jack Foley would later write, “promote works of excellence by writers of all cultural and racial backgrounds and to educate both the public and the media as to the nature of multi-cultural work.” An organizational meeting was convened at the Before Columbus offices at Preservation Park in Oakland, with invitations going out to a wide range of Bay Area writers. From that well-attended and somewhat noisy meeting, a core group emerged. In addition to the original four at the lunch meeting, Jack Foley, John Curl, Adelle Foley, Kim McMillon, Gary Soto and Jesse Beagle began the hard work of fashioning an organization.
One of the first goals was achieving affiliation with PEN, the international organization of poets, essayists, and novelists. The fledgling group, with its potential to bring in significant new membership, was courted by both PEN Center USA in Los Angeles and PEN American Center in New York. The group affiliated with PEN Center USA in early 1990, billing itself as the “first multicultural chapter of PEN.”
Within months, PEN Oakland had hosted a standing-room-only fundraiser featuring Isabel Allende and Maxine Hong Kingston, who donated their talents, and secured funding from the California Arts Council’s Multicultural Entry Grant program. Vice President Reginald Lockett and member Jesse Beagle applied for—and received—a California Council for the Humanities grant for the PEN Oakland program, “Oakland Out Loud,” a reading/symposium on historical Oakland writers. The name for this anthology and attendant reading series sponsored by the Oakland Public Library, derives from that early program. The group also launched their PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Awards, named after poet Josephine Miles, the University of California professor famed for her encouragement of fledgling poets. National in scope, the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Awards represented “a new perception of multicultural literature that did not seek validation from the literary establishment, but created its own standards and models of literature” (Foley).
In 1997, the first annual Literary Censorship Awards were inaugurated to challenge censorship within the literary culture of the United States, including all aspects of the publishing process, as well as considerations of inclusion/exclusion as they pertained to distribution, reviews, library acquisition, and academic conferences. A noted recipient of the Censorship award was the late Gary Webb, for his daring expose in a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News and later in his book, Dark Alliance, of the CIA/Contra/cocaine connection, which cost him his career and later his life.
In 1991, spearheaded by a number of well-placed articles by Ishmael Reed, PEN Oakland launched its most audacious and publicized event, a nationwide call for a thirty-day tune-out of prime time network news (ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN) to protest televised racism, including depiction of minorities, and to highlight the lack of a significant number of minority, women and alternatevoice journalists in major newsrooms. An Open Mic at Lakeside Garden Center in Oakland, attended by more than 400 people, kicked off a nationwide series of lectures and readings given around the country to discuss media abuses of women, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds and sexual orientations. The media boycott received coverage in the New York Times, ABC-TV’s San Francisco affiliate (Channel 7), the Washington Post, Spin Magazine, The Nation and many other nationwide news forums.
Prior to this series of successes, Reed pressed for a more independent platform on which to both celebrate the work of multicultural writers and to lay bare the problems faced by marginalized peoples worldwide, as related to written expression, including media depictions and de facto censorship and suppression.
Floyd Salas, now elected president, and Claire Ortalda, secretary-treasurer, were dispatched to the PEN International conference in May, 1990, in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal, to petition the world-wide body for a third United States center. The bylaws of PEN International call for one center per country, except in countries with more than one official language, such as Switzerland, in which one center is allowed for each language, or in countries of large size and population, such as the United States, with its two centers.
What Reed and Salas were proposing was a third center, based not on population or language but on ethnicity. PEN Oakland was to be that center, focusing on multicultural issues not just in the United States, but in the world at large. “PEN Oakland represents multicultural writers in the United States who produce a different literature, written in the same language as the mainstream, commercial writers of America, just as the former colonies of European countries produce a different literature written in the same language as their former European masters,” Salas stated in a speech at the conference. “Our literature is different because it gives a different perspective on the American social strata and its problems than the status quo writers… We feel the dissemination of these multi-ethnic literatures will go a long way toward promoting harmony between the races in our country in what continues to be an immigrant society.” Salas’ motion, in the face of entrenched opinion and without benefit of being on the official agenda, was handily sidelined by the governing body of PEN International but it excited the attention of the exiled Eastern European writers (one year after the Berlin Wall had fallen and playwright, Solidarity leader and PEN member Vaclav Havel had been elected president of Czechoslovakia), key African writers, and attendees from PEN Center USA.
The president of PEN Center USA, Carolyn See, immediately invited Salas and Ortalda to lunch and the first chapter rights were hammered out there: a yearly stipend, a voting member on the PEN Center USA board, a column in the newsletter, use of the center’s non-profit ID number for grants, and the promise to encourage the formation of other chapters.
At the same international conference, Salas introduced a media resolution, authored by Reed, which called for PEN to demand more equitable reporting of ethnic and racial minorities in the media. This, too, did not reach the floor, but it was re-introduced in November, 1991, by Gerald Nicosia, at the conference in Vienna. Nicosia strenuously fought for the resolution, with the support of the Nigerian delegate and a few others. The resolution, in watered-down form, stating that PEN should encourage fair reporting on minorities in the media, was passed the following year.
Locally, PEN Oakland continued to offer symposia on the written word and its societal impacts, with the support of such sponsors as the City of Oakland, the Lef Foundation, the Zellerbach Foundation, the East-West Community Foundation, the Before Columbus Foundation and the Oakland Public Library. At the instigation of Kim McMillon, PEN Oakland’s chief program manager, PEN Oakland sponsored the Oakland Literature Expo portion of the City of Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival from 2001 through 2004. In addition, PEN Oakland produced “An Evening of Dangerous Plays,” at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, “Domestic Crusaders,” a play about a Muslim Pakistani-American family’s efforts to deal with the aftermath of 9/11 at various venues, and “4x4 Plays: Staged Readings,” and “Short Plays,” the latter two at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. Since its inception in 2015, under the guidance of Tony R. Rodriguez, PEN Oakland has played an active role in the Oakland Book Festival, hosting panels, readings and a booth.
PEN Oakland has published or co-published three anthologies, Words Upon the Waters: A Poetic Response to Hurricane Katrina by Bay Area Writers and Artists (Jukebox Press, 2006), Oakland Out Loud: Poetry and Prose in Celebration of ‘There',” (Jukebox Press, 2007) and Fightin' Words: 25 Years of Provocative Poetry and Prose from “The Blue Collar PEN” (Heyday Books/PEN Oakland Publications, 2014).
PEN Oakland, an all-volunteer organization with limited funding, has, for more than a quarter century and ongoing, been a voice for the issues of marginalized peoples through a series of hard-hitting forums in which important issues often ignored by the mainstream media are aired and debated. At the same time, we have brought national attention to multicultural literature through our awards program.
—Written by Claire Ortalda, founding member and former Secretary/Treasurer