Storytelling for Everyone

In year two, the Simpson Family Literary Project spreads the power of fiction.


Ismail Muhammad was one of this year's Simpson Fellows.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

As the Simpson Family Literary Project prepares for its second year, the organization is ready to reach, teach, and inspire readers of fiction throughout the East Bay.

Established in honor of the philanthropists Barclay and Sharon Simpson and their family, the project offers three core initiatives: outreach to high school-age writers, a writer-in-residence program, and a national literary prize.

For Oakland writer Anthony Marra, the project means a cash prize of $50,000 and more time to devote to his latest novel. For students at Girls Inc. in Oakland and the John A. Davis Juvenile Hall in Martinez, it represents a chance to discover the power of their personal stories through creative writing workshops. For librarians in Lafayette, it offers opportunities to meet and learn from writers in residence, such as Joyce Carol Oates.

A collaboration of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation and the University of California, Berkeley, English Department, the Simpson Family Literary Project adheres to the motto: “Storytelling is the foundation of a literate society.”

The author of The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra said he was delighted to be selected as the mid-career writer of note.

“For a writer, the greatest gift you can receive is time. The Simpson Literary Prize has given me a good amount of time for the next year to 18 months,” Marra said.

Set in 1940s California, Marra’s novel-in-progress “revolves around a community of enemy aliens, people from Germany and Italy who fled here to escape persecution in their homelands. During the war years, they were treated with a great deal of suspicion, and some were interned.”

Marra said he has been working on this project since 2015. “And just looking at the newspaper, it seems to take on greater resonance every day.”

Marra sees creative writing as important for young women and men. “The ability to have confidence in their own voice and to be unafraid to tell their stories, is an incredibly powerful experience,” he said.

Girls Inc. offers a continuum of programs and counseling services in its Simpson Center for Girls and across more than 20 schools and satellite centers throughout Alameda County. The Simpson Project provides an opportunity for Cal graduate students to run eight-week workshops in which Girls Inc. students explore poetry, fiction, and memoir.

Juylane Virgil, chief executive officer of Girls Inc., said, “Through the Simpson Family Literary Project, the girls are exploring a number of tools to express themselves and to understand other’s experiences, building critical skill sets not only for their own personal and professional success, but also for their broader ability to connect with all of humanity.”

Ismail Muhammad was one of this year’s Simpson Fellows, and he spent his time with incarcerated youth, a different experience from his usual tasks of guiding Cal undergraduates.

“It’s very different to teach young men who are imprisoned and traumatized, wary of adult authority. It requires a totally different skill set and the willingness to get out of your comfort zone and leave lesson plans behind,” Muhammad said.

His students wanted their stories told. “It did a lot for my students to know that their poetry was going to be read outside the prison,” Muhammad said. “Black, brown, and poor students just haven’t had the experience of being listened to.”

A resident of the Rockridge neighborhood, Marra has taught writing to students of many backgrounds over the years. “The thing I try to impress upon them is the idea of writing being a kind of investigation. You are trying to uncover something new, even if it’s just about yourself.”

Asked about the value of fiction in turbulent times, Marra said, “I think fiction is a wormhole that allows us to move into other people. That’s tremendously powerful and transformative.”

Thanks to the Simpson Family Literary Project, the benefits of creative writing reach farther than ever.

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