It wasn't until college that Matt Werner began to truly understand the meaning of his hometown. He remembers it vividly: He was at UC Berkeley, chatting with someone at a party, when she asked where he was from. He told her Oakland, which was met with an "Oakland? We don't go into Oakland."
It's a conversation that anyone who's lived in Oakland stumbles into at some point or another, but it stuck with Werner: "It was clear that the mere mention of 'Oakland' triggered something of a fear response in her," he recalls in the introduction to his new book, Oakland in Popular Memory. "For the first time, I began to consider Oakland through the eyes of an 'outsider.'"
And to an outsider, Oakland is, in the words of poet and book participant Chinaka Hodge, as quoted by Werner, "constantly upstaged, asterisked, and misunderstood" — maligned by a media climate that's ever-more motivated by the if-it-bleeds-it-leads ethos; positioned as a poorer, blacker, grungier alternative to San Francisco; praised for its cuisine and Art Murmur but little else.
"When I tell people I'm from Oakland who are from outside the Bay Area, they'll ask me about the TV show Gang Wars, or the Ebonics debate in the Nineties, or the riots after the Raiders lost the Super Bowl in '03," Werner said. The book was borne out of that — not necessarily out of a desire to sugarcoat the city, but to give people a sense of what's going on here, through interviews with twelve artists: rappers and writers and slam poets, people who Werner said "really know what's happening on the ground."
Yet aside from the introduction, the book's purported central theme — Oakland's position in and perception by the popular consciousness — hardly ever comes up. Or if it does, it's subtle. Oakland in Popular Memory is not particularly interested in hitting anyone over the head; the interviews contained in the book are organic, easy, and guided by the interviewees' interests rather than by some overarching thematic edict. For poet, playwright, and musician Ise Lyfe, that's the meaning of race and authenticity in the Obama era; for Victor Vazquez, aka Kool A.D. of the avant-hip-hop act Das Racist, it's Occupy; for others, it's poverty, art, war, language, food, violence, Guitar Hero, Robert Redford, the prevalence of Auto-Tune. They read less like interviews than chats between friends, drifting loosely between the personal and political, the superficial and the substantive, the optimistic and the pessimistic — not so much about Oakland as profoundly informed by it.
To live in and love a place like Oakland is, all too often, to be on the defensive; to be, by necessity, unequivocal and straightforward in praise. But Werner avoids that through his interviews, and that's what makes the book work. "There are these really stark realities here," he said. "But what I'm saying is, Oakland is a never-ending conversation."
Werner will participate in an Oakland Heritage Alliance Authors of Oakland meet-and-greet and book sale at First Christian Church (111 Fairmount Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, November 15, at 7:15 p.m., and will perform a reading of the book at the Oakland Main Library (125 14th St.) on Wednesday, November 28, at 6 p.m. Free. MattsWriting.com