“Denise Sullivan was born in San Francisco. She’s been chronicling the literary, musical and political history of her hometown for over three decades. In 2017, she edited the anthology, Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories and Small Fictions (Manic D Press). She’s also co-edited the three volume chapbook series, The City Is Already Speaking (dedicated to the poets and writing programs based out of the United Booksellers of San Francisco). Sullivan writes about jazz for DownBeat and she has also written several books of music history including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues To Hip Hop (Lawrence Hill, 2011) and two chapbooks, Awful Sweet and The Rakish Tam. Her SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner, connects the dots between City Lights Books, the Fillmore District and the 21st Century. In the list below she shares her favorite books about her birthplace.” – Mike Sonksen
Ah, San Francisco. With its rough and ready literary history and new identity as the epicenter for tech’s young, loud and rich crowd, the everyday working writer may find herself in a curious spot: somewhere between hate-filled and haunted, harried and horrified (and yes, I’m speaking for myself). Rarely am I at peace with what’s become of us and this place we call home, and that seems to be good for the writing — except when it isn’t: That’s when I turn to books.
This is not meant to be a definitive list of Bay Area hits; rather, it includes the books that offered me sustenance during years of hardship (the last six, to be exact). I’m angry most of the time, and generally hold back the tears. The disappointment and hurt has started to show on my face, my hands, my hair, my gait. But reading about this place, despite the bad news here which writers have been prognosticating for years, is actually a respite from kicking against the pricks and my own exhaustive and exhausting thoughts about us/it/them (it being the changes, the changes being the gentrification, the gentrification being the thing transforming not just a few neighborhoods, but an entire way of life in a citywide ecosystem).
In these books I find friends and in their writers, my accomplices — sometimes vice versa, but usually one and the same. Reading about things that used to be brings them alive again, and assures me that memory is real and so are we. But now that everything’s more extreme and our so-called civilization is devolving accordingly, I read with more urgency all writing about our vista points, our fog, our coffee, and our unique Victorian paint jobs. Reading also reveals to me that the isms with us now were with us then, and that the fight for what’s right that still rages has been burning since our founding. Once again, it appears those who are indigenous to these parts are losing. Notice I write, it appears…
We are still here. We are your teachers, lab technicians and nurses, public servants, non-profiteers and artists, artists, artists. We are lifers, long timers, old timers and new arrivals in touch with the ineffable je ne sais quoi some people call our light. If we’ve won the lottery, we live in houses, perhaps passed down to us by family or purchased, when the price was right. We occupy rent-controlled flats, basement apartments, in-law units, rooms in SROs and high-rise developments, alternately ugly and gorgeous —with Bay windows. And yes, too many folks live on the street either because there is not enough affordable housing for them or they don’t wish to be contained within four wall. And yes, the shell mounds keep getting desecrated. In lieu of solutions, we can only sing the praises of the protectors of the land and its people, and offer our blessings to the people who’ve been disappeared, whether to the great beyond or the greater Bay Area. As for the rest of us, we’re just hanging on, waiting until our work here is done (or until everyone else goes home, which ever comes first). Until that time, our unique cafe talkers and skateboarders, shopkeepers and dog walkers, hairdressers, bartenders and others still willing to serve keep on swinging. From the Top of the Mark to The Bottom of the Hill, it’s the people who make our city, The City. Baghdad By The Bay, Paris of the West, The Golden City and all the rest, we were named for a person. St. Francis, and his name is called out in various ways in these texts, whether the SFC (the Sucka-Free City), San Franpsycho, San Fransico, San Pancho, Frisco, or the Sco (forget about San Fran: it’s how we’ll know, you’re not local).
Grant me one wish and it would be for a light, to see me through this darkness. Grant me two and I’d ask for the ability to write a companion for you, like these books have been for me during our darkest hours. My teachers, my mentors, my brothers and sisters and friends, I’m grateful for the inspiration and for the writers who wrote them: Cherished, like the rare warmth of the sun here. As for wish number three, that would be a time machine, to revisit the San Francisco I know. Though until then, my dreams, undisrupted, will have to do.
- Singin’ and Swinging’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Maya Angelou
- Salvation on Mission Street, Cathy Arellano
- Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir, Jorge Argueta
- Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (anthology, edited by James Brook, Chris Carlsson & Nancy J. Peters
- San Francisco, City on Golden Hills, Herb Caen & Dong Kingman
- As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport, Peter Case
- Someone’s Dead Already, Tongo Eisen-Martin
- Poetry as Insurgent Art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- The Rice Room, Ben Fong-Torres
- Music in the Air. The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason, Toby Gleason, editor
- Sunnyvale, Jeff Goodell
- Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless In America, Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia
- Nueva Cuenta, Freddy Gutierrez
- A Child’s Guide to San Francisco, Barbara Holden, Mary Jane Woeboke
- Yokohama, California, Toshio Mori
- Stray Poems, Alejandro Murguía
- Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts
- Blues City, Ishmael Reed
- Cool Don’t Live Here No More: A Letter To San Francisco, Tony Robles
- Golden Gate, Vikram Seth
- Exile Hearts, Kim Shuck
- Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg
- Season of the Witch, David Talbot
- The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings, Amy Tam
- Praises, Vilifications and Sexual Innuendo, Or How to Be a Critic: The Selected Writings of John Wasserman 1964-1979, Abby Wasserman
- Beyond the Possible, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani
Denise Sullivan is an independent journalist who writes on arts, culture and gentrification issues from San Francisco where she was born a long time ago. Editor of the anthology, Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Stories and Personal Histories (Manic D Press, 2017) and co-editor of the three volume chapbook series, The City Is Already Speaking (dedicated to the poets and writing programs based out of the United Booksellers of San Francisco), she has written several books of music history including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues To Hip Hop (Lawrence Hill, 2011). She is the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner and writes about jazz for DownBeat.
Featured Image Credit: Denise Sullivan