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Making Waves: 100 Artists Putting the East Bay on the Map

A master list of musicians, artists, writers, dancers, directors, actors, and poets shaping the culture, all from the East Bay.



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Boots Riley, with Jermaine Fowler and Terry Crews

Photo: Pamela Gentile/SFFILM

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Daveed Diggs with spoken-word artist Rafael Casal in Blindspotting

Photo: Ariel Nava/Lionsgate

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Nijla Mu'min

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Marcus Gardley in Black Odyssey

Photo: Devin Berne/Cal Shakes

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Sadie Barnette

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Work by Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik

Photo: Sana Javeri Kadri

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Work by Woody de Othello

Photo: Courtesy of the artist/Jessica Silverman Gallery

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Work by Marisha Farnsworth

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Tommy Orange

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76. Roman Mars
Podcast revolutionary | Oakland
If there’s such a thing as a podcasting rock star, it’s Mars, whose chart-topping design radio show and podcast on KALW, 99% Invisible, carved a path forward for the next generation of independent audio producers. Mars is also the architect of the podcast network Radiotopia, which has helped establish Oakland as the Radio Row of the podcast era. Most recently, he launched the new series What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law with UC Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh.

77. Brontez Purnell
TMI storyteller | Oakland
“I don’t know how big my dick is,” says Purnell (above), the Oakland-based artist behind a series of art-punk zines, novels, bands, and dance pieces. “But I’ve been told it has a big presence.” The scene is from Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends Mixtape, a short film that was included in the December 2017 Day With(out) Art action and shown at the Whitney and Los Angeles’s MOCA. That blunt, fearless confrontation of both queerness and blackness has been the calling card of Purnell’s work for years, although for his latest project, Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock, Purnell turns his camera lens onto an earlier maverick of Bay Area black queer art. The film is part of this month’s Frameline42 film festival.

78. Tommy Orange
Overnight literary sensation | Born in Oakland
“We’re a present-tense people,” Orange says over coffee. He’s discussing his debut novel, There There (June 5, Knopf), a restless, propulsive story about a group of Native Americans in Oakland whose lives converge at a massive powwow. “The whole country needs an update on what it means to be native, because we still think in the past,” he says. “Eighty-five percent of native people live in cities.”

The characters in There There pine for an authentic sense of native identity in the 21st century. There’s 21-year-old Tony Loneman, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome; graffiti writer Dene Oxendene; Internet addict Edwin Black; and Orvil Red Feather, who’s learning native dance by watching YouTube videos.

Orange grew up near Dimond Park with a Cheyenne and Arapaho father and a white mother who met at a peyote commune in New Mexico in the ’70s. “We were all ‘halves,’” he says of the kids on his block. The novel mines that past, subverting stereotypes of contemporary Native Americans—most of whom don’t live on reservations—and depicting a seldom-seen side of Oakland. Even the book’s title, a reference to Gertrude Stein’s famous quip, reframes the city through a native lens. “It’s this idea of environment and location and displacement and trying to connect to it when there’s no more there there,” he says. He pauses a moment, considering. “I liked that it’s the name of a Radiohead song, too.”

79. Chinaka Hodge
Renaissance poet | Oakland
“To be born this light / is to direct traffic from the center of an isosceles triangle / etched over the atlantic,” wrote Hodge, the uncrowned poet laureate of the Town in her 2016 collection Dated Emcees. Hodge’s work marries a deep engagement with the long arc of African American history to the hip-hop pulse of contemporary life.

80. Bich Minh Nguyen
Cultural cartographer | Berkeley
Nguyen’s breakout memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, chronicled her relationship with American junk food. Her upcoming work, tentatively titled Owner of a Lonely Heart, is also about refugees grappling with American identity, but this time through music—“really bad music,” she says. “Styx, Supertramp, Abba.” Nguyen has also taken on other pillars of Americana: Her 2014 novel, Pioneer Girl, imagines a Vietnamese family’s connection to the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie novels.

81 Laleh Khadivi
Accidental serialist | Berkeley
Upon selling her first novel, The Age of Orphans, in 2009, Khadivi was asked by the publisher whether she had any other books planned. In a panic, she said she was working on two follow-ups. “So then I had to do a trilogy,” she deadpans. The result is her so-called Kurdish trilogy: In Orphans, a boy is living through the Persian coup of 1921; in The Walking (2012), his son joins the Kurdish diaspora in California; and finally, in 2017’s A Good Country, the middle-class grandson becomes radicalized and travels to Syria. Ten years later, Khadivi is finally free of that spur-of-the-moment lie.

82. Shanthi Sekaran
Privilege checker | Berkeley
Sekaran’s second novel, Lucky Boy (2017), concerns two immigrant mothers living very different lives in Berkeley (one is an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant house cleaner, the other the thirtysomething Indian American wife of a Silicon Valley engineer) as they collide over an adoption proceeding. Sekaran (above), a child of Indian immigrants, considers the levels of privilege afforded to different immigrant groups in a place where everyone has the best intentions­—and in the process comes up with one of the best descriptions ever of contemporary Berkeley.

83.Robin Sloan
Magical realist | Oakland
The author of two novels, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) and Sourdough (2017), Sloan creates works that form a cartography of the obsessions of a particular type of post-­Chabon East Bay dude: sentient colonies of microbes, California cuisine, and our bleeding-edge technological present. He also runs a killer Twitter account and makes his own olive oil. Of course he does.

84. Donté Clark
Artist as activist | Richmond
The spoken-word artist, MC, and activist from North Richmond is the subject of the acclaimed 2015 documentary Romeo Is Bleeding, which chronicles Clark’s time preparing his theater piece Té’s Harmony at the RYSE Center and explores the ways art can help end the cycle of violence in inner cities. After touring internationally for the film’s premiere, Clark continues to work in Richmond as a performance artist and youth mentor.

85.-87. Thi Bui, Mariko Tamaki, Gene Luen Yang
Trailblazing graphic novelists | Berkeley, Oakland, born in Alameda
These three Bay Area graphic novelists have wildly different styles, but each portrays outsiderness in profound ways. In her haunting 2017 memoir, The Best We Could Do, Berkeley-based artist Bui charts her family’s final days in Vietnam. Tamaki, one of relatively few women writers working at DC Comics (New Super-Man, Supergirl) and Marvel (Hulk, She-Hulk), first made waves with the 2008 graphic novel Skim, about an outcast teenager confronting her sexuality. And Yang, a 2016 MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, was a finalist for a National Book Award for his graphic novels American Born Chinese (2006) and Boxers & Saints (2013). In 2016, he created DC’s first Chinese superhero, Kenan Kong.

88. Vanessa Hua
Gear-switching phenom | Orinda
With her 2016 short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities, Hua, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, made her name in the fiction world. Now her debut novel, A River of Stars (August 14, Ballantine), about a pregnant Chinese immigrant’s life on the run, has drawn advance praise from the likes and Celeste Ng.

89. Meron Hadero
Displacement dramatist | Oakland
Hadero’s short story “The Suitcase” was selected to be included in Best American Short Stories 2016. A refugee from Ethiopia, Hadero often writes about resettlement and displacement, both physical and emotional. Big-name writers and editors have taken notice: She contributed an essay to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection The Displaced this spring.

90. Lauren Markham
California chronicler | Berkeley
Markham confronts fundamentally Californian issues: immigration, fires, the crippling drought. Her 2017 nonfiction work The Far Away Brothers follows two teenagers from El Salvador who cross the border illegally and settle in Oakland. It won the 2018 Ridenhour Book Prize and has been short-listed for the California Book Award.

91. Elaine Castillo
Filipina phenom | Born in Milpitas
All right, so Castillo technically grew up just across the East Bay–South Bay divide. But the queer Filipina novelist (above)—whose debut, America Is Not the Heart, was released in April to rave reviews—went to Cal, so we’ll make an allowance. Thematically rich and stylistically experimental—the narrative flows between perspectives and languages—it instantly vaulted onto best-of and must-read lists for 2018.

92. Maw Shein Win
Aural poet | El Cerrito
Win, a Burmese American poet (and the first-ever poet laureate of El Cerrito), performs as one-half of the musical duo Pitta of the Mind with composer Amanda Chaudhary. No wonder, then, that her poetry—most recently in her full-length collection Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press)—has such percussive qualities. “I’m very fond of image and sound—the sonic quality of language,” she says.

93. Michael David Lukas
Culture clasher | Oakland
Lukas’s calling card is cross-cultural exchange: His 2011 magical-realist bestseller, The Oracle of Stamboul, followed a Jewish girl living in the final days of the Ottoman Empire; his latest, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo (2018), tracks a part-Jewish, part-Muslim Berkeley student summoned to Egypt, where his family has for centuries guarded a sacred scroll. Off the page, Lukas works at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where he facilitates exactly such meetings between Western and Middle Eastern students. With, of course, less magic.

94. Vernon Keeve III
Southern lyricist | Oakland
“I have always been standing in the middle / Those double G’s between nigger and faggot,” writes Keeve in Gardens and Carnivores. Keeve’s poems typically tackle what it means to be gay and black, particularly in the South (he hails from Virginia). His first collection of essays and poems, Southern Migrant Mixtape, was released in January, and he’s planning to put out a chapbook this summer that he describes as “nonfiction poetry” inspired by his research in the S.F. Public Library’s James C. Hormel archive on “queer black progress from the Harlem Renaissance to the AIDS epidemic.”

95. Rachel Richardson
Metaphorical voyager | Berkeley
“When the seamstress slid / the bone into the bodice / and pinned each / cut piece together, / the satin stood upright / at the sewing table. / She could almost / see it breathe. / I am swallowed / and swallowed whole. It outlasts / all our vows.” So writes Berkeley poet and Left Margin Lit cofounder Richardson in “Canticle in the Fish’s Belly,” from her 2016 collection Hundred-Year Wave, a sly and moving volume on the dual meaning of feeling lost and “adrift,” as explained through imagery from Moby-Dick and scenes of contemporary motherhood.

Page six: Dance