Voice for the Voiceless 

Summer Brenner's fiction tackles tough topics.

Summer Brenner's books for kids aren't fairy tales. The heroine of Ivy: Tale of a Homeless Girl in San Francisco learns that looks can deceive and that "sane" people can be vicious while "crazy" ones can save each others' lives. In Richmond Tales: Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, a time-traveling boy and girl meet beleaguered immigrants, homeless workers, and obsolescent Ohlones. Brenner's books for grownups aren't all sunshine and rainbows, either. I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex is the story of Anya, an Eastern European victim of the global sex-trafficking industry. Brenner can't help but write about social injustice. The die was cast when she was a tiny tot growing up in Georgia.

"The South was a battleground, and politics were much discussed at home," says the Berkeley resident, who will discuss I-5 at Pegasus (2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on Thursday, July 23. "In first grade, my teacher asked which presidential candidate our parents would be voting for. I was the only one to raise my wee hand for Adlai Stevenson." She remembers learning early and indelibly about racism and poverty.

"How these themes interweave into my writing is a harder question. I'm interested in lots of things and write about what interests me," Brenner says. "However, my fictional characters inhabit a big world. They take in what we all take in: some garbage, some truth. Honestly, I think it's hard to deny that living is a political act."

Having worked in Richmond for more than ten years, she received a grant from the Creative Work Fund to create a young-adult novel reflecting the lives of kids in its Iron Triangle neighborhood, best known for its high crime rate: "I hit the ground running. ... The idea was to take a place that is almost a no-man's land and turn it into a 'somewhere.'"

The result, published this year, is Richmond Tales, in which pals Mario and Maisha travel into the past and future. At one point, the pair awakens in a movie theater, surrounded by snoring adults. It's 1942; WWII shipyard work has quintupled Richmond's population. The city lacks sufficient housing for these new workers, so downtown cinemas stayed open around the clock, giving them somewhere to sleep. As part of a library summer reading program, Richmond Tales is now being distributed to more than 4,500 fourth- and fifth-graders.

Before she began writing fiction, Brenner wrote poetry; her many volumes include The Soft Room and Everyone Came Dressed as Water. It was great practice because "poetry is where I learned to break down words into inhalations and exhalations," she explains. "If the poem 'worked' — which means a vast number of things — that made it meaningful. All that applies to fiction, too. I lay down the tracks and edit obsessively. The words — syllables, consonants, stress, breath — have to work in the sentence, the sentences in the paragraph. Mix in characters, dialogue, and narrative, and you get the invention of a tremendous problem. I'm the only one who can solve it." 7:30 p.m., free. PegasusBookstore.com

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