T. Geronimo Johnson. Photo: Elizabeth R. Cowan

“Storytelling is the foundation of a literate society.”

For Bay Area author Joseph Di Prisco, those eight words capture the mission of the new Simpson Family Literary Project, a partnership between the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation and UC Berkeley’s English Department.

As the project’s founding chair, Di Prisco, author of  The Pope of Brooklyn and The Alzhammer, is overseeing the creation of a multifaceted program that promotes storytelling and encourages literacy through a writer-in-residence program, educational outreach into the community and a $50,000 literary prize for a mid-career writer of fiction.

Berkeley resident T. Geronimo Johnson, the author of Welcome to Braggsville, has been selected as the inaugural Simpson Family Literary Prize winner. As part of the rollout of the project, Johnson will participate in a public reading at UC Berkeley on Oct. 12.

The Simpson family name may be familiar to many in the East Bay, due to their long support of local arts, athletic and educational institutions. Simpson Strong-Tie Co. Inc., a subsidiary of Simpson Manufacturing, is a leading manufacturer of structural connectors.

Awarded the Berkeley Medal, the university’s top honor, in 2013, the late Barclay Simpson was a longtime member of the board of trustees for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. “He was by far the most generous donor in the history of BAMPFA,” said Lawrence Rinder, director of the museum, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of Simpson’s death in 2014. Simpson donated $25 million to UC Berkeley for an athletic training facility by Memorial Stadium, which bears his name, among other donations.

Sharon Simpson served for many years on the board of directors for the California Shakespeare Theater. The family has provided philanthropic leadership that has benefited athletics and other programs at UC Berkeley, such as the Haas Young Entrepreneurs and Cal Performances AileyCamp. The Simpson family has also supported local community programs such as Girls Inc. in Oakland.

Di Prisco, who served on the Cal Shakes board with Sharon Simpson, said it was the family’s foundation of service that inspired the naming of the Simpson Family Literary Project. According to Di Prisco, he neither requested nor received financial support from the family, but did obtain permission to use the name in the family’s honor.

“The Simpson family’s wealth is based upon an item of foundation, a rebar,” Di Prisco said in an interview at the Lafayette Library. “Simpson Strong Tie is about foundation. It’s about tying structures down so they are safe and strong. That was not very far from my mind when I thought about the (Literary Project).”

Beth Needel, executive director of the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation, said that the Simpson Project “aligns beautifully with the original intent of the Lafayette Library because it wasn’t just founded as a library. It was founded as a library and learning center. That’s the key to why we do so much programming here.”

The project’s inaugural writer-in-residence has been announced: Joyce Carol Oates, author of We Were the Mulvaneys,  A Book of American Martyrs, and many other novels and short stories. Oates lives in Berkeley every spring and in 2018 she will be a part of a special event for librarians and also an event for the general public.

Reached by email, Oates wrote, “Literature is important, like culture – it widens and deepens our sympathies for one another. Prizes that draw attention to writers are always positive.”

Through the UC Berkeley English Department, a number of graduate students will be designated Simpson Fellows for Spring 2018. With the creative writing faculty, they will collaborate with faculty, librarians and students at selected public high schools and conduct workshops in diverse communities.

“Spring 2018 will be when they start going into classrooms and organizations,” Needel said.

Oates and Johnson will give public readings and, along with the graduate student fellows, teach creative writing to young people at various locales, including Girls Inc. in Oakland, at Richmond High School and at the Martinez Juvenile Hall.

“To me, that’s going to be the next exciting part, reading what the students at Girls Inc. and juvenile hall and Richmond High write, and being able to see what the (UC) Fellows and Geronimo and Joyce are able to pull out of them,” said Needel.

Especially noteworthy is the fact that the Simpson Prize offers a generous financial award for established writers in the middle stages of his or her career. Although not a book award, the Simpson Project $50,000 prize is at the high end of the scale, compared to book prizes such as the Kirkus Prize ($50,000), the PEN/Faulkner Award ($15,000), the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction ($15,000) and the National Book Award ($10,000).

“It occurred to us that there is a need for a prize for a mid-career author,” Di Prisco said. “There are lots of prizes for so-called ’emerging writers,’ somebody who just got an MFA or just got out of college, hasn’t published a book yet. At the other end of the barbell, you have people who’ve won MacArthurs and Pulitzers and National Book Awards.”

There is no application process for the Literary Prize. Nominations for a suitable author were accepted from experts around the country, with T. Geronimo Johnson, Valeria Luiselli, Lori Ostlund and Dana Spiotta chosen as finalists. An anonymous jury selected Johnson as the recipient.

A native of New Orleans and a resident of Berkeley since 2008, Johnson earned his M.A. in language, literacy and culture at UC Berkeley and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has held a Stegner Fellowship and an Iowa Arts Fellowship and taught at UC Berkeley, Stanford and other institutions.

Johnson said that his initial reaction to the news that he was a finalist was, “I am going to forget we had this conversation.” He explained, “I didn’t want to spend the next six to eight weeks wondering whether I might win this award. I was honored but I immediately tried to get back to the work I was focused on and avoid being distracted by the possibility of receiving some very good news in the near future.”

Now that he has won the prize, Johnson said, “Practically speaking, it is such a boon, really just by freeing up so much time.”

His novel Welcome to Braggsville is a raucous satire about four Cal students who travel to Georgia and attempt to interrupt a Civil War Re-enactment, with tragic results.

Johnson has written that the Simpson Prize will allow him to continue his work on a novel that “explores the convergence of Afro-futurism; global AI; the economic imperatives that amplify cultural differences; corporate religion (in all manifestations); and tech inequity.”

The book in progress takes inspiration from Johnson’s current residence. “The thing about living in this area,” he said, “is that we don’t have to think too speculatively about science fiction because there is so much exciting technology released every day.”

In addition to crafting his new novel, Johnson said he looks forward to a wide variety of teaching opportunities with the Simpson Fellows program.

He said the program will take him, “places where storytelling can make a difference but the people may not always think of themselves as having the ability or the right to tell stories. This is where teaching classes or having conversations can make a huge difference.”

Di Prisco said of Johnson, “He’s got charisma. The guy can write. He upsets all the conventions.”

“Most authors have lots of other jobs in order to continue to be authors,” Needel said. “This would at least give someone a cushion and encourage them to continue to write. That’s what we want to help.”

“Art is a transformative outlet,” said Johnson, “and the Simpson Prize is bringing the literary arts to a lot of folks.”

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A New Hampshire native, freelancer Michael Berry has been a resident of Berkeley since the early 1980s. A long-time reviewer of science fiction and fantasy for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has written...