YallWest 2020 should have taken place in Santa Monica, California, as it does every year. But when the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the globe, it became clear that the festival couldn’t continue as planned.
That didn’t stop organizers Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz, according to author Victoria Aveyard.
“As soon as things started to shut down they were like, ‘Nope, we’re still going to go full steam ahead and we’re gonna figure out how to bring this festival to everybody,'” Aveyard said during a panel she hosted on Saturday.
And so YallWest became YALLSTAYHOME, a virtual gathering of booklovers that brought droves of online crowds in front of computer, tablet and phone screens this past weekend.
In fact, YALLSTAYHOME became the biggest YallWest to date, according to Stohl. Across all the virtual panels, there were more than 46,000 registrations. Registrees came from every continent in the world — except Antarctica.
“Antarctica, phone us if you’re here,” Stohl said teasingly during Saturday’s final event.
The online bookfest took place April 25 and 26 and was brought to life via Zoom conference calls and Instagram Live events. All in all, more than 80 authors participated in the festivities.
Bringing the festival to the internet brought its own challenges. While it allowed for a global audience to attend this year’s panels, it also opened the door for potential online harassment.
Just days before the key events, author Dhonielle Clayton reported an instance of hate speech during a virtual high school visit.
“Are any other PoC authors dealing w/racism during ZOOM Author visits?” Clayton tweeted. “I just got off school visit where kids unmuted continuously to call me a ****** … or ask why the teacher was so fat. It was so bad she burst into tears. The blank video screens make teens bold out here.”
YallWest organizers responded quickly, sharing a zero-tolerance harassment policy that ran at the beginning of each panel over the weekend. They also suspended virtual school visits.
“Events for this weekend will go on as planned with increased security and moderation measures in place,” YallWest organizers said later in a tweet.
Security precautions included muting audience members, disabling chat rooms and moderating Q&A submissions.
“Think of non-offensive questions!” author Nicola Yoon said at the beginning of a panel on Saturday after asking audience members to submit Q&A topics.
Their efforts appeared to work. Stohl noted at the end of Saturday that attendees exhibited “exceptional behavior.”
But YALLSTAYHOME didn’t finish without controversy. By Saturday evening, many fans and authors voiced their concerns about the ‘This American Experience’ panel which had taken place earlier in the afternoon.
Author Lauren Myracle moderated the panel, which included authors Jennifer de Leon, Natasha Diaz, George M. Johnson, Bill Konigsberg and Angie Thomas. Many who attended said the panel, which was meant to highlight diversity, was ruined by insensitive comments made by Myracle. Myracle is said to have talked over panelists. She also commented that there needed to be more books to tell the stories of straight white males.
When speaking about the growth of diverse voices, Myracle said, “I’m not sure that I’ve seen that same type of growth happen with straight white middle-class guys,” according to transcripts from the event.
“We are deeply sorry, and are reaching out to everyone involved to find the best way to resolve the situation,” YallWest organizers tweeted late Saturday night.
They scheduled a second-run of the panel Sunday, this time hosted by author Nic Stone. In the second panel, Thomas set her Zoom background as a collage of white male authors, a slight toward Myracle’s comments, meant to jokingly give representation to “underrepresented” men.
Apart from the controversy, the festival seemed to run without incident. Panelists talked on a range of subjects from writing and inspiration to diversity and inclusion — and the pandemic.
Coronavirus turned YallWest 2020 on its head, and it was clearly front and center of everyone’s minds throughout the festival too. Even beyond a designated panel about the coronavirus, authors shared how they’ve coped with the pandemic at the top of nearly every panel.
Authors said they coped in different ways. Some mentioned that they watch every White House press briefing, others said they’ve learned to take breaks from the news cycle. A few said they’ve leaned even more into their work during quarantine while some found it difficult to make time to write.
But despite the pandemic being front and center, the messages authors offered were largely hopeful and positive in tone. In fact, “Hope” was just as big of a theme as the pandemic.
Hope to someday be published. Hope to someday cause change. Hope for voices to be heard.
Hope to overcome hard things.
It seemed fitting for the festival, Aveyard said during her panel, ‘Facing the Enemy.’
“Hope is a huge element of our genre,” she said.