Arts Listings

Summer Brenner’s ‘I-5’

By Estelle Jelinek Special to the Planet
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:16:00 PM

Summer Brenner regularly swims long distances in Berkeley’s public pools. She is also an accomplished author who writes as gracefully as she swims.  

Her latest book, I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex (Oakland: PM Press, 2009), is a novel about sex trafficking along one of California’s major highways. 

It is not at all sleazy or pornographic, as its subject may suggest, nor is it noir fiction, as its misleading sensational cover implies, and it is not a “new mystery,” as shelved at Moe’s. It is literary fiction told from the point of view of Anya, a Russian immigrant, falsely lured to the United States for legitimate work as a clerk or waitress, only to find herself a sex slave. Anya is savvy and sensitive, plotting her own escape even as she endures the unpleasant toils of her forced servitude. 

Brenner portrays Anya as a real flesh-and-blood person, as well as her relationships with others, who like her, are trapped into this “business,” her connections with her pimp/“manager,” and then her forced journey from Los Angeles to Oakland on I-5. Along the way she encounters thriller-like adventures that are breathtaking and gripping, but listing them would make the novel sound melodramatic, which it is not, so I’ll leave it to its lucky readers to learn her story. 

Brenner says I-5, her eighth novel, was inspired by the events of 1999 in Berkeley when a 17-year-old Indian girl died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment over Pasand restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. She and other teenagers had been brought to the United States from India by the Lakireddy family to work as cheap labor and sex providers. With the death exposing the trafficking, eventually many colluding family members were tried, fined, and given various prison sentences. Feminists, led by Diana Russell, picketed and boycotted the restaurant—some still do to this day—but Brenner took the incident many steps further, a tribute to her social conscience, especially her identification with immigrants and other marginalized groups, her feminism, and her considerable writing skills. The dedication to this slim book (186 pages) reads: “Written as a curse on them that force women and girls into bondage.” This is an impressive literary novel, well worth reading. 

Summer Brenner was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She moved north, east, and eventually west, taking up residence in Berkeley where she has been a long-time resident. Her writing has appeared in dozens of anthologies and literary magazines. Performances of her work include “The Flood,” a poem for four voices; “The Missing Lover,” a one-act play; and the poetry and musical extravaganza, Arundo. One of her novels, Presque nulle part, was published in France by Gallimard. She has given scores of readings in the United States, France, and Japan. Grant awards include the California Arts Council, the Creative Work Fund, and in partnership with Community Works, the Christensen Fund and the Lesher Foundation. Currently, she is working on literacy projects in Richmond. Nearly Nowhere (PM Press) and My Life in Clothes (Red Hen Press) are scheduled for publication in 2010. 


Summer Brenner and the West Contra Costa Unified School District, in partnership with Community Works, received a grant from the Creative Work Fund to develop and publish a young adult novel that reflects the life stories of students in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood. Richmond Tales: Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, written by Brenner and illustrated by Miguel Perez, tells the story of Mario and Maisha and their unlikely friendship. They live in present-day Richmond, but through the magic powers of Misty Horn, they travel backward and forward through time to different eras of Richmond: Native American, 1915, 1942, and 2050. The book is directed to students age 9 to 12 and will be distributed to more than 4,500 fourth- and fifth-graders for summer reading. To purchase the book, call 486-2340 or write to A reading will be held at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, June 18 at the Richmond Public Library Terrrace, 325 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond.