The Portland Book Festival, presented by Literary Arts, is a coveted annual celebration of great literature, of storytelling, and of those who bring it to us. This year’s weeklong schedule of events, running from November 8-13, was packed full of writing classes, author discussions and youth storytimes, all leading up to the festival’s first in person event on Saturday, November 13. The in person day’s events treated book lovers to a huge book fair, author meet and greets, and singing vegetables. The following is a random sampling of just a few of the featured events:
Monday, November 8 — TAP @ PBF: Change With John Freeman
John Freeman, in discussion along with French author and translator Jakuta Alikavazovic; Yugoslav-born writer Lana Bastašić; and novelists and memoirist Aleksandar Hemon, spoke about language and the ways in which it changes “through generations, through geography, and through translation,” as explained by Literary Arts’ Director of Public Programs, Amanda Bullock at the start of the podcast. “I think it’s worth talking about this today in a world where borders are evermore ridiculously enforced and language is ever much more a virus that travels faster than ever.”
Tuesday, November 9 — TAP @ PBF: Witches With A.K. Blakemore & Rivka Galchen
OPB’s Crystal Ligori, in conversation with A.K. Blakemore, author of the novel, “The Manningtree Witches” and Rivka Galchen, author of the novel, “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch.” The focus of the discussion was on the two novels’ “Similarities, their differences, their intersections and also the entire vibe of witches then [in the time periods when the novels are set] and now,” as Ligori explains at the beginning of the podcast. When asked to define, What is a witch? Blakemore expounds on how the societal perceptions of witches during the 17th century were much different than those of today’s societal perceptions. At one point, Ligori asks the two novelists, “What do you think that we can learn today from these stories of women accused of witchcraft?” “I think something we’ve seen here [in the two novels], perhaps in a more subtle way . . . is a sort of disintegration of solidarity between communities and across communities. That was something that was reflected in these stories.”
Wednesday, November 10 — Home: Rita Dove, Lauren Groff, Qian Julie Wang
This virtual event was broadcast live from Annie Bloom’s Books located in Southwest Portland. True to the variety style show presentation advertised by Literary Arts, the three guest writers appeared remotely on a screen next to each host who spoke individually with them. While shoppers in the bookshop browsed the large selection of books, the three hosts engaged with each of the guest authors. Both the hosts and the authors were able to rise above the initial technical difficulties of the live broadcast to engage in vibrant and compelling conversations about the writing process of each of the authors’ books discussed. There was a Q&A held after each discussion where audience members attending virtually were able to pose questions via typed message for the authors. When writer and attorney Wang was asked where she found her voice as a writer, she responded, “I found my voice in the courtroom. It was through advocating for others that I learned to advocate for myself.” — Qian Julie Wang
Rita Dove’s latest book is “Playlist For The Apocalypse.” Dove, who is a former U.S. Poet Laureate discussed her new collection of poetry with National Book Award winner, Mary Szybist.
Qian Julie Wang, who is an author and litigator, discussed her debut memoir, “Beautiful Country,” which she penned during her subway commutes on her iPhone, with OPB’s Jenn Chavez.
Lauren Groff, a highly awarded author, who has written six books of fiction, discussed her latest novel, “Matrix” with Literary Arts Executive Director, Andrew Proctor.
Thursday, November 11 — Hidden Worlds: Julia Cooke, Ruth Ozeki, Asturo Riley
This literary event was broadcast live from Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland. Each writer spoke candidly about the journey that led to each of their latest books as well as their writing and research process. They also spoke about what influences and inspires their work as writers. The well considered and thought provoking questions posed by Amy Wang, Dave Miller, David Biespiel, as well as their virtual audience members made for rich and insightful discussions with each of the authors.
Journalist, essayist, and noteworthy travel writer, Julia Cooke, in conversation with The Oregonian’s Amy Wang, spoke about her latest book, “Come Fly The World: The Jet-Age Story of The Women of Pan Am.” Cooke spoke about a striking discovery she made while speaking with the women behind these stories saying, “A lot of these women told me that I was the first person to ask about these experiences in detail. I just really wanted to do justice to the diversity of the voices I was talking to.”
Ruth Ozeki, who is an award winning novelist, spoke about her latest book, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” with OPB’s Dave Miller, who is the host of “Think Out Loud.” While sharing her appreciation for books and the significant role they play in her writing process, Ozeki explained, “Books communicate . . . All books are in conversation with each other. I feel that way when I’m writing. All the books I’ve ever read are somehow informing what I’m writing.”
Atsuro Riley, winner of several prestigious writing awards including the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress, discussed his latest poetry collection, “Heard-Hoard,” with David Biespiel. When asked what a day in the life is like for him as a writer Riley responded, “I’m on the ‘forever plan’. [I] make myself available and read as much as I can. I cook a lot and I lie around in want.”
Friday, November 12 — Love & Loss: Jasmine Guillory, Danielle Henderson, Devon Walker-Figueroa
In the Portland Book Festival’s final installment for the week of the virtual variety-show style author discussions presented by Literary Arts, the event took place live from the global headquarters of Literary Arts in downtown Portland.
Jasmine Guillory, discussed her latest novel, “While We Were Dating,” with Kisha Jarrett. Guillory is a bestselling author often touted as the undisputed queen of the romance novel, whose work includes a series of African American romance novels as well as a collection of poetry. While commenting on her writing style, Guillory said, “I tend to write long, rambling first drafts. I change my mind a lot about things when I’m first writing.”
Danielle Henderson in conversation with “Live Wire Radio” hosts, Luke Burbank and Elena Passarello, discussed her memoir, “The Ugly Cry.” In addition to being a memoirist, Henderson is also a TV writer for such shows as “Manic,” “Dare Me,” and “Divorce.”
“Pop culture saved my life when I was a kid.” — Danielle Henderson
Devon Walker-Figueroa spoke with Jennifer Perrine about her poetry collection, “Philomath.” This poetry collection was a 2020 National Poetry Series selection and includes multiple themes as varied as naming, distance, and separation. Upon revealing that she is working toward her second Masters degree, and after being asked about the themes of learning and teaching in her poetry collection, Walker-Figueroa said,
“If I’m ever too old to be learning, I’m probably too old to be living.”
Saturday, November 13 — Portland Book Festival: In-Person Festival Day
On Saturday, November 13, the 2021 Portland Book Festival kicked off it’s first in person event since COVID-19 forced the previous year’s festivities to revert to all virtual programming as coordinated by Literary Arts. This highly anticipated day was filled with tons of literary activities including pop up readings, author discussions followed by author signings, and the West Coast debut of the Gastro Obscura vending machine.
While proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of attending the event were required, along with mask wearing, attendees flocked to the locations of both the Portland Art Museum and the Portland’5 Theatre. With the mild weather bringing a welcome reprieve from the previous day’s deluge of rain, attendees eager to sample the literary scene were met by authors, moderators, book fair vendors and publishers just as eager to engage in all things literary. The following are just a few of the Saturday activities that took place:
Dispatches From Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin
In attendance to discuss their contributions to the books’ collection of sci-fi, fantasy, and realism short stories, which pay homage to Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, were authors Rene Denfeld, Juhea Kim, Jason Arias, and Jessie Kwak. This event was moderated by Arwen Spicer, who also provided her own short story to the collection. Spicer led a lively discussion that focused on how Le Guin influenced and inspired these writers and how her work has left a lasting and memorable impression on the literary community in general. While engaging in conversation with each other and with the audience, each of the authors spoke of how a sense of humanity, identity, and of feeling worthwhile were central themes for their short stories.
Just a few noteworthy comments from the discussion were:
“Sci fi at its core still deals with what it means to be human [and] turns it around on its head.” — Jessie Kwak
“I’ve always sought it [sci fi] out for the human aspect. We can seek out ourselves.” — Jason Arias
[On fiction writing]: “We can create a reality that allows us to access the truth.” — Rene Denfeld
[On the writing process]: “If it makes you uncomfortable to write, maybe figure out why, and do it anyway.” — Juhea Kim