The annual Portland Book Festival settled back into the comfort of Portland—and the Portland Art Museum—just in time for its Nov. 8–13 gathering. This year’s itinerary was loaded with the showcasing of new talent, tributes to legendary storytellers and retrospection on what the past year has meant for all of us.
Split between virtual live streams and radio broadcasts during the week and in-person panels on the final day, PDX BookFest—hosted by Portland nonprofit Literary Arts—welcomed over 50 authors for its 2021 run. Videos of live-streamed events and audio recorded interviews from Literary Arts’ podcast, The Archived Project, are linked on the PDX BookFest website.
Kicking off each virtual event were a series of conversations with an array of authors and moderators. Each evening’s event consisted of three separate back-to-back interviews with three authors, all surrounding core themes.
Monday’s kickoff conversation, entitled “Tenderness,” explored how real life informs a writer’s voice, with Brandon Taylor, author of Filthy Animals.
Taylor described a sort of “laxness” in his writing, coming from his Southern upbringing. Not feeling beholden to fit in with other styles of narrative making, Taylor aims for a “mix [of] registers,” based on the way he grew up hearing stories.
“Someone would be talking like a preacher one minute and then talking like a bar owner the next,” Taylor said. Though he proclaimed he’d never had “a robust southern accent,” Taylor felt deeply aware of the way that people sound, which can “betray you to people who know what to look for.”
Taylor spoke of the way his upbringing primed him to be aware of stories—and their power.
“There is a certain humor to [my storytelling], a sort of brutal humor,” Taylor said. “And I think that in the South, you laugh to keep from crying sometimes.”
Tuesday’s panel, “Freedom,” featured Aminder Dhaliwal and her web comic-turned-graphic novel, Cyclopedia Exotica, set in a world of one-eyed cyclops and their two-eyed human counterparts, where those with singular anatomies face discrimination and are encouraged to assimilate into a society that favors paired features.
Dhaliwal expressed varied emotions when asked how she felt about the daily comic she started in 2018 being published—especially amid a racial reckoning and rise in anti-Asian racism. As she found herself in promotional spaces where she was asked about Cyclopedia Exotica’s relevance to current events, Dhaliwhal clarified her inspiration as personal experience.
“[Current events are] not why I made the book, it’s just unfortunate that the timing fit that way,” Dhaliwal said. “But I’m also glad, I guess, that it did because it’s relevant. It’s giving me mixed feelings. At the end of the day, it’s sad, but it’s still so relatable.”
Dhaliwal can’t say for sure if readers are better prepared to read Cyclopedia Exotica with its debut post-2020 as opposed to if it had been released earlier, but she is hopeful for readers to enjoy its world if they are.
“I’m just hoping in every way that this book finds the people it needs to find,” she said.
Wednesday’s panel, “Home,” featured former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove discussing Playlist For The Apocalypse, her first poetry collection published in 12 years, with fellow poet Mary Szybist.
In a poem Dove read aloud early in the conversation, she alluded to coping with changes, and being in spaces that are both familiar and unfamiliar. The poem refers to when Dove lost her house in a fire years earlier, though she feels the resonance with it in other circumstances—how personal losses and changes in bodily autonomy can evoke similar sensations. No matter how you move forward from that change, those past versions of your life can’t quite return or be revived in the same way.
“When the pandemic came and took us all by surprise, I think we all began to look inside ourselves and analyze ourselves in a way and [reflect on] ourselves,” Dove said about the title of her book.
The poems she had written through the years, tucked away and revisited for the collection during the pandemic, had become a playlist for her. She also felt they’d become a playlist for anyone else who is searching for poetry to accompany them as they reflect on their feelings.
However, Dove also believes the word apocalypse reveals things about oneself and their world, something the poems did for her—and something she hopes readers take away from them as well.
On the final day, the venue was not quite at full capacity, yet the limitations were hard to notice as patrons filled event stands.
Amid Saturday’s festivities, a panel featured contributors of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, an anthology penned by a dozen Oregonian authors, and inspired by Le Guin’s science-fiction, fantasy and speculative works, with short stories in a variety of subgenres.
Jason Arias, Rene Denfeld, Juhea Kim and Jessie Kwak took turns fielding questions from moderator Arwen Spicer as well as the audience. All were clearly passionate about paying tribute to the Portland-based writer, who died in 2018.
“She was able to take a societal issue and kind of turn it all the way around 360° to find the holes in utopias,” said Arias of LeGuin’s approach to depicting utopian societies.
Kwak offered similar sentiments, reflecting on how the layered moral ambiguity in Le Guin’s stories made her stand out among other authors who wrote utopias.
According to Kwak, her utopias offer a view at what it would be to have “a decent chance to live a decent life,” in harmony, where people’s needs are taken care of.
“It’s not terribly oppressive, and there’s a sense of sustainability and mutual respect for other life forms in the world around you,” Kwak said. “And it doesn’t have to be perfect, there will be problems. One of the things she observed is that any society has to make choices about what values it’s going to emphasize and what it’s not going to emphasize.”
Featured in the festival lineup was an event with Louise Erdrich, author of over a dozen novels spanning multiple genres—including National Book Award recipient The Round House and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Night Watchman—and owner of Birchbark Books & Native Arts, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In a live broadcast from her hometown, Erdrich spoke to a packed Newmark Theatre to discuss her latest release, The Sentence, hosted by poet Trevino L. Brings Plenty.
Erdrich’s latest novel follows Tookie, a Native woman recently freed from incarceration who comes to work at a small, independent bookstore in Minneapolis. Shortly after her arrival, the store becomes haunted by its most obnoxious customer, Flora, who dies suddenly on All Saints Day. Set from Nov. 2019 to Nov. 2020, Erdrich also doesn’t shy away from immersing her characters in a realistic version of the time frame. As she launches her investigation into Flora’s death, Tookie and her co-workers cope with the effects of the pandemic and protests.
In conversation, Erdrich thought retrospectively on the past two years and the process of developing her novel.
“This is a really important time for labor, for people who are able to get back some of their lives during this time to see what it means,” Erdrich said. “It’s incredibly precious to be here, and to have the emotional freedom to read poetry or bring art into our lives, too.”
At the same time, there were a lot of losses to process. “Something that became tragic and visible and strange was that we lost so many of our national elders,” Erdrich said. “For tribal people, this was an incalculable loss. Because we lost so many of our languages, our first language speakers, we lost so many of our people with ceremonial knowledge, people’s ceremonial knowledge and people with family memories, disappeared in an awful way.”
Erdrich said we haven’t reckoned enough with what this means, that people continue to say to her that they just want to forget this whole time period and never talk about it again.
“But part of the reason that this book exists is because I don’t want to forget it,” Erdrich said. “I don’t want to forget it at all, I want to remember and I want to take our lessons and think about it. Because this is always going to be there going forward, and if we don’t think about it and learn from it, we can’t go forward.”
In the spare hours between events, guests explored booths from Oregon-based book industry creators, organizations and publishers at Literary Arts’ book fair—including Oni Press, Microcosm Publishing and Portland State’s own Ooligan Press. Annie Bloom’s, Broadway Books, Green Bean Books and Powell’s hosted pop-up shops with the latest releases from PDX BookFest’s panelists available to purchase.
Employees excitedly talked to intrigued readers about their newest releases and recommended favorites, while others camped out with books in their arms, sneaking in chapters before the authors themselves would make an appearance. In the time away from sharing physical space with other readers, it was evident that PDX BookFest worked hard to show an abundance of love to its local literary community.