“To be curious about something is to take a step forward,” said Carrie Brownstein, the memoirist, musician, and actor best known for Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney, at the First Congregational United Church of Christ during Portland’s annual book festival, Wordstock.
Questions of curiosity, progress, what it means to be human and how literature can provoke important conversations were recurrent themes during Literary Arts’ day-long, multi-venue event that took over the southwest Park Blocks on Saturday, Nov. 5.
In the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, Christopher Rothko, son of the famous painter Mark Rothko and author of Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, said his father’s work, like all significant art, offers viewers a place to stop thinking and consider: What makes you deeply human?
“I think we’re still very much living in a time that needs him,” Rothko told the New York Times and repeated to his Wordstock audience.
In the Portland’5 Winningstad Theater, Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton discussed their new book, The Gutsy Girl, which empowers girls and women by encouraging them to seek adventure, take risks, and make bravery part of their vocabulary.
“[The book presents] ways to teach girls to look at situations with courage instead of fear,” Paul said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re scared. That’s normal.”
Also, prompting readers to embrace difficult words, author Amber Keyser discussed her book The V-Word. It’s a collection of seventeen accounts of first-time sex that covers a range of sexual identities and experiences and aims to deepen our understanding of sex, what it can really be like, and provoke meaningful conversations about it.
“I want to see us talk about sex a lot more—with good language,” Keyser said. “I wish I had a book like this.”
But one of the most popular and conversation-provoking events of the day was the reading and discussion between authors Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi, moderated by Rukaiyah Adams, which filled the Arlene Schnitzer auditorium.
Both writers have new books featuring female heroes, grappling with the history of slavery over multiple continents and hundreds of years, including its legacy and modern remnants.
Based on rigorous research, Whitehead’s novel plays with reality and what we think we know to be true. He was interested in capturing a larger American truth and the brutality of how the black body has been treated. He said he didn’t need to force comparisons between law enforcement of the past and the police today. They are evident, and his work seeks to provide a context for what we’re dealing with now.
“Living in Portland, where a lot of people have no context for what’s happening now and understanding some of the historical things that have gone on, books like this are really important,” said Chrystal Bell, a Wordstock patron. “There’s so much relevance to what’s happening now.”
Adams commented that she felt implicated as a bystander of the violence Whitehead describes while reading. “It did challenge me to think if we were the townspeople watching the lynchings,” Adams said.
“I was particularly struck by the contemporary application of both of the texts,” said Béalleka, another member of the audience. “There’s clearly a fascination in this period and also trying to get a sense of what we don’t know and what we don’t talk about. The amnesia of public memory in America is such that we need literature that is going back to that period that we think has ended, and yet so clearly has not. The repercussions are still reverberating through society all the time.”
Gyasi’s novel explores the theme of motherlessness, pressing a matrifocal perspective of slavery and how it impacted women. “One of the great tragedies of slavery is the way it fractured families,” Gyasi said.
Béalleka found it significant that both novels are about gender too, and specifically focus on the black woman’s experience. “It’s important that we’re not reading either of these works as just historically informative, but rather emotionally effective because they are about trauma and we’re living with that trauma and we need to talk about it,” Béalleka said.
Adams emphasized this emotional experience of reading the books by pointing out passages that were especially powerful. “You broke my heart,” she said to each author more than once.
Both authors emphasized that their work is about the search for freedom, a place to call home where we can be ourselves, and the human need for safety. Whitehead pointed out that one group’s oppression is everyone’s oppression. “The oppression of black people is the oppression of women is the oppression of Jews,” Whitehead said.
Festival-goers hope books like these will inspire a much-needed national dialogue.
“It would be good if this would be the beginning, rather than the end of a conversation,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, another attendee. “I do think there’s an opportunity to do some education that really grounds people and ultimately we get to that beloved community.”
For Hardesty, books like these aren’t just entertainment. It’s important to sit with the discomfort of reading about subjects like slavery so that we’re called to talk to one another and take responsibility.
“Put yourself in that situation so that we can expand our empathy for people that are different from ourselves,” Hardesty said.
The project of stepping outside of one’s self, seeking new experiences and perspectives, and cultivating conversation and debate is at the heart of the Wordstock book celebration.
“If you use empathy and intelligence, you can write about anything,” Whitehead said.