2017 Oregon Book Awards

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George and Jennifer outside the Gerding Theater.

It wasn’t the Oscars and it wasn’t the Grammys. But it was my first time attending an awards event and it was pretty cool.

On Monday night, I joined my friend Jennifer Brennock at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards, held at the Gerding Theater in Northwest Portland.

No red carpet in sight. But in the lobby there was a pop-up book sale going on staffed by the folks from Broadway Books, my neighborhood book store. Also, there were plenty of animated conversations going on among book nerds of all ages, young adults to retirees.

For those of us who love words, it was a night to celebrate seasoned pros, first-time authors and everyone in between who strives to inform and inspire us readers with works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. If you’ve ever written seriously — whether for work or as a hobby — you know the feeling of facing a blank screen and wondering when or how the first words will materialize.

If you’re patient, they will come. Eventually.

Knowing a little something about what that’s like, I felt nothing but admiration for these accomplished writers who faced the blank screen and won the stare-down. These are the diligent, creative folks whose characters, plots, scenes and dialogues — imagined or real — come to life on the page, often after years of research. Such work is impressive and every one of the Oregon Book Award finalists deserved the whistles, whoops and hollers they received.

***

Before the event, I met Jennifer at a coffee-and-wine bar a short walk from the Gerding. We met several years ago when I attended a writing workshop she was leading on Orcas Island. I was impressed by the way she led the class and since then I have been dazzled by her writing.

Read Jennifer’s contribution (“Baby Shower”) to my Voices of August guest blog project.

She’s taught English at the community college level and I’m now teaching communications classes at two universities, so we have that connection, too. Jennifer’s students are blessed to have someone whose writing prompts challenge them to think and feel deeply and whose own intelligence and passion explode off the page.

The awards program, sponsored by Literary Arts, itself was entertaining — probably more so than you’d think given the absence of live music, video clips or other such stuff that you see at the Academy Awards.

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The Portland nonprofit Literary Arts sponsors the Oregon Book Awards.

A California author, Lysley Tenorio, was a charming master of ceremonies, filling the same role as Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres and others have done at the Oscars.

Anis Mojgani, a spoken word artist based in Portland, performed a poem. Téa Johnson, a Grant High School senior, reprised her winning entry in the citywide high school poetry slam competition known as Verselandia.

Read a profile of Téa Johnson in Grant Magazine.

Finalists were announced in eight categories, and the judge for each one read an excerpt from the winner’s book before calling that person to the stage.

Turns out that I had met — ever so briefly — the winner in the first category. Kate Berube took home the award for Children’s Literature for her book “Hannah and Sugar.” Last summer, I took part in a fundraising trivia contest sponsored by a nonprofit that provides books to low-income children. Kate, an author and illustrator, was at that same fundraiser and donated a portion of profits from her sales that night to the same cause.

Even better, Jennifer knew the woman who won the Creative Nonfiction award. That would be Walidah Imarisha, who is currently a lecturer at Stanford but also has taught at Portland State and Oregon State universities. Walidah was honored for “Angels Without Dirty Wings,” a book about life behind prison walls that weaves together the stories of three people — her incarcerated brother and his fellow inmate and herself..

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Reunited: Jennifer Brennock and Walidah Imarisha

Jennifer and Walidah have known each other since graduate school. In the lobby afterwards, the two embraced and Walidah autographed the book I bought on the spot. Gotta make room for it on my always crowded bookshelf.

***

Two quick anecdotes that illustrate what a small world we live in:

Walidah’s companion that evening was a young man who had participated years ago in a summer journalism program for minority high school students that brought him to The Oregonian, my former employer  John Joo, then a student at Beaverton High School, remembered me from the program — probably one of those times when I popped into a room of teenagers wolfing down pizza and soda during a visit to the newsroom and said a few words. What a great memory.

Before leaving, I introduced myself to Cindy Williams Gutiérrez, the only Latina/o among the Oregon Book Award winners. Cindy is a poet who’s worked with Milagro Theater, the bilingual theater group where my wife and I saw a recent production. Her new book, “Words That Burn,” dramatizes the World War II experiences of three men, including Lawson Inada, a Japanese American internee who later taught at Southern Oregon College, where Jennifer met him as an undergraduate student.

Cindy chatted warmly, jotted her email address on a card, and invited me to get in touch. I think I’ll do just that.

All in all, a fun evening spent in the company of someone who loves words as much as I do. Who needs the red carpet anyway?

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