Walidah Imarisha and a call to action

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Walidah Imarisha was the keynote speaker at Portland State University’s annual MLK Jr. Tribute on Jan. 22, 2018.

Last summer I got the chance to meet Walidah Imarisha, a Black Studies scholar and author, at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards.

A friend invited me to attend the event and we chatted with Walidah in the lobby as she received congratulations from well-wishers. I left with an autographed copy of the book, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and the hope that I would have a chance to run into her again.

That opportunity came Monday night at Portland State University. Walidah was the keynote speaker at the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, an event that filled a ballroom on Jan. 22, one week after the holiday commemorating King’s birthday.

Walidah did not disappoint.

During an hourlong speech titled “Afrofuturism & Possibilities for Oregon,” Walidah mixed elements of history, science fiction, humor and seriousness. Along with references to civil rights icons Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Dr. King, there was a mention of Ursula LeGuin, the celebrated author of socially conscious fantasy and science fiction novels. (Oddly, LeGuin died at her Portland home on the same day of the speech. She was 88, the same age Dr. King would be today had he had not been assassinated 50 years earlier.)

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Walidah Imarisha weaved several references to science fiction into her Jan. 22 speech at Portland State.

With an elegant Afro reminiscent of Angela Davis, Walidah alternated between the language of academia (“postcolonialism”) and everyday expressions (“nerding out” and “y’all”).  Mix everything together and the product was an entertaining, informative speech that made me glad I had read her book beforehand.

***

“Angels with Dirty Faces” is an eloquent critique of the U.S. criminal justice system. Ten years in the making, it’s a nonfiction book that begins with an array of statistics that paint a depressing picture – that of a country that incarcerates its citizens, particularly its black and brown ones, at a rate far greater than any other nation.

  • 70 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.
  • The majority of people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses.
  • The vast majority were never tried in front of a judge.
  • Over 90 percent of people in prison took a plea bargain.

But the book doesn’t dwell on policy recommendations or offer a magic bullet. Rather, its aim is to get readers to begin to see “those people who do harm” as human. “Flawed, damaged, and culpable, but still human.”

angels with dirty facesAnd so the book is presented as “three stories of crime, punishment and redemption,” with chapters devoted to a black inmate, a white inmate and the author herself.

One inmate, Kakamia, is Walidah’s adopted brother, serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for being involved in a murder when he was 15.  The other is Mac, an aging Irish mobster who worked as a hit man for the Gambino family in New York. Turns out the two men befriended each other while doing time together in a California prison.

Walidah tells their stories with empathy, not to excuse their criminal acts, but within the context of a bureaucratic system that dehumanizes the men and women who populate our nation’s prisons while also needlessly erecting petty barriers that make it next to impossible for visiting family members to connect meaningfully with their incarcerated spouses, children, parents and siblings.

It’s not a pretty picture. Walidah attacks the institutional racism that drives incarceration at starkly different rates for white and black Americans.

In telling her own story, Walidah recounts her childhood as the daughter of a black father and white mother, growing up on military bases overseas and eventually, at age 13, settling in Springfield, a conservative blue-collar town adjacent to liberal Eugene, home of the University of Oregon.

The overall approach – to put three faces on the criminal justice system – works well in driving the narrative. What could have been another academic treatise on a broken system instead becomes a compelling tale of two men – one black, one white – and a woman who is at once a scholar, an activist and a prisoner’s family member.

It helps that Walidah is a talented writer. She concludes:

“The pieces of the larger whole I hope to bring are the stories of angels with dirty faces. The capriciousness of fate. The idea that every person has the capacity to salvage their tattered humanity even in the moment before they take their last breath.”

***

Knowing Walidah’s personal story and worldview ahead of time made it easier to ponder the provocative questions that she raised in her MLK speech: What is the kind of world we want to live in? How do we go about building that kind of world?

The questions, she said, arose from an appreciation of Ursula LeGuin’s body of work in creating fictional worlds that turn convention on its head. Imarisha, in fact, is co-editor of the anthology “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.”

“Science fiction is not about escapism,” Walidah said. It is about envisioning a world of new possibilities free of militarism, capitalism and racism, she said. As I am not a fan of the fantasy genre, I had never thought of science fiction as a way to frame the idea of imagining a different, better world, especially when it comes to race relations.

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Walidah Imarisha invoked the words of the late fantasy fiction author Ursula LeGuin in challenging her audience to envision a more just world.

Walidah pointed out that the United States was founded as something of a utopia in the sense of ordinary people rebelling against an oppressive system in England. In turn, the Oregon Territory, encompassing the entire Pacific Northwest, was settled as a “racist white utopia.” Oregon, she pointed out, entered the Union in 1857 as a free state but also with a state constitution that excluded blacks.

The state’s racist beginnings led, perhaps predictably, to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and any number of policies and practices intended to perpetuate economic, social and political inequalities.

More than 160 years later, the question remains of how to build a more just society.

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Last fall, the Portland African American Leadership Forum unveiled the People’s Plan, a 130-page document that addresses the needs of the city’s African American population.

***

Walidah is an impressive figure, and not just because of her tall stature. As a public speaker, she seems comfortable in her own body and totally in command of her subject.

I wish I’d started teaching at Portland State when Walidah was still there herself in the Black Studies Department. More recently, she has been teaching at Stanford University while immersing herself in a variety of writing and research projects.

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Walidah Imarisha’s image is projected on a screen in an overflow room at the Smith Memorial Union Ballroom at Portland State University.

Putting a nice cap on the evening, I took my daughter out for drinks and appetizers after the speech. Simone is as socially conscious as they come and over the years she has gifted me several books that have exposed me to different authors and perspectives.

What better way to close out the night than with mi hija, recalling different parts of the speech and catching up in general?

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We’re all dreamers, aren’t we?

More than a week after I finished my first novel of 2018, I’m sitting down to gather my thoughts. There is so much good to say about “Behold the Dreamers,” the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant with some serious writing chops. And there are so many ways to begin this post.

Do I reference President Trump’s ugly remarks last week about people from “shithole countries”?

Do I reference the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech? (After all, I am writing this on the national holiday named for him.)

Or do I frame this in the context of the universal American Dream, the one to which generations of native-born and foreign-born Americans have aspired?

Maybe it’s best to keep all three in mind, for Mbue’s novel touches on the sentiments of all of them — from crass ignorance and resentment of outsiders to the amazing work ethic and striving for a better life embodied by so many newcomers to the United States.

***

Let’s start with the author. Imbolo Mbue is in her mid-30s. She hails from Limbe, a beach town of about 85,000 residents (a little smaller than Salem, Oregon) in southwestern Cameroon, a California-sized country in central Africa that borders Nigeria, and a former colony of Germany, France and England.

cameroon-location-on-the-africa-mapMbue has degrees from Rutgers University in New Jersey and Columbia University in New York City, where she now lives. She became a U.S. citizen in 2014.

“Behold the Dreamers,” published in 2016, won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian and several other news outlets.

The awards are richly deserved. Mbue has written a book rich with insight into both American and Cameroonian culture, laced it with diction from her native country (a place where more than 200 languages are spoken, by the way), and delved into the minds and attitudes of people at both extremes of the socioeconomic scale.

***

The story is a familiar one. Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant, has come to New York City with his wife Neni and their 6-year-old son, hoping to provide a better life for his family. Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a workaholic executive at Lehman Brothers, but he also has the responsibility of driving Clark’s wife, Cindy, and their two sons on assorted trips across the city. Cindy at one point offers Neni temporary employment at the couple’s summer home in the Hamptons.

With these dual sources of income, and with Neni taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a pharmacist, the young immigrants make do in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment in Harlem but are nevertheless optimistic about their future in America.

But there are two complications: Jende lied to Cameroonian authorities about his intentions in the U.S., so now he must rely on a sketchy legal adviser to help him gain permanent resident status or risk deportation, along with his wife and son. The other issue is that the story begins in the fall of 2007, a year before Barack Obama was elected president and the country was relatively stable. And timing is everything.

behold the dreamersAs the story progresses, the Great Recession takes hold and Mbue presents the perspectives of both couples.

From Cindy and Clark, we get the view from Wall Street and Manhattan; their affluence is beyond imaginable and the privileges that money brings seem to have no end.

From Jende and Neni, we get the view of constant struggle; nothing comes easily, whether it’s navigating the immigration system, trying to understand the ways of their new country, or conducting themselves in ways that will impress white Americans, or at least not threaten them.

With an extraordinary display of empathy, Mbue does not pass judgment on any of the four characters, She depicts their contrasting worlds — of the 1 percenters and of the newly arrived immigrants — not just through descriptive detail but also, more tellingly, through interactions and conversations between the husbands and the wives.

The lives of all four characters are inevitably affected by the tanking economy, and that’s when things get interesting.

Will Clark lose his job at Lehman Brothers? Will Jende lose his? How can Cindy maintain the appearance of a perfect life marked by material possessions and social outings with her equally rich friends? How can Neni stay on track toward her academic and career goals?

***

The beauty of the book is that it raises fundamental questions about the American Dream for both couples. Just what defines happiness? Is it money? Is it a feeling of belonging? Does professional success guarantee contentment? Does making a new life in America mean forsaking the previous one you had in the country when you were born?

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The writer Imbolo Mbue.

To her credit, Mbue presents the humanity in all her characters, as well as the path of upward mobility traveled by both couples. But it is in portraying the multiple pressures on the Jongas and the excruciating decisions they must face about family, finances and their future that she really shines.

I couldn’t help but read this book with a sense of appreciation for what immigrants have given this country along with a feeling of disgust toward those racist elements of our society that would gleefully slam the door shut on today’s immigrants — and even give the boot to DACA Dreamers.

All of us who are here in the United States aspire to some version of the American Dream, the idea that each generation strives to create a better future for our children. We may differ in the value we place on various material, social and familial markers, but I think it’s fair to say we are all dreamers, aren’t we?

Read more about Imbolo Mbue here.

Map: ontheworldmap.com

2017: A year of transitions

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In a year of transitions, Lori and George celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in September.

This year has felt like no other.

Seeing the White House change hands from the most inspiring president of my lifetime to the least qualified and least compassionate was bad enough. Watching that train wreck of a human being proceed to drive even deeper wedges into an already splintered populace — well, that was even worse.

But I’m not here to dwell on politics.

No, not even Trump can take the luster off a year that produced plenty of memorable moments for the extended Rede family.

Yes, there was sadness with the passing of my dad, Catarino Allala Rede, just six days after he turned 91 in March.

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The scene at the funeral home in Silver City, New Mexico.

But even then, there was a silver lining to his passing. I got to do a mini-road trip with daughter Simone to and from the Phoenix airport to Dad’s home in southwestern New Mexico. There, we were reunited with my stepmother, my two sisters, a niece, a nephew, and assorted cousins that I hadn’t seen for several years.

It’s funny how life’s milestones — births, weddings and deaths — are those that bring families together from near and far. But when your siblings and other relatives are spread out all along the West Coast — from Alaska to Southern California — that’s the way it is.

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With my sisters Cathy (from Dillingham, Alaska) and Rosemary (from Oceanside, California).

Aside from Dad’s death, this year of transitions was dominated by our youngest son’s graduation from college, followed just days later by his move to Middle America.

In May, Jordan graduated with a degree in biology from St. Martin’s College, a small Benedictine school outside Olympia, Washington, where he had commuted for four years from his home in Spanaway, near Tacoma. It was a remarkable accomplishment for someone who began college just months after completing a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, including a one-year posting in Afghanistan, and who became a father during his junior year.

 

We had barely had time to celebrate before Lori and I returned to Spanaway to help Jordan and Jamie pack up their house for a 2,000-mile move to the University of Missouri. There in Columbia, Jordan would do science research in a fellowship program designed to help students prepare for the rigors of graduate school.

Father and son embarked on a four-day road trip, with me driving a 20-foot U-Haul truck and Jordan driving the family’s Honda Fit, packed to the gills and including their two dogs and one cat. I had envisioned the trip as an upbeat adventure, but it quickly took a dark turn when the U-Haul truck got a flat tire on the first day and again on the second day in remote areas of Idaho and Montana.

We made it on schedule, but only after pounding through really long third and fourth days where sightseeing took a back seat to the urgency of sticking to our schedule. We arrived late on a Friday, unloaded the truck’s contents on Saturday, and I flew home early Sunday.

 

How I wish Dad had lived to see his youngest grandchild graduate from college and become a father, as well.

As for the rest of 2017, well, it’s no wonder it feels like these 12 months flew by. Lots of memories and two end-of-year milestones.

Travel: We stuck close to home with three trips to our quiet cabin on Orcas Island. We always look forward to the week-long respite from urban life. The trips entails a 250-mile drive to Anacortes, where we board the ferry for a one-hour sailing to the island, and then an additional 45-minute drive to our place above Eagle Lake.

Pictures are worth a thousand words.

 

In early December, Lori and I returned to Missouri for a quick pre-Christmas visit. It was a joy to spend time with our sweet granddaughter, Emalyn, and her loving parents.

Books: Literature is a passport of its own, with talented authors opening doors to unfamiliar places, people and experiences. Among those I enjoyed this year were: “Among the Living and the Dead,” a memoir by my Latvian-American friend and former colleague, Inara Verzemnieks; “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” the last in the trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers churned out by the late Stieg Larsson; “Hillbilly Elegy,” a window into the Appalachian hillbilly culture written by one who escaped, J.D. Vance;  “Lab Girl,” a peek into the world of Hope Jahren, a pioneering research scientist; and “Evicted,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of American poverty through the  racist practice of eviction. (Racist? Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.)

 

Music: I like to think I have broad tastes, though family members would disagree.  But, what the heck. I think I did pretty well catching a handful of concerts featuring artists ranging from Janet Jackson and Coldplay to Lady Antebellum, Michelle Branch, Tuxedo, Liz Longley and ZZ Ward.

Movies: No links this year because I wasn’t as diligent as usual. But I did enjoy “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Detroit” and, most recently, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Visitors: We had a surprise visit in early May from Chiho Hayamizu, a lovely young lady from Japan who was just 20 when she came to live with our family during a year of study at Portland State University. Our oldest child, Nathan, was just 13 when Chiho moved in with us in the spring of 1993.

Chiho, now 44 but still looking 20 (and even 30) years younger, was back in town for an unofficial reunion with friends who’d also been exchange students in Portland.

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Lori and Chiho: Radiant smiles, no matter the location or the year.

In October, my best friend, Al Rodriguez, came up from Santa Barbara to spend a few days timed to coincide with the annual Voices of August writers meetup. It was great hanging out with my longtime buddy, whether it was grabbing lunch from the downtown food carts or attending opening night of the Trail Blazers’ 2017-18 season. (They actually won!)

 

In November, two of Lori’s best friends, Terry (Long) Mullaney and Lin Dillon, came up from San Francisco for a long weekend of sightseeing and hanging out. Lori and Terry grew up on the same city block, and the two of them met Lin at the all-girls high school they attended. Nice to see such an enduring friendship.

Voices: For the seventh consecutive year, I curated a month of guest blog posts during the month of August. It’s become something that I look forward to every year, the opportunity to be informed, inspired and entertained by a changing cast of friends, relatives and online acquaintances, with ages ranging from 14 to 65-plus. Each person writes on a topic of their choice and does so in a way that brings variety and texture to the whole.

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This year’s VOA peeps gathered Oct. 20 at McMenamin’s on Broadway. Front row, from left: Gosia Wozniacka, Elizabeth Gomez, Jennifer Brennock, Lynn St. Georges, Lori Rede, Lakshmi Jagannathan. Back row, from left: George Rede, John Killen, Bob Ehlers, Al Rodriguez, Keith Cantrell. Not pictured: Eric Wilcox.

This look back at 2017 wouldn’t be complete without two final notes:

— This is the year both Lori and I moved into a new age bracket: 65. She’s still rockin’ it as the owner of her personal training business and I’m enjoying my work as well, as an adjunct college instructor and part-time communications coordinator for a local education nonprofit.

— Chalk up another year with our two pets: Mabel, the mellowest of cats, and Charlotte, the energetic mutt who’s won our heart with her antics and underbite.

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Up to no good. Again.

 

 

Daring to be real in a world of perfection

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Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment” during a promotional event at Northeast Portland’s Fremont Theater.

We are curators. Each and every one of us who writes a blog, shares Instagram photos or posts to our Facebook wall is choosing what and when to publish. Nothing appears there by chance.

We control the content — every word, every image, every YouTube video, every comment that we allow on our social media sites.

And the result? More often than not, it’s an endless stream of feel-good moments and milestones.  We celebrate births and birthdays, weddings, graduations and milestones.

We share photos of where we’ve been, whom we were with, where we ate and what we ate.

Less often, we interrupt the bliss to write about a death of a family member or beloved pet, about the loss of a job or other personal setback.

Soon we’re back at it, posting images of sunsets and mountains, cocktails and casseroles.

So what?

So what if the curated version of our lives represents a selective scraping and molding of those experiences?

So what if that version offers a distorted representation of our daily lives, untethered to reality?

***

In a new and wise book, Portland writer Kate Carroll de Gutes cuts through the facade and delivers a bracing alternative to the happy-face fantasy.

the authenticity experimentThe result is a compelling, entertaining, inspiring collection of short pieces presented under the title “The Authenticity Experiment.”

It’s a slim volume of 166 pages of 47 posts, essays and blog entries — essentially the product of a 30-day challenge she gave herself during what she calls “the best and worst year of my life.”

Could she be more honest on social media following the deaths of her mother, her best friend and her editor-mentor, all occurring within a few months of each other? Could she share the duality of her life — both the light and the dark — in celebrating the praise lavished on her first book (“Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appears’) as well as mourning the loss of loved ones?

Yes, she could be and, yes, she was. Each page crackles with the authenticity of someone who has laid aside pretense and ego in favor of honesty and heartache. The essays undulate from sad to humorous, self-deprecating to self-reflective.

The chapters are organized by the season — essays published during the summer, fall, winter and spring — and the entries draw you in with such titles as “Dear Mom” and “Death Is Like This” and “Wiping Clean Regret.”

In a prologue to the book, Kate says:

“The essays you’ll find in this book are raw and filtered through my lens as I think on the page and try to understand the journey I’m on and how my own privilege and power plays a role in what I think about death, class, self-worth, perfectionism, and other topics we usually keep to ourselves.

“I don’t offer any answers, and I don’t always find my ways to conclusions, or to better thinking. It’s like hacking a path through the forest: you can’t always see where you’re doing, and you can’t always see how far you’ve come, but you know you’re on your way to somewhere.”

***

I loved the idea of the book and admired its execution. It felt especially real having just met the author just three weeks earlier.

I didn’t know of Kate or her work until a friend invited Lori and me to a book launch event in Northeast Portland.

Read the blog post New space, new author here.

Kate was charming and witty, and stuck around to autograph the many books she sold that night, including one to Lori. They connected over the fact that Kate had spent several years living in the North Beach neighborhood of Lori’s hometown, San Francisco.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer whose debut memoir, “Objects Closer in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and a 2016 Lambda Literary Award in Memoir.

I picked up the book on a quiet weekend at the Oregon Coast in early October, but didn’t finish it until sometime in November. I’ve mulled about it since then, wondering when to write about it and what to say.

Read the blog post NaBloPoMo here

As a fellow blogger who once also challenged myself to write daily for a month, I tip my hat to Kate. She’s done a wonderful job demonstrating how we can fully share our whole selves in this era of the “digital back fence.”

B/W photograph: katecarrolldegutes.com/

The Snapper

Sometimes all you want from a book is a little relief. Work can suck up a lot of energy, even if you like it. And life itself can be full of commitments and surprises.

With finals week at Portland State all done and a long-distance plane ride ahead of me, I was more than ready to pick up a lighthearted novel. Roddy Doyle’s “The Snapper” filled the bill.

the snapperEn route to and from Missouri, I enjoyed this breezy little book (216 pages) as if Doyle himself were reading it aloud and sharing pints with me at a Dublin pub. Unlike most novels, which are heavy on narrative and character development, this one feels like it’s nearly all dialogue. Make that effin’ funny, sometimes crass, but always honest, dialogue.

The story centers on a working-class Irish family and the recently announced pregnancy of the eldest daughter, 20-year-old Sharon. She’s unmarried and living at home, working at a retail job that bores her, and she’s decided to keep the identity of the father a secret.

Jimmy Sr., the Rabbitte family patriarch, struggles at first to accept the news. Ireland, after all, is a Catholic country and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is hardly something he’d celebrate with his drinking buddies. (Keep in mind, the novel was published in 1991, so many a real-life Irish family would have reacted in the same way.)

Friends and neighbors join the Rabbittes in speculating about the father’s identity. When Jimmy Sr. hears nasty things being said about Sharon, he gets into a fight at the local pub and comes home with a bloody nose, perceiving it as a badge of honor for defending his daughter’s reputation.

But instead of saying thanks, Sharon scolds her father, telling him to mind his own business because she’s an adult who can fight her own battles.

Jimmy Sr. shuts down in resentment, ignoring Sharon for weeks until she calls him on it. Chastened once again, he admits to himself that he’s embarrassed by Sharon’s situation. From then on, he adopts an entirely different attitude, coming to realize that his role to is support his daughter and love her baby, no matter who the father is.

It’s a sweet story with tender moments between father and daughter. The dialogue is wonderfully authentic, with more F-bombs than you can count — coming from Jimmy Sr. and his pals, as well as Sharon and her friends — and repeated references to Jaysis! (Jesus!)

***

Here’s one scene where Sharon and her friends are out drinking (yes, pregnant Sharon) and one of them, Jackie, is telling the group about breaking up with her boyfriend Greg at a cafe, after he’d accused her of stealing the cream out of his chocolate eclair.

“He stuck his tongue in me ear once,”  Jackie told them when they’d settled down again. “An’, I’m not jokin’ yis, I think he was trying’ to get it out the other one. I don’t know what he f***in’ thought I had in there.”

She laughed with them.

“He licked half me brains ou’. Like a big dog, yeh know.”

They roared.

Jackie waited.

“His sense o’ direction wasn’t the best either, d’yis know what I mean?”

They roared again.

“Jesus!”

“Jackie O’Keefe! You’re f****in’ disgustin’ ‘!”

 ***

Roddy Doyle is an accomplished writer with several novels, screenplays, film adaptations, TV scripts, children’s books and freelance articles to his credit.

I’d read Doyle once before, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Lots of sharp dialogue. Characters who are rough around the edges. Themes of love, loyalty and honesty.

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The Irish writer Roddy Doyle

It wasn’t until after I’d finished the novel that I realized I had no idea what the characters looked like. That is, Doyle made no effort to describe anyone’s physical attributes — hair color, body shape, etc. — and instead invested all his effort into creating conversational dialogue that captivated me from the opening sentence to the final page.

Who cares what Jimmy Sr. or Sharon looked like? What’s more important is how they navigated the stages of her surprise pregnancy while dealing with the ups and downs of their own relationship.

That is what really matters. And that is the sign of one helluva writer.

Photograph of Roddy Doyle: rte.ie

The staggering genius of Stieg Larsson

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Rooney Mara starred as Lisbeth Salander in the American film adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” released in 2011. (Merrick Morton / Associated Press)

I just finished the last of the three novels in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime thriller novels — and it only took me three years to do it!

It’s true.

I read the first novel in the fall of 2014, when Lori and I were vacationing on Orcas Island. I bought “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” at a used bookstore in Eastsound and was blown away. Larsson delivered a masterful narrative that was chilling and creepy, and built it around two intriguing characters — an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist and a reclusive genius hacker named Lisbeth Salander, the heavily tattooed girl referenced in the title.

It took me 18 months to get to the next one, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” Same characters as in the first book, picking up right where they left off after the murders of two journalists at Blomkvist’s crusading magazine and the fingerprints on the murder weapon belonging to none other than Salander.

It took me another 18 months to get around to the third and final novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Fittingly, I read it during our most recent vacation to Orcas. With a week of free time to burn in mid-September, I vowed to plow through the 563 pages.

“Plow” is hardly what happened. More like “got sucked into and couldn’t put it down.” Just like the first two, Larsson pulled me in fast and deep.

girl who kicked the hornets nestAs with the preceding installment, the third novel resumed where the second broke off, this time with Salander lying in critical condition in a hospital, with a bullet wound to her head, and fighting for her life. If and when she recovers, she’ll be put on trial for the murders of three men she killed in self-defense.

But the authorities don’t know the true circumstances of those deaths and prosecutors are busy preparing a case against her that looks airtight. It’s up to Blomkvist, who is going through personal turmoil and is under surveillance by some bad guys, to help prove Salander’s innocence. To do that, he needs to penetrate the dark world of Swedish intelligence agencies and unravel the connections between the trio of murders involving Salander and other killings that occur along the way.

This is high praise, but let me say each and every book is superb. They average just under 600 pages each. Taken together, they are extraordinary.

***

Who is Stieg Larsson?

I’d call him a genius.

Larsson was an investigative journalist in Sweden who died of a heart attack in 2004. He was only 50 years old and had just delivered the manuscripts for all three novels, intending that they published as a series.

Imagine that. Creating compelling characters, intriguing story lines, dozens of plot twists and harrowing cliffhangers. Stitching everything together in a total of 1,783 pages and doing it all at an incredibly high level of writing.

It’s a staggering accomplishment.

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The prodigiously talented Stieg Larsson. (Photo credit: The Australian)

As of March 2015, the Larsson novels had sold 80 million copies worldwide and 25 million in the U.S. alone since 2005, according to TIME magazine.

Larsson’s journalistic background shows in the muscular sentences, precise wording and descriptive detail found in each novel. The newsroom scenes at Millennium magazine, where Blomqvist works, were totally on the mark. His knowledge of police investigations, courtroom procedures and computer technology was impressive. And he possessed a vivid imagination that drove the intricate master plot.

In addition to being a first-rate journalist and novelist, Larsson was considered a leading expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations.

The world lost a great writer when Larsson died. You’d think the series would have ended with his passing 13 years ago, but no. Interestingly, Lisbeth Salander lives on in two more novels — one published in 2015 and the other released just last month —  both written by David Lagercrantz, a Swedish journalist recruited by Larsson’s publisher.

I did a double take when I saw the newest one displayed at a grocery store. Absorbed as I was in the original trilogy, I hadn’t realized that the series continued with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” (2015) and “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.” (2017).

I’m not sure how I feel about that. It was so satisfying to read the original series, even if it did take three years. I can’t imagine the next two novels being as good, but I could be wrong.

All I know is that each of the Larsson novels was incredibly satisfying despite sometimes gory content. The late author has given us an unforgetable anti-heroine in Lisbeth Salander, a pixie-sized woman with a photographic memory, a fierce will to live, and an indelible dragon tattoo.

New space, new author

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Kate Carroll de Gutes welcomes the crowd to her Sept. 14 book launch at the Fremont Theater.

Last Thursday was one of those nights that captures the essence of what it’s like to live in this city: a melding of books, bites, music and friends, all done without leaving our zip code.

Our friend Molly Holsapple invited Lori and me to join her and others at a book launch featuring local author Kate Carroll de Gutes at the Fremont Theater. And, oh, could we meet beforehand for drinks and a light dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street?

Well, sure.

I hadn’t heard of de Gutes and I didn’t even realize the Fremont Theater existed. Unbeknownst to me, it opened as part of a new building that went up about two years ago at the corner of Northeast Fremont Street and 24th Avenue, about a mile from our home,

Going to this free event would be a good way to get acquainted with both author and venue. Turns out both were eye-openers.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment.”

Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer who was promoting a new book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” a collection of essays that began as a 30-day blogging challenge to be more honest about her life. Her first collection of essays, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” had won an Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction and a Literary Lambda Award for memoir/biography.

On Thursday, de Gutes was finishing a three-city tour of Bend, Seattle and Portland with a book reading that felt like we were in someone’s living room.

The Fremont Theater seats about 120 people in an intimate space with a small stage at one end and a bar at the other. The building has a 22-foot-tall ceiling and two levels. Little did I know this place has been hosting live music, theater and other events for some time.

In fact, the evening began with a short set performed by local folk musicians Steve Einhorn and Kate Power, a married couple who are also former owners of Artichoke Music in Southeast Portland. The duo set a warm, welcoming tone with four songs featuring vocals, acoustic guitars and Steve’s ukelele.

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Kate Power and Steve Einhorn performed four songs as a warm-up for the book reading.

de Gutes was charming and relaxed, with a large number of friends in the audience. Hip from head to toe, came out in a bow tie and polka dot shirt, Levi’s and a pair of black Converse. Her essays were beautifully written — concise, compelling, humorous, sad and, above all, authentic — in tackling topics of death, friendship, family and grief. Within a single year, she said, her mother, best friend and editor-mentor all died. Blogging was a way to cope.

“I kept writing because it kept me sane,” she said.

We bought the new book and Kate signed it. Lori’s already read it and pronounced it a winner. I’m still pounding through a 500-pages-plus novel but plan to dive into Kate’s book next.

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Kate Carroll de Gutes signs her new book for a new fan, Lori.

Thanks all around …

— To Molly for introducing us to a new author here in our city.

— To Broadway Books, our neighborhood independent bookstore, for supporting writers like this one and promoting literacy in our city.

— To Kate Carroll de Gutes, for doing what nonfiction writers do best — reveal something of themselves in order to address common themes that bring us together as human beings.

 

In Latvia, one family’s story of war, loss and survival 

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Inara Verzemnieks signs a copy of her book following her reading at Powell’s Books.

If you’re like most Americans, you need a map to remind yourself where the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are. These three countries, lying south of Finland and abutting the western border of Russia, were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until declaring their independence in 1991.

If you’re like me, you are unfamiliar with the history, geography and culture of Latvia, a country about one-fourth the size of Oregon and with half as many people — 2 million vs. the 4 million living in this state.

But if you’re me, then you count yourself lucky for two reasons: One, for having met a talented journalist whose upbringing in Washington state by Latvian refugees served as a singular reminder of that country’s presence. Two, for having seen that young woman evolve from the earliest stages of a reporting career to a nonfiction writing professor and author of a book about one family’s tale of loss and survival during World War II and their reconnection after the war.

That writer is Inara Verzemnieks. The book is titled “Among The Living and The Dead.” And that family is hers.

amongthelivinganddeadReleased this summer, the book is a profound memoir that is at once eye-opening, soul-searing, sad and uplifting. It is the story of Inara’s grandmother, and her great-aunt, Ausma, born 14 years apart in Latvia and how their family was ripped apart during the Second World War.

Livija fled Latvia with a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son (Inara’s father) to escape the bombs and general mayhem caused by Russian troops in their zeal to drive out the German forces that had earlier invaded the tiny country. Ausma was sent away to Siberia along with her parents and disabled older brother. The two sisters would not see each other again for more than 50 years.

It is a compelling work of literature, blending historical events and geopolitical drama with family stories, Latvian folk tales, and the retelling of wartime memories that left me in awe of the human will to survive in the face of daunting physical and emotional challenges.

In short, it’s everything I hoped for — and, frankly, have come to expect — from my talented friend.

***

Twenty years ago, Inara Verzemnieks joined The Oregonian as a police reporter in one of the newspaper’s suburban bureaus. She had graduated from the University of Washington in 1996 and excelled as a summer intern on the features desk at The Washington Post.

I was The Oregonian’s recruitment director when we hired Inara late that year, and then became the bureau chief in the office where Inara launched her full-time career. I had the pleasure of editing this precocious young woman whose passion for storytelling was matched with a fierce intellect and an ability to connect unseen dots.

In short order, she moved to the downtown office, became an arts writer, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2007. After 13 years at The Oregonian, she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was accepted and now teaches in the same graduate writing program whose faculty and graduates include Raymond Carver,  John Cheever, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. (In fact, her prose reminds me very much of Robinson in tone and precision.)

When Inara visited Portland in late July to read from her book, more than 100 former colleagues and subjects of her stories in Portland crowded into the room at Powell’s Books.

(Click on images to view captions.)

She told us she’d been collecting stories about her family for years, growing up in Tacoma with her refugee grandparents and occasionally visiting her Latvian relatives, but the book began in earnest in 2010.

“Because I’m interested in people’s stories, I became a storykeeper,” she told us. “It took a while for me to put myself inside those stories. It took a long time to see what part of that story was mine.”

“Taking time allowed me to discover who I was,” she added. “I was trying to do the journalist’s dodge (of writing about others rather than one’s self). I realized I couldn’t tell a story without telling my grandmother’s story…or my own story.”

***

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Inara with a precious keepsake, the scarf that belonged to her grandmother Livija.

It is in the telling of these individual stories — of Livija’s survival of years as a refugee, of Ausma’s endurance during unimaginably harsh conditions in Siberia, and of Inara’s epiphanies in researching her family’s past — that one is able to better grasp the horrors of war and its effects on innocent civilians. Knowing what they have survived makes it all the more remarkable to appreciate their efforts to reconnect as siblings, husbands and wives, parents and children and to share those stories with grandchildren like Inara.

The book serves as a microcosm in so many respects.

  • It lays out a condensed history of the Latvian people and the culture they have proudly maintained through the centuries in a place a 13th-century pope called “the edge of the known world.”
  • It captures a snapshot of the country’s military history during the Second World War, a sad chronology of events that includes the mass deportation of men, women and children to Siberia; the murders of 70,000 Jewish Latvians by German troops and fellow Latvians; the panicked flight of Latvians escaping their homeland at the end of the war for the West.
  • It conveys, with tenderness and admiration, the resilience that enabled so many exiles to overcome the psychological and physical hardships of Siberia’s unforgiving landscape and to piece their lives together again back in Latvia.

I could quote from any chapter in the book to give a sense of the elegant writing. This paragraph, in particular, touched my heart. It is one where Inara is pointing to a portrait of her great-aunt Ausma and her brother in Siberia, posing with another couple in a room with rough white walls — the women looking off to the left, the men looking directly into the lens.

Later, in the state archives in Riga, I will find hundreds of photographs like the one Ausma showed me of the white-walled room in Siberia, the same composition, but different faces, the work of enterprising itinerant photographers who roamed the region’s remote settlements, proposing to snap the portraits of the exiles who lived there in exchange for whatever they could offer in return. Scavenged berries. Socks. Sewing needles fashioned from fish bones.

“For the exiles, it was worth the sacrifice of their most precious commodities. Portraits offered proof of life. They resurrected the banished, restored them to sight, so that it was a possible to imagine they existed once more in the world of the living. In some of the portraits, I notice the women are wearing a similar dress. It takes me a while to realize that it probably is the same dress, passed from one exile to another so that each might feel she looks her best for the photographer.

The book is getting great reviews, including this one from The Washington Post.

I’m so happy for Inara. I’m also indebted to her as one reader who’s now better informed about Latvia and enriched by her storykeeper talents.

The high cost of eviction

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Matthew Desmond at the Milwaukee trailer park where he lived while conducting fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation. (Harvard Magazine)

Occasionally,  a nonfiction book comes along that more than opens your eyes to a social issue. It seeps into your pores and burrows into your consciousness. It introduces you to real people and riveting scenes you will never forget.

“Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, is one of those books.

If you’ve read “Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, you learned about what it’s like to try to survive on a minimum-wage job — not as a teenager taking a first job, but as a full-blown adult trying to make ends meet in a service or retail job. At the bottom of the pay scale, you’re rendered invisible and expendable, disrespected by customers and subject to the whims of your employer.

Read my 2011 blog post on “America’s working poor” 

“Evicted” is similar in tone, insight and method. It too delves deep into an aspect of American poverty. But instead of income, it focuses on housing. In particular, the short-term disruption and longer-term devastation that result from losing one’s home. And by home, I mean a squalid apartment or a rundown mobile home in a trailer park.

***

“Evicted” is the product of years of ethnographic work by Desmond, a Harvard professor who began the project when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. From May 2008 to December 2009, Desmond lived in nearby Milwaukee as he reported first-hand on the struggles of eight families living on the edge, as well as the perspectives of two landlords whose compassion is nearly always eclipsed by their capitalist instincts.

In addition to that immersive experience, he brought a social scientist’s rigor to his project, designing surveys, gathering eviction court records, and collecting big data on housing, residential mobility and urban poverty that he could analyze.

The book was honored with the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

One can see why.

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Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Desmond’s childhood home was repossessed when his parents fell behind on payments. As a graduate student, he said he wanted to understand poverty in America in a way that went beyond “structural forces” seemingly beyond a person’s control or “individual deficiencies” such as starting a family out of wedlock or low levels of education.

“I wanted to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places,” Desmond said in a postscript to the book. “Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”

The result is a compelling book that takes the reader into the ghetto of Milwaukee’s north-side neighborhoods, from sweltering summers to bone-chilling winters. The eight families are bound by desperate circumstances — either unemployed, underemployed or getting by on public assistance — in a desperate scramble to keep up with the rent in a market that totally favors the landlord.

Their desperation stems from having to devote a huge portion of their monthly income to making the rent — sometimes 70 or 80 percent instead of the rule-of-thumb 30 percent. Often, these renters have to choose between keeping the lights on or paying the rent.

Some of the families are black, some white; some with children, some without. Most of the households are headed by single women. One landlord, a former schoolteacher, is black. The other, who runs one of the city’s worst trailer parks, is white.

Early in the book, one of the landlords moves to evict a single mother and her boys a few days before Christmas, saying simply, “Love don’t pay the bills.”

Why Milwaukee?

Aside from its proximity to UW-Madison, it’s typical of medium-sized cities in how eviction plays out, Desmond says. (With a population of about 600,000, it is the same size as Portland, Oregon.)

“In Milwaukee, city of fewer than 105,000 renter households, landlords evict roughly 16,000 adults and children each year,” he writes. “That’s sixteen families evicted through the court system daily. But there are other ways, cheaper and quicker ways, for landlords to remove a family than through court order. Some landlords pay tenants a couple hundred dollars to leave by the end of the week. Some take off the front door.”

Nearly half of these forced moves are “informal evictions.” And when you count all forms of displacement — formal and informal evictions, landlord foreclosures and building condemnations — you realize more than 1 in 8 Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move, a rate similar to numbers in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities, Desmond says.

It’s wrenching enough to be evicted, to have your meager possessions put out on the sidewalk or hauled off to a storage shed where you have to pay additional fees and interest to retrieve them. What’s worse is the effect on everything else — your ruined credit, your self-esteem, your kids’ education, and having to settle for increasingly less desirable places in more dangerous neighborhoods.

Add in the health and psychological issues resulting from unsafe, unsanitary conditions and unscrupulous landlords and the effects are nothing short of traumatic

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Matthew Desmond’s book explores poverty and profit in a typical American city.

A book of this type can’t be written without addressing these things: race, history and solutions. Desmond touches on all three.

Race and history are intertwined. It’s no accident that the poorest people in Milwaukee are black, hemmed into the worst neighborhoods as a result of decades of discriminatory practices and laws written to favor landlords. Nor is it a surprise that those most susceptible to eviction are women.

In a typical month, Desmond reports, 3 in 4 people in Milwaukee’s eviction court were black. Of those, 3 in 4 were women. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population but were evicted at a rate far higher than women from non-black neighborhoods. He writes:

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

What to do about all this?

Desmond says the affordable-housing crisis should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda because it is driving poor families to financial ruin and threatening to swallow others a notch or two up the ladder. (Fat chance, given which party runs Washington.)

Establishing publicly funded legal services for poor families in housing court would be a start toward lessening homelessness and evictions and giving renters a fair shake, he says. More meaningful would be a significant expansion of our housing voucher programs so tenants could live anywhere they wanted. Universal voucher programs operate elsewhere in the developed world and are more cost-effective than new construction, Desmond says.

Whatever solution is proposed, he asserts, it must be rooted in a declaration that there is a basic right to housing in America.

“If poverty persists in America,” he concludes, “it is not for lack of resources.”

***

A postscript: I received this book as a birthday gift at the end of last year from my daughter Simone and daughter-in-law Kyndall, but I wasn’t able to get to it until last month. It was an absorbing read, but one that filled me with guilt. Here I was reading about the struggles of the working poor while in the comfort of our vacation home in Washington state. Obviously, I feel fortunate to have a partner in life who has teamed up with me to make that second home possible. But that doesn’t diminish the realization that I can and should do more to help those less fortunate. I feel a donation to Habitat for Humanity coming on.

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?