Our Picks for the 2020 Portland Book Festival

The typically one-day, in-person festival will sprawl across two digital weeks this year. Here's what you can't miss.

By Fiona McCann and Conner Reed November 5, 2020

The Portland Book Festival, that once-annual literary bacchanal that pulls together heavy-hitters from around the world for a concentrated blast of bookish talks, panels, and workshops, has gone digital this year. No surprise there. What is surprising—and pleasantly so—is the way they're taking advantage of an all-virtual festival. As Literary Arts announced back in September, this year's PBF will stretch on for 17 days, highlighting more than 100 writers, and presenting almost all of its events for free. (Events with Margaret Atwood, Jess Walter, and Isabel Wilkerson require the purchase of a signed book from Powell's to attend.)

That means two things: you'll probably get to hear from more writers this year than you've been able to in the past, and combing through the event calendar is even more mind-bending than usual. To help jump start your planning, here are our picks for this year's can’t-miss virtual events.

WEEK 1: Nov 5–12

Olufunke Grace Bankole Popup

I worried that Portland Art Museum’s popup series—where an author is paired with a painting and reads in front of it—would be one of the pandemic casualties this year, but the good news is they’ve found a way to bring us the same thought-provoking juxtaposition of art forms, prefilming the readings and streaming them on the site and through Instagram. First up from me will be the Thursday, November 5, pop-up by Olufunke Grace Bankole, a Portland-based first generation American with Nigerian parents. Bankole is a Harvard Law School graduate and 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow currently working on a collection of linked stories she says depict “the transformative experiences of women–in West Africa and the U.S.–within religious and familial oppression.” She’ll be reading by For the Love, the vivid, warm painting of a mother and daughter from Portlander Isaka Shamsud-Din’s Rock of Ages exhibit.

The Beauty in Breaking: Dr Michele Harper and Ruth Dickey

Michele Harper decided to become an emergency room doctor after driving her brother John to an ER for the treatment of a bite wound inflicted by their own father. “As my brother and I left the ER, I marveled at the place, one of bright lights and dark hallways, a place so quiet and yet so throbbing with life,” she says in her 2020 memoir, The Beauty in Breaking. Harper decided to become an ER doctor, overcoming obstacles, battling racism, and all the time learning from the patients she treats. Now, with the US topping 100,000 COVID-19 cases in one day, she’s at the frontlines of a deadly pandemic and still somehow has the grace and generosity to spend time with us, in conversation with poet Ruth Dickey at 4 p.m. on Thursday, November 5. Take her up on it.

American Tales: Genevieve Hudson & C Pam Zhang

Who knew that one of the most celebrated debut novels of the year—about a German teenager in Alabama playing football, falling in love, and understanding the particular special power he possesses—would come from a Portland-based Fulbright fellow? Genevieve Hudson’s Boys of Alabama—“a magical, deeply felt novel” per Kirkus—somehow skipped my radar on its May release, but I’ve since been looking for an opportunity to dive in and this is the perfect springboard. They’ll be joined by C Pam Zhang, whose debut How Much of These Hills is Gold made the Booker longlist this year, at an event on Friday, November 6, moderated by writer and photographer T Kira Madden.

What We’ll Build: Story Time with Oliver Jeffers

Children are the future, if we end up having one, so parents, keep a close eye on their reading material. You could do worse than introducing them to Irish-born Oliver Jeffers (full disclosure: I’m Irish, too), who has written about death, friendship, and illustrated a delightful book about mutinous crayons. This year he followed up his gorgeous and weirdly moving Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (dedicated to his son), with What We’ll Build: Plans for Our Together Future (dedicated to his daughter). Here the two make plans for constructing things together—a home, towers, a road to the moon, and even a wall to keep out enemies that they then decide to take down, inviting all in for tea. He’ll be reading at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 7.

Black Girl Magic: Christine Kendall & Renée Watson

“Move over Ramona Quimby,” says Kirkus. “Portland has another neighbor you have to meet!” That neighbor is Ryan Hart, student at Northeast Portland’s Vernon Elementary, budding chef, daughter to a dad who’s lost his job, and younger sister to bossy older brother Ray. Its author, Renée Watson, an award winning YA writer based in Portland—she also attended Vernon Elementary—is joined by Philadelphia-based Christine Kendall, author of Riding Chance, and this year’s The True Definition of Neva Beane. They’ll be in conversation with Oregon Supreme Court Judge Adrienne Nelson on November 7 at 12:30 p.m

WEEK 2: Nov 13–21

Black Talk, Black Feeling with The Believer

The Black-focused conversation series, conceived by literary mag The Believer and named after legendary American poet Nikki Giovanni's first collection, has already featured big names like Hanif Abdurraqib and Brit Bennett. Its third iteration for the Portland Book Festival will feature novelist Danielle Evans, young adult writer Bethany C. Morrow, and poet Khadijah Queen, and be moderated by Believer editors Ismael Muhammad and Niela Orr. It'll stream live on the Book Festival's website on Friday, November 13, at 5 p.m.

Typecasting: Emily Nemens and Charles Yu

Portland novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond will moderate a conversation with Nemens and Yu, whose recent novels dissect American myths and examine their effects on concepts of self. Nemens's The Cactus League (her debut) focuses on a baseball player burning up in Arizona for spring training whose outward success with the national pastime masks serious internal fractures. Yu's Interior Chinatown, a finalist for this year's National Book Award, follows an Asian-American actor in Los Angeles as he assesses the boxes his industry has trapped him in. The three will chat in a livestream on the Book Fest's website on Monday, November 16, at 3:30 p.m.

West x Midwest: Claudia Rankine and Jericho Brown

When people ask me what I regret most about my time in Boston, it's usually either bad boyfriends or a lack of lobster consumption. But I also regret missing Claudia Rankine's play The White Card when it ran at ArtsEmerson in 2018. Lucky for ME (also you), she's joining Pulitzer winning poet Jericho Brown to discuss her latest collection Just Us, which comprises essays, poems, and images to examine race with her signature sharp, compassionate eye. (Last year, Brown's panel with fellow poets Diannely Antigua and Malcolm Tariq at the Winningstead was an indisputable festival highlight). They'll chat in a livestream on the Book Fest's website on Monday, November 16, at 5 p.m.

Dearly: Margaret Atwood and Karen Russell 

Did you think we were gonna skip this one? This is a central draw of this year's festival, and for good reason: it unites two literary giants—one local, one legacy–in conversation about Atwood's first poetry collection of poetry in over a decade. Russell, author of novels like Swamplandia! and collections like Orange World (check out my coauthor's review of her prescient pandemic novella here), will discuss the collection—titled Dearly—with Atwood, who appeared in Portland just over a year ago to support the followup to her legendary dystopian tale The Handmaid's Tale. This is one of the festival's only ticketed events—you have to purchase a copy of Dearly from Powell's to gain access—but it's likely to be worth the price of admission. It'll take place on Tuesday, November 7, at 5:30 p.m.

Kesha Ajose Fisher Popup

Another popup filmed at the Portland Art Museum, Ajose Fisher's event will center on No God Like the Mother, her short story collection that netted an Oregon Book Award earlier this year. It's a globetrotting set that spans from Lagos to Paris to the PNW, and she'll read from it on Wednesday, November 18, at 2:30 p.m. 

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