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Omar El Akkad’s ‘What Strange Paradise’ wins Oregon Book Award for fiction

Cynthia Whitcomb is honored for her literary legacy during the ceremony marked by thanks and a sense of wonder at the weirdness of the past two years.

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Omar El Akkad's novel, "What Strange Paradise," tells the story of a 9-year-old Syrian migrant who washes up on a Greek island and the teenage girl who risks her own safety to try to help him.
Omar El Akkad’s novel, “What Strange Paradise,” tells the story of a 9-year-old Syrian migrant who washes up on a Greek island and the teenage girl who risks her own safety to try to help him.

Omar El Akkad received the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction on Monday at the 35th annual Oregon Book Awards for his novel What Strange Paradise. The awards – the first held in-person since 2019 – combined the usual thanks and tributes with a sense of joy at gathering together and expressions of wonder at the weirdness of the past two years. 

El Akkad praised the other finalists for their extraordinary books and thanked organizers of Zoom events for his novel “where literally three people showed up.” Observing that his 5-year-old daughter has spent half her life in this “weird negative space,” the West Linn writer said, “To be in this room with all of you is something I’ve missed dearly.”

The feeling apparently was widespread among the masked crowd of several hundred that gathered at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. An atmosphere of  reunion and camaraderie prevailed, as well as making up for lost time.  Host Kesha Ajose Fisher, winner of the 2020 fiction award and resplendent in red and orange, said she had been waiting for a chance to wear the fabulous gown she bought for the nonexistent ceremony in her triumphal year.   

Jacob Darwin Hamblin says his nonfiction winner, "The Wretched Atom: America's Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology," is neither pro- nor anti-nuclear. It's history.
Jacob Darwin Hamblin says his nonfiction winner, “The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology,” is neither pro- nor anti-nuclear. It’s history.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin of Corvallis, who won the Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction, said the award was particularly gratifying because of the hate mail spawned by his book, The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology. People want to know whether the book is pro- or anti-nuclear, he said, explaining, “It’s history – it’s OK to read it without a pro or con view.” He added, “Historians are just people who like to read other people’s mail.”

The Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award went to Cynthia Whitcomb of Wilsonville, who served as president of Willamette Writers from 1995 to 2012 and expanded it from a tiny nonprofit to an active, statewide organization nurturing and mentoring writers. In accepting the honor, Whitcomb offered some writerly advice.

“What is a writer?” Whitcomb asked rhetorically. “Anyone who feels bad about not writing. That never crosses the mind of nonwriters.”

She noted that writers beat themselves up with two words – discipline and procrastination. Discipline sounds like punishment, she said. “You do not have to write daily.”  As for procrastination, her advice is to replace the word with “gestation.”  You are nourishing and encouraging an idea, she advised.  She quoted Oregon poet William Stafford, who said something to the effect that “all an idea needs to do to be worthy of my attention is to occur to me.”

Noting that most writers are perfectionists, Whitcomb said, “There’s no such thing. Stop pursuing it so hard.” She summed up her three tips for the crowd:

  1. You’re not procrastinating, you’re pregnant.
  2. Don’t think, write it down.
  3. Your best is good enough.

Breena Bard said Monday had been an exciting day for her. Besides winning the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature, she went into her son's school for the first time in two years to attend the Scholastic Book Fair. Photo by: Weeno Photography
Breena Bard said Monday had been an exciting day for her. Besides winning the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature, she went into her son’s school for the first time in two years to attend the Scholastic Book Fair. Photo by: Weeno Photography

A total of 205 books from 44 Oregon towns were submitted for the awards, presented by Literary Arts, in seven categories.  The other winners for 2022 were:

Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature: Jennie Englund of Ashland, for Taylor Before and After

Leslie Bradshaw Award for Young Adult Literature: Courtney Gould of Salem, for The Dead and the Dark

Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction: Allison Cobb of Portland for Plastic: An Autobiography

Award for Graphic Literature: Breena Bard of Portland for Trespassers: A Graphic Novel

Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry: Dao Strom of Portland for Instrument

Sponsor
Bag & Baggage Theater Productions The Vault Hillsboro Oregon
Editor

Karen Pate worked 29 years as an editor at The Oregonian, most of that time overseeing community news and features in Washington and Clackamas counties. She’s written about storytellers and banjo players, English-language bookstores in Paris and horses who starred in movies. Her work has appeared in The Oregonian, Oregon Magazine, Reed Magazine and various equestrian publications. She wandered into journalism after studying creative writing at Reed College. Karen lives in Portland and has a job that lets her travel around the state, tagging along after racehorses.

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