Portland Book Festival: Gary Shteyngart provokes upheavals of laughter, and other highlights from a day of book-buying and author conversations

The festival, scaled back due to COVID, is deemed a success by both Literary Arts organizers and visitors with arms full of books.

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On a foggy morning, I strolled across the Southwest Park Blocks to pick up my pass for Literary Arts’ sixth-annual Portland Book Festival, excited for the day to come. The scene buzzed with attendees lined up to receive festival bracelets, food-cart owners preparing for lunch service, and a large tent ready to host author discussions.

The lobby of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts was alive with commotion as patrons mulled the newspaper-style program and Powell’s Books employees unpacked boxes for their merchandise table. After purchasing a copy of A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas by festival author David Biespiel, I ascended the spiral staircase to the Newmark Theatre for the first talk of Saturday’s in-person festival, which followed five days of virtual programming. The festival usually draws 10,000 book-lovers. This year, COVID protocols capped attendance at 3,000, with each venue limited to 75 percent of capacity.

Festival-goers plan their day at the Portland Book Festival on Saturday. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts
Festival-goers plan their day at the Portland Book Festival on Saturday. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts

My first event of the day featured Gary Shteyngart, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, speaking with author Jon Raymond about Shteyngart’s new novel, Our Country Friends. The first level of the Newmark was nearly at capacity and a low murmur washed over the theater. The tone was exuberant, and it was clear the readers in attendance were eager to hear the upcoming guest.

The conversation kicked off with Raymond noting Our Country Friends has been described as “the first great pandemic novel.” Shteyngart needed no prompting to share vibrant stories and opinions. Joyous, quick-witted, and at times crass, he proved a comedic marvel, sending the audience into upheavals of laughter every few minutes.

A professor at Columbia University, Shteyngart discussed the impetus for his book and described in-depth his process for creating it. “If I don’t dare to write about people whom I know, then what the hell am I going to write about?” he said, adding that Our Country Friends was born of the loneliness and silence he experienced during the pandemic while living in the New York countryside. Writing the book was the hardest thing he’d ever done, he said.

Author Gary Shteyngart (right) talks with Jon Raymond during Saturday's Portland Book Festival, covering topics ranging from his family’s immigration from Russia to the United States to his botched circumcision.
Author Gary Shteyngart (right) talks with Jon Raymond during Saturday’s Portland Book Festival, covering topics ranging from his family’s emigration from Russia to his botched circumcision. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts

Shteyngart made quick work of various topics, discussing his family’s emigration from Russia to the United States, the burden carried by immigrant children of Jewish families, literary character development, his international group of childhood friends, Korean pop culture, the great Russian authors, and even his botched circumcision, about which he wrote a candid piece for The New Yorker earlier this year.

The audience energy became somber when talk turned to dystopia and Shteyngart noted we are at only the beginning of society’s troubles, considering the difficult political and environmental atmospheres. But the mood lifted when the author thanked everyone for coming, jokingly apologizing for the talk’s serious conclusion. At the event’s close, he was met with huge audience applause before attendees rushed out to purchase his book for signing.

“This is the most people we’ve seen buying books all day, I’m not sure we have enough copies,” a Powell’s employee said, appearing both worried and thrilled, as we took the elevator to the third floor to join the ruckus. 

Book vendors saw brisk business during the Portland Book Festival's Book Fair. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts
Book vendors saw brisk business during the Portland Book Festival’s book fair. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts

After lunch, I ascended another staircase, this time leading to the festival’s book fair in the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Grand Ballroom. The fair featured bookstores and local presses including Annie Bloom’s Books, Broadway Books, Counterpoint Press, Red Hen Press, Buckman Publishing, Northwest Review, Pomegranate, and others. The fair bustled with  booksellers recommending newly published releases, local authors checking out the offerings, and people leaving with stacks of books. 

“I’m really happy with the festival this year,” Amanda Bullock, Literary Arts director of programming, said over the phone Sunday.  Although final attendance numbers won’t be available till later this week, she said, “We had a great turnout and it seems that everyone enjoyed themselves. We even had the perfect small amount of rain to make it feel like a true Portland event.”

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Bullock was not the only one pleased with the event and the weather. In line at the book fair, I spoke with a man who has been attending the festival since its inauguration as Wordstock in 2005. This year was a triumph, he said, and the fact that it took place in person made a world of difference to his enjoyment. The pleasant weather was just the icing on the cake.

A woman I met crossing the street to the theater said she had come specifically to see Louise Erdrich talk with Portland-based poet and musician Trevino Brings Plenty. She had not yet planned out the rest of the day, but looked forward to seeing where her mood led her. “There are so many interesting options, it’s impossible to go wrong,” she laughed as we parted.

Jonas, a musician and Oregon State University student with whom I spoke at the end of the day, said this was his first Portland Book Festival. “A few of us from the MFA creative writing program drove up together from Corvallis,” he said. While his friends attended a final event in the Winningstad Theatre, he remained in the lobby to relax, spend some time writing, and soak in the day’s inspiration. 

Street Books, a bicycle-powered library for people living outdoors, had both speakers and a mobile kiosk at the Portland Book Festival. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts
Street Books, a bicycle-powered library for people living outdoors, had both speakers and a mobile kiosk at the Portland Book Festival. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts

In addition to Shteyngart’s talk, I took in the “Grains for Every Season” event featuring moderator and cocktail specialist Jim Meehan speaking to Joshua McFadden, cookbook author and chef of Portland restaurants Ava Gene’s, Cicoria, and Tusk. McFadden’s second published cookbook, Grains for Every Season, focuses on altering the way people cook with grains and offers recipes focused on barley, brown rice, buckwheat, rye, and quinoa. Taking place in the Winningstad Theatre before a languid-yet-attentive after-lunch crowd, the event grew in attendance as people trickled in up to 30 minutes into the talk. McFadden and Meehan discussed cookbook design, the importance of eating seasonally, and how returning to indigenous agricultural practices can address concerns about drought and climate change.

At 3:30 p.m., I returned to the Newmark for “An Afternoon With the National Book Awards,” moderated in person by Dao Strom, poet and author of Instrument. The event featured National Book Award finalists Safia Elhillo, author of Home Is Not a Country; Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois; and Hoa Nguyen, author of A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure; all joining in virtually via video call. Attendance was lower than the other talks I sat in on, but audience members showed great interest as authors answered questions about their relationships with ghosts, rhythm’s place in poetry, feminism in their cultures, and the sense of nostalgia present within diasporic consciousness. The National Book Award winners will be announced Wednesday.

About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

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