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Portland Book Festival: Jonathan Lethem, Cat Bohannon among highlights of well-attended festival

Many venues were near or at capacity as book-lovers flooded the South Park Blocks to listen to more than 100 speakers. And to buy books.

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Moderator Stacy D. Flood (left) and authors Justin Torres and Debra Magpie Earling spoke to a capacity crowd in Portland 5's Winningstad Theatre. Earling acknowledged that her novel, "The Lost Journals of Sacajawea," is written in an unconventional style. "I believe readers are willing to struggle and take a journey" the way Sacajawea did, she says. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe
Moderator Stacy D. Flood (left) and authors Justin Torres and Debra Magpie Earling speak to a capacity crowd Saturday in Portland 5’s Winningstad Theatre. Earling acknowledged that her novel, “The Lost Journals of Sacajawea,” is written in an unconventional style. “I believe readers are willing to struggle and take a journey” the way Sacajawea did, she said. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe

Armed with coffees, umbrellas, and programs, hordes of excited readers swarmed the Park Blocks on Saturday for the Portland Book Festival, presented by Literary Arts. I was lucky enough to be among them.

Attendance figures for the festival are not yet available, but many venues were at or near capacity with attendees bustling among them. While last year’s festival exhibited the fast-paced energy of the first post-pandemic, fully in-person year, Saturday’s event felt calmer. Attendees, however, were equally enthusiastic, announcing their schedule plans to friends as they waited in line at food carts and showing off purchases from the book fair in the Portland Art Museum. 

With the outdoor courtyard between the two museum buildings closed for construction, festival-goers congregated around the South Park Blocks. Last year, the area served as a sort of book festival highway, where attendees passed from venue to venue. But on Saturday, the blocks became the heart of the festival, where people gathered on benches to eat, chat, plan, and compare notes.

One of the final events of the day – and the highlight among the events I attended – featured award-winning author Jonathan Lethem. The author, most recently of Brooklyn Crime Novel, was interviewed by Dave Miller, host of OPB Radio’s Think Out Loud, in the Portland’5 Newmark Theatre. They touched on topics of memory, identity, gentrification, history, and what it means to be from a place that no longer exists as it was.

Lethem’s book about growing up in 1970s Brooklyn is not a crime novel. Rather, it’s about the small crimes related to the era’s young people and the daily rituals and social exchanges Lethem calls “the dance” — referring to the unspeakable negotiation and wrongness of the place and time. In Lethem’s words, “guilt was everywhere.”

“You live long enough that the past becomes really past, and you hold things in your body people can’t begin to imagine,” Lethem said about writing the book. He wanted to evoke the place in a more direct way than he had in 2003’s The Fortress of Solitude, he said, jolting the reader back to old Brooklyn in an unusual way.

Jonathan Lethem’s “Brooklyn Crime Novel,” takes inspiration from his childhood growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. “Everyone in Brooklyn at the time had to form one relationship or another to crime,” he said, “….everyone had to identify as both victim and criminal.”

Instead of writing solely based on his feelings and memories, Lethem sought help from others, sending out a questionnaire to classmates and others he grew up with. Lethem’s brother, friends, and neighbors helped him reminisce, but also reminded him to become a social researcher and “go down the rabbit hole of reconstructive memories.”

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The questionnaire solidified the universality of their experiences, Lethem said. He asked what was the first thing they stole – confirming Lethem’s intuition that “everyone in Brooklyn at the time had to form one relationship or another to crime.” (The first thing Lethem stole? A comic book rolled up his sleeve.) Also universal was that none of his peers seemed to speak to their parents about what they were going through. The absence of parental involvement – by choice or through adult absentmindedness – played out in Brooklyn Crime Novel through the inclusion of few parental characters.

Lethem held the audience spellbound as he recounted the history of brownstone buildings, how his neighborhood was named, development of the term “gentrification” in 1964 and its use in newspapers in the 1980s, hippies and the “revitalization era,” and the false veneer of togetherness after the civil rights movement in spite of the problems that still existed.

Lethem said he suggested in his book “ritual transactions” that involved recognition, guilt, exchange, and the usual surrender of something like pocket change or a bus ticket. The threat of violence was ever present in these interactions, he said, but not enacted. “The big takeaway is that everyone had to identify as both victim and criminal,” Lethem explained, and it was something he became acclimated to.

Brooklyn Crime Novel‘s themes include race, gentrification, and the role played by Lethem’s family in changing the neighborhood. He could not escape his torment, the author said, about barriers others in his community faced. After leaving Brooklyn, he found himself code-switching between being a “Brooklyn kid” and someone who had the opportunity to leave. What was a positive idea in the early 1970s of “revitalization,” he said, quickly became “gentrification” — “an erasure of everyone else who was ever there and created the area” — and is a structural and political problem.

Lethem said it’s important to “recognize that the same self-ratifying fantasies are accompanying things happening now that would look peculiar, to say the least, given the passage of time,”  reminding the audience that his intention was to record the “extraordinarily intricate mindset” he could see like it was yesterday. 

When it comes to nostalgia, Lethem talked about experiencing “contention under the skin of reality” while feeling the deliciousness of his own past — pining for “the problem of where he lived” and wanting to dream his way back there, calling it all “an aggressive, disastrous utopia.” By stripping away the golden aura of the remembered time, Lethem said, he was able to discover patterns of behavior and show the stark difficulty of the moment.

Lethem said he considered writing Brooklyn Crime Novel the most important work he came to this earth to do. “The most important work you can do,” he repeated to the audience, “will implicate you, exhaust you, and leave you seeing yourself as a part of history… [it is] to acknowledge where we come from. Not to individualize, but to account for where you’ve been born…”

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Lethem’s appearance was the finale to a day that kicked off at 10 a.m. with a wealth of choices – among them New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, festival headliner Viet Thanh Nguyen, and National Book Award-winning author Tim O’Brien — I wound up at the latter’s talk at First Congregational United Church of Christ, moderated by Steph Opitz from Bookshop.org.  

“Novelists depend on story,” O’Brien said in response to a question about political content in his new book, America Fantastica. The main character, Boyd Halverson, is a compulsive liar and former journalist. For him, reality is a monster, O’Brien said. To write about deceit, he had to understand deceivers. Writing “in the hearts of liars” led him on a journey of understanding human foibles, their consequences, and how they can haunt. The book, while containing political undertones specific to 2019 and 2020, looks at a “moral tug-of-war emblematic of the current state of the country,” he said.

Researcher and author Cat Bohannon says frustration with “male bias” in medicine led her to want to change how research approaches the female body.

Later, in the Portland Art Museum’s Miller Gallery, author and researcher Cat Bohannan was joined by moderator Sarah Rothenfluch to discuss Bohannan’s book, Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Evolution

“How’s it hangin’? A little to the left?” Bohannan greeted a slightly surprised crowd, continuing to describe how most human left breasts and gonads are typically slightly larger, and therefore lower, due to gravity. This biological-science icebreaker was the perfect introduction to Bohannan’s sarcastic, lively, passionate, and eloquent discussion.

After waiting years for someone else to do it, Bohannan became “fed up with how nobody was writing a large-scale book” on the subject of the female body and its evolution, and decided to write it herself – while completing her Ph.D. at Columbia University.

The more we know about the female body, the more we can provide good healthcare, Bohannan said in response to an audience question about the lack of scientific information about menopause and female biology in general. This mindset goes hand in hand with a paradigm shift in research and healthcare that Bohannan is hoping to work toward. Bohannan said her frustration with “male bias” in the medical field made her want to change how research approaches the female body. 

“Male bias,” she explained, plays out in the lack of female subjects in medical research studies ranging from rodents to humans. Another troubling point, Bohannan said, is that the menstrual cycle in research subjects is considered a “confound” – often preventing the participation of female-bodied individuals in clinical trials. Statistically, she continued, female bodies emerge faster from anesthesia, but that phenomenon did not receive proper study through a medical trial until 1999.

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“What does it cost to change your mind?” she mused of the difficulty of gaining funding for medical research in the field, “and change what people thought they knew medically for decades?”

Throughout the talk, Bohannan made science fun, exciting, and relatable. She used metaphor to bring humor to biology and the medical research field, making the audience laugh and shudder simultaneously while explaining the challenges posed by being a queer woman in science. She also described her difficulty wading through archaic and often-bigoted scientific materials to complete her research, and creating a readiness to “be willing to find things that made me unhappy.” 

Toward the end of her talk, Bohannan addressed one of the largest questions her book tackled. She acknowledged that biological differences exist between female- and male-bodied brains, depending on what part of the brain is compared, but the end result is a remarkable similarity in the brains of both sexes. Noting that brains are like a mosaic or patchwork quilt, she said, “We have more of a trend toward ‘sex mosaicism’ than binary…. In human physiology and cognitive functionality, we are really freakin’ similar.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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