Logging into the Literary Arts virtual streaming platform Wednesday for Portland Book Festival’s author discussion themed “Home,” I was met with a bright red graphics screen displaying the festival logo. In the chat, things were already getting festive. More than 25 people from locations including Portland, Eastern Oregon, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, California, Washington, and Alaska were busy boasting about books they were reading, sharing their location, and taking part in exuberant side conversations within the thread.
The event was slated to begin at 7 p.m., but technical issues kept the audience waiting. At 7:10, some viewers became agitated, with chatroom talk turning toward unsolicited advice for the Literary Arts technical team. Although there were a host of technical difficulties from tinny sound to choppy video during the first two nights of the festival, which began Monday, according to a Literary Arts spokeswoman, many virtual attendees offered support and words of encouragement to the tech team, maintaining the positive and determined spirit of the event.
Hosting a virtual festival in addition to Saturday’s full in-person program is, after all, no easy task. This year’s virtual programming, which continues Friday, was made even more complex by each evening’s livestream originating from a different partner bookstore. But after a few false starts Wednesday, the issues were resolved and the event intro began again, displaying a slideshow to upbeat jazz.
Each featured author called in individually to speak with her moderator at Annie Bloom’s Books. “Home” was the theme that bound together individual presentations by Rita Dove of Charlottesville, Va.; Qian Julie Wang of New York City; and Lauren Groff of Gainesville, Florida. In their livestream chats, each homed in on a central nerve: the importance of feeling accepted, safe, empowered, and at home in a world of increasing uncertainty.
Rita Dove, former poet laureate of the United States and 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, joined her former student, Portland poet Mary Szybist, to speak about her new poetry collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse.
Szybist called Playlist for the Apocalypse Dove’s “most bracing title” and asked how she arrived at it. “It’s a challenging title that lets the readers know that they are in for something,” Dove replied, explaining that she started the book more than 12 years ago and continued well into the pandemic. “I felt that over all that time, I was trying to hear how the poems spoke to me. They seemed to pick themselves, much like people pick songs to accompany them through a day.”
“We had to face a sort of brutal awakening… we needed to look directly in the eye at what was happening to all of us,” Dove said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I kept hearing so many voices telling me who I was, what I was… and I wanted to get those voices out of myself.”
She hadn’t published for a while when the pandemic hit, but then “we all tried to reflect on ourselves, so that was the time that I put those poems together. Because of that, they were a playlist for me and became a playlist for [others]… not necessarily to comfort or uplift, but to reflect feelings.”
Dove recited Voiceover from the book’s last section, which she called “The Little Book of Woe.” She created the section, she said, to deal with difficult confrontations, remarking on the ways in which ideas of “inside,” “outside,” and “the simultaneity of being both in and out” move through her collection.
“Many years ago, my house burned down after it was struck by lightning,” she said. “The house was an idea after it had burned down, and it became rebuilt. In an interesting way, those rooms never felt quite like home again. The people inside them embodied home, but also never quite felt like themselves again. It’s something we are all coming up against constantly these days.”
For Dove, dealing with multiple sclerosis has been a personal journey of reconciling in and out. “Learning to walk again… learning pressure instead of feeling and learning to retune all of the boundaries and clear lines we thought we had,” she said, “not being afraid to waver, change, and bend. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s an interesting thing. Throughout the pandemic, for example, we have been both in tune with the vast world going haywire while being aware of our inner selves.”
The idea of home has much to do with feeling safe and rooted. For example, when her granddaughter makes drawings of her home, Dove said, “it is not the house itself, but whatever relationships are built in that house. Who loves you… who does not love you… all of that is the idea of ‘home’ contained in those drawings.” She added that much of her own work “has been looking at that idea as well as the knowledge that feeling at home is not needing to explain that feeling.”
Relating home to the concept of movement, Dove said, “I think that being African-American, I have always felt that movement is part of the way I looked at life. I don’t know where my ancestors came from. I don’t have those stories. That rootlessness meant that the roots had to be found in other things… music, stories, dance, in communication with other people, in the movement of language. To me, movement is the most comfortable way to be… movement is a way of finding stasis.”
An audience member asked Dove what compels her to write. “My muse is everything in life: the belief that everything in life matters and there is nothing too insignificant,” she said. “I can never tell when a poem is going to come. Aesthetically, my muse is music and creating language that is musical.”
The next author, Qian Julie Wang, was a litigation lawyer before beginning her journey as a writer. Her memoir and first book, Beautiful Country, tells the story of her childhood as an immigrant coming from China to New York with her family.
Moderator Jenn Chávez, radio host with Oregon Public Broadcasting, asked Wang about her first days in the United States. “I remember a very clear before and after,” Wang said. “Before we left China, there was nothing special about my life… I fit in and looked like everyone else. When we got off the plane at JFK, I noticed that my parents turned from joyful people who liked to sing and make jokes, to people that were always looking over their shoulders.”
“I was extremely confused at first,” she continued. “I actually remember being surprised that there were people with blue and green eyes.”
Her first years in America were difficult, Wang said, but she found solace in books and libraries, receiving her first book, Charlotte’s Web, as a gift from a librarian. Her reading journey took her through young adult favorites, including Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-sitters Club, to classics such as Middlemarch. “As a memoir writer, I don’t actually read nonfiction, but I do enjoy Victorian fiction. I believe that the American public can equally relate to both Victorian fiction, for example, and to my book, because they both speak to the human experience.”
Wang, who lives in Brooklyn, began writing her memoir in 2016 after gaining U.S. citizenship, around the same time she entered therapy, she said. She discussed her difficulty finding the courage to tell her story, and how tearing down the wall of fear and ostracism that was created when she was undocumented is a continuing endeavor. “I had wanted to be American for so long,” said Wang, who remembers coveting the ‘90s-era Tamagotchi and Polly Pocket toys of her schoolmates. “Walking out of that room where I got my citizenship, I remember feeling an immense sense of privilege. Every day I am grateful to wake up and be called an American.”
When Chávez asked her to address generational trauma, Wang, on the verge of tears, explained the inherited trauma of her father’s persecution by the Chinese government for being from a dissident family. Writing Beautiful Country has changed her relationship with her parents, she said. “My father said that he felt healed by every page,” said Wang.
Wang, who is now a managing partner in a law firm dedicated to advocating for education and civil rights, said her mission as both a lawyer and a writer is to give voice to the stories that are not heard often enough. “You are entitled to share your story,” she said.
In contrast with the previous authors and their moderators, Groff and Proctor’s fast-paced dialogue created an air of high, whirling energy. Matrix, Groff explained, is a historical novel about the first woman poet to be published in France. The historical main character is a royal orphan named Marie de France who is sent to England to run an abbey.
“You managed to work your way through a very old story in a very modern way,” Proctor said, commenting on the realism, magical realism, and careful stream-of-consciousness choices within the book. Groff explained that because her character would have been speaking many languages — including French, English, and Latin — she decided to use no direct dialogue. Instead, Groff describes dialogue indirectly, giving it an archaic tone without throwing it into archaic language.
Groff said she was able to write about the 12th century “through tactile understanding that I already have. I don’t understand what it’s like to have a toothache so bad that I may die of it, but I do know what it is like to have pain and to try and soothe the pain with honey.”
Character relationships and ideas of courtly romance, which had its own set of particularly codified rules, were also of great importance when compiling the narrative. “I wanted to keep giving the impression of the book increasing in largeness,” Groff said, adding that religion, romance, and the environment were intertwined.
Later, Groff spoke to the author’s duty to confront climate change in her work.
“As a person who is deeply, morally worried and disturbed by climate change and the precipice on which we now stand, it would be an abdication of the novelist’s duties to turn one’s back on climate change.” she said. “If we are engaging in literature, the highest form of the written word, then we are doing the opposite of entertainment. We are not distracting people from the urgencies of the moment. If we are not, as novelists, engaging with climate change, then we are creating a distraction, which is, in a sense, immoral.”