Tickets for Literary Arts' Oregon Book Awards sold out early, and there was an expectant air as people filed into Portland Art Museum's Fields Ballroom last Friday evening. Not only is great writing happening in Oregon, the event seemed to convey, but more Oregonians are paying attention.
But inside, the ballroom said something different. First, it said that if this was the Oregon literary world's annual place to see and be seen, it was for an older, established generation. Second, the ballroom itself, elegant but reminiscent of a convention-center hall, reminded: This was an awards ceremony. It would drag a bit, with its administrative roll call of winners, and liven up only afterward, when drinks were served.
Adding to the event's decorum was emcee Barry Lopez (National Book Award and two-time Oregon Book Award winner), with his sonorous, authoritative voice. Setting the evening's theme of community, Lopez emphasized in his introduction that although we select individuals for awards, their achievements contribute to our entire community.
Some of those individual winners were: in poetry, Dorianne Laux for Facts About the Moon (Norton); and in fiction, Justin Tussing for his first novel The Best People in the World (Harper Collins). In short fiction, Gina Ochsner received the award for People I Wanted to Be (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books), and in general nonfiction, Andrew Bernstein for Modern Passings: Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan (University of Hawai'i Press). George W. Aguilar Sr. a 76-year-old member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, received the creative nonfiction award for his first book, When the River Ran Wild! Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation (Oregon Historical Society/University of Washington Press).
The Oregon Book Awards also celebrated its 20th anniversary on Friday, infusing the evening with a nostalgia for earlier days, when Oregon's writing community was composed of legends like William Stafford and Ken Kesey. This year one of those legends, Ursula K. Le Guin, received a C.E.S. Wood Distinguished Writer Award. In a refreshing twist, she concluded her acceptance speech looking to the future rather than the past, wanting to honor "someone who's always being told to do something," she said—and that "was the kid with her nose in a book."
She's right to acknowledge young readers. Our next generation of writers will come from them. Through its awards, fellowships and special programs, Literary Arts has provided Oregon writers with much needed support. But it's not all we need. Oregon is changing, and our writing community must continue to make a new history, to produce and maintain the diverse writers we have.
For a complete listing of winners, visit literary-arts.org.