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Meet Cynthia L. Brown, 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. For the first time, Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2021 OLF applications will be posted in May 2020, and the deadline to apply will be in August 2020. All of the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients will be honored at the 2020 Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.

2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Cynthia L. Brown (she/her/hers)


Born in Washington State, Cynthia L. Brown grew up in Texas. She lived, worked, or studied in New York, Minnesota, and Arizona, before making her home in Oregon. She holds M.A.s in both business management and sociocultural anthropology. A communications career immersed her in diverse worlds, from art to aviation, from NBA to PBS.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
My inspirations usually involve some form of learning. I largely parented myself, so I’ve always searched for knowledge, no doubt looking for that mythical Operating Manual for Life. While formal education has served me well, my most valued insights come from unexpected outcomes that broaden my perspective.

People who stretch my paradigm inspire me. I keep a writing file of news stories about those who step outside their cultural norms or reveal a surprising dimension to their personalities. Likewise, I save stories of events that trigger unexpected choices or take conflict to a level that reveals deep character.

Often I’ve learned about the world through direct experience, immersing myself in situations to “feel” what was there to learn. Some choices have been risky, provoking the question, “But who is the woman I want to be in this context?” Even though I fall short, I’m inspired by those who model the template, the ones who step up, speak up, try. I’m drawn to people brave enough to risk failure.

Agnostic since age 12, I’m a seeker, in part because I prefer the questions to the constraints of the answers. Nature, bootstrappers, or country western songs can all inspire me. But I wait for either science or faith to define what it is that vibrates in that space between the conscious and concrete, phenomena that present as creativity.  

How would you describe your creative process?
This particular project began as a personal quest, an opportunity to find out more about the mother I’d lost as a child. During my search for her medical records, I became aware of a throughline between her short life and the secret government-sponsored human radiation experiments, which began in WWII and continued into the Cold War.

Historical fiction is a research-intense genre, as even seemingly unimportant details have the potential to undermine the credibility of the story. This tale was buried within a selectively well-documented era, so my process was driven by the need to free and craft the storyline from the mass of material, as well as the demands of weaving both historical events and imagined interactions into a narrative structure.

Critical to my process are deep dives into uncluttered time and territory, so I try to dispatch other work and distractions before tackling the writing. Finding work/life balance is always challenging.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship? 
Most clearly, I feel humbled and honored. My gratitude to Literary Arts judges, staff, donors, volunteers, and supporters is profound.  

Validation is a significant reward. After eight years of research and writing, I hungered for encouragement to move the book into daylight. Recognition from the fellowship opens the door to possibilities. And of course, I appreciate the monetary award; as with many writers, money equals writing time.

What are you currently working on? 
I’m always interested in how diverse cultures define concepts of truth and justice. The Texas Borderlands, where my family was once rooted, is a place of historic conflict and upheaval connected to land and resource exploitation. I’ve sketched out a series of short stories of sequential occupants of one specific piece of land, connecting unrelated generations through the vagaries of cultural change. After completing my novel, My Mother’s Trunk, I’ll continue this project. 

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Recognize that evaluation of any art form carries a large dose of subjectivity. Other judges might find the same work resonant, so dust off, polish, and try again.

Find gains within the losses. Apply because the very process of application has value. Deadlines and entry criteria foster disciplined goals. And in an almost magical (read: truly frustrating) way, as soon as you’ve submitted, the work begins to speak to you again, showing you flaws you never before noticed. You’ll strive to do better, you’ll rewrite, and your work will get stronger. So whether or not your efforts are recognized in any particular round, in the end, you’ve still won.   

Excerpt from My Mother’s Trunk

Duncan Field
San Antonio, TX
April 1942

            Rose seesaws the applicants’ pen between thumb and forefinger as she considers how to answer the question before her: Have you ever been fired? She has saved it for last, wanting to frame it in just the right way. As she constructs her answer, she recalls the thousands of families in the barrios of South Texas, U.S. citizens, who were “repatriated” to Mexico in the years before this war. It is a loaded question, but she intends to leverage it to underscore her whiteness, to offer more evidence that she isn’t any nationality except American. Despite her father’s mother, despite her mother’s father. She knows she was listed as “white” on both censuses taken since her birth. But it takes only 1/16 Japanese ancestry to be sent to a camp, and one drop of African blood to be denied civil rights. What would 1/4 Hispanic get her? She shifts in her chair. No, she won’t claim it; she needs every advantage to be granted a government job. 

“Yes,” she writes in careful block letters. “I was released from my previous employment with Falfurrias Creamery Company, because they needed a Spanish speaking girl in the office.” There, that says it all. Truth is a fine line, she tells herself, requiring both discretion and judgment when applying for a position under the War Service Regulations. Loose Lips Sink Ships. The posters are everywhere, from bus and train stations to post offices. Certainly, during her probation, they will do their own investigation to clarify the nuances. But by then, she will have earned both their respect and their trust.  

Judge’s Comments
“The novel excerpt My Mother’s Trunk seamlessly interweaves fact and fiction: the science and history behind human experimentation from World War II through the Cold War, and a family mystery of a mother’s disappearance. C. Leah Brown has brought together these seemingly disparate elements—war and technology, family loss and lore—artfully in these pages, all while delivering a strong sense of time and place.” – Patricia Park

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