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National Book Award Finalists Featured at #PDXBookFest

In November, Literary Arts was thrilled to host over 100 exciting authors at the virtual Portland Book Festival, presented by Bank of America. Among the featured authors were many who were finalists for the 2020 National Book Awards in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. Below is a roundup of those authors, with links to watch their #PDXBookFest events in our Video Library. All free events from the Festival were recorded and are available to watch now in our Video Library at PDXBookFest.org!


Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Charles Yu won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Yu discussed Interior Chinatown with Emily Nemens (The Cactus League) and moderator Jon Raymond (Freebird) at the Festival. Watch their conversation in our Video Library HERE.

About Interior Chinatown: A deeply personal novel about race, pop culture, immigration, assimilation, and escaping the roles we are forced to play.

Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as the protagonist in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but always he is relegated to a prop. Yet every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. Or is it?

After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family. Infinitely inventive and deeply personal, exploring the themes of pop culture, assimilation, and immigration—Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.

Purchase a copy of Interior Chinatown from Portland-based independent bookstore, Annie Bloom’s Books here.

Other fiction titles from the Festival to explore:
Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, finalist in fiction — in conversation here with Jonathan Lethem (The Arrest)

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, longlisted in fiction — in conversation here with Bryan Washington (Memorial)

Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, longlisted in fiction — in conversation here with Liz Crain (Dumplings = Love)

Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible, finalist in fiction — in conversation here with Claire Messud (Kant’s Little Prussian Head…)

Vanessa Veselka’s The Great Offshore Grounds, longlisted in fiction — in conversation here with Lysley Tenorio (The Son of Good Fortune)


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Wilkerson discussed Caste with Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Refugees) at the Festival. Listen to their conversation on this episode of The Archive Project HERE.

About Caste: A masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.

Purchase a copy of Caste from Portland-based independent bookstore Powell’s Books here.

Other nonfiction titles from the Festival to explore:
Jill Lepore’s If Then, longlisted in nonfiction — in conversation here with both Oregon Public Broadcasting & Live Wire Radio

Jerald Walker’s How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, longlisted in nonfiction — in conversation here with Brit Bennett (The Vanishing Half) & Evette Dionne (Lifting As We Climb)


Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Natalie Diaz was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Diaz discussed Postcolonial Love Poem with Live Wire Radio at the Festival. Watch their conversation in our Video Library HERE.

About Postcolonial Love Poem: An anthem of desire against erasure. Natalie Diaz’s brilliant second collection demands that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloveds. Through these poems, the wounds inflicted by America onto an indigenous people are allowed to bloom pleasure and tenderness: “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden.” In this new lyrical landscape, the bodies of indigenous, Latinx, black, and brown women are simultaneously the body politic and the body ecstatic. In claiming this autonomy of desire, language is pushed to its dark edges, the astonishing dunefields and forests where pleasure and love are both grief and joy, violence and sensuality.

Diaz defies the conditions from which she writes, a nation whose creation predicated the diminishment and ultimate erasure of bodies like hers and the people she loves: “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. // I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Postcolonial Love Poem unravels notions of American goodness and creates something more powerful than hope—a future is built, future being a matrix of the choices we make now, and in these poems, Diaz chooses love.  

Purchase a copy of Postcolonial Love Poem from Portland-based independent bookstore Broadway Books here.


Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Aiden Thomas was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Thomas discussed Cemetery Boys with Justina Ireland (Deathless Divide) at the Festival. Watch their conversation in our Video Library HERE.

About Cemetery Boys: Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.

When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.

However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

Purchase a copy of Cemetery Boys from Portland-based independent bookstore Powell’s Books here.

And don’t miss:
Evette Dionne’s Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle For the Ballot Box, also longlisted in young people’s literature — in conversation here with Anne Helen Petersen (Can’t Even)


BONUS: For three years, the Portland Book Festival has partnered with the National Book Foundation to present a panel of NBA finalists at the event. You can watch 2020’s conversation, featuring Brit Bennett, Evette Dionne, Jerald Walker, with moderator Novella Ford here in our Video Library.

Relive the magic of the 2020 #PDXBookFest by viewing ALL free events on demand in our Video Library now!

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