If there’s one thing the 2023 Oregon Book Awards emphasized, it was the power of the community. At Monday’s awards ceremony, writers and literature lovers were reminded of how words have the power to move and effect change not only from within, but also within society.
“Literacy is critical now more than ever,” said Jennie Englund, a 2022 Oregon Book Award winner for “Taylor Before and After.”
The awards, an annual tradition dating back to 1987 and run by Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts, recognize the recent works of Oregon writers in seven categories and honor other writers with legacy awards. Each year, the nominees and winners are selected by a panel of out-of-state judges.
The atmosphere at this year’s awards ceremony was charged with excitement and familiarity. The event, which took place at The Armory’s Portland Center Stage, was the second in-person edition after the lockdown.
The awardees included Dawn Babb Prochovnic and Gary Miranda, who were honored with The Walt Morey Young Readers Literary Legacy Award and The Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award, respectively.
The rather intimate event was hosted by radio personality Luke Burbank, who did not shy away from poking fun at conversations happening around artificial intelligence and literature.
“If AI will be able to replace writers, and having read a lot of the work by the folks who are being honored here tonight, I would say they’re safe,” Burbank said. “If you ever read the work by the people here — the depth, the intelligence, the humanity — and then seeing Google Translate on your voicemail. … I feel like it’s going to be a while before we humans are being replaced.”
But beneath this veil of distinction and the occasional comic relief, lay a recurring theme: Immigrant stories are American stories.
Four of the seven books honored Monday follow characters who came from immigrant families who contribute to the United States.
“What this tells us is that we are hungry for these stories, regardless of if they know it is their own story or if it exists in a multitude of identities,” said Eric Tran, who received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry for “Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke.”
Dane Liu’s “Friends Are Friends, Forever” received the 2023 Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature. The picture book is rooted in her own immigration story and the power of friendship.
“I feel like American stories should always have to do with immigrant stories — that’s what makes us special, that’s what identifies us in the world,” Liu said. “For the fact that these weren’t the stories we told each other, told ourselves, says something more about the past than the present.”
The ceremony closed with journalist-turned-author Sindya Bhanoo receiving the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction for “Seeking Fortune Elsewhere: Stories,” a debut collection that elevates intricate narratives of South Indian immigrants. The stories tread on hope and regret.
Bhanoo herself is a child of immigrant parents and first started writing stories about the South Asian diaspora when her daughter was born. However, she soon came to the conclusion that these stories are for everyone.
“The stories I wrote, I hadn’t seen elsewhere,” Bhanoo said. “They were stories that didn’t exist in the larger archive of the stories that we have, and I feel like they belonged there, and I felt like it was everybody’s loss if they were not written down.”
The complete awards list:
Ken Kesey Award for Fiction
(Judges: Zinzi Clemmons, Jonathan Dee, Shruti Swamy)
Winner: Sindya Bhanoo, “Seeking Fortune Elsewhere: Stories”
- Cai Emmons, “Sinking Islands”
- Emme Lund, “The Boy with a Bird in His Chest”
- Jon Raymond, “Denial”
- Lidia Yuknavitch, “Thrust”
Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry
(Judges: Chen Chen, Lisa Olstein, Matthew Olzmann)
Winner: Eric Tran, “Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke”
- Matthew Dickman, “Husbandry”
- Michele Glazer, “fretwork”
- Janice Lee, “Separation Anxiety”
- Amy Miller, “Astronauts”
Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Nonfiction
(Judges: Richard Panek, Kim Todd, Neal Thompson)
Winner: Lauren Kessler, “Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home”
- Anita Hannig, “The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America”
- Leah Sottile, “When the Moon Turns to Blood”
- Deb Vanasse, “Roar of the Sea: Treachery, Obsession, and Alaska’s Most Valuable Wildlife”
- David H. Wilson Jr, “Northern Paiutes of the Malheur: High Desert Reckoning in Oregon Country”
Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction
(Judges: Sloane Crosley, Christa Parravani, Mychal Denzel Smith)
Winner: Casey Parks, “Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery”
- Laurie Easter, “All the Leavings”
- Garrett Hongo, “The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo”
- Lora Lafayette, “Possums Run Amok: A True Tale Told Slant”
- Ann Stinson, “The Ground at My Feet: Sustaining a Family and a Forest”
Leslie Bradshaw Award for Middle Grade & Young Adult Literature
(Judges: Mary Cronk Farrell, T. P. Jagger, Alex Sanchez)
Winner: Waka T. Brown, “Dream, Annie, Dream”
- Jonathan Case, “Little Monarchs”
- Susan Hill Long, “The Care and Keeping of Freddy”
- Jenn Reese, “Every Bird a Prince”
- Sonja Thomas, “Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence”
Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature
(Judges: Erik Brooks, Carole Lindstrom, Cathryn Mercier)
Winner: Dane Liu, “Friends Are Friends, Forever”
- Zoey Abbott, “Pig and Horse and the Something Scary”
- Cathy Camper, “Arab Arab All Year Long!”
- Trudy Ludwig, “Brave Every Day”
- Carrie Tillotson, “Counting to Bananas: A Mostly Rhyming Fruit Book”
Angus Bowmer Award for Drama
(Judges: France-Luce Benson, Colette Freedman, Amina Henry)
Winner: Sara Jean Accuardi, “The Storyteller”
- E.M. Lewis, “Dorothy’s Dictionary”
- Rich Rubin, “Russian Troll”
- C.S. Whitcomb, “Acting Counsel”
- The Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award: Gary Miranda of Redmond
- The Walt Morey Young Readers Literary Legacy Award: Dawn Babb Prochovnic of Portland
Editor’s note: OPB’s Crystal Ligori contributed to this story.