Omar El Akkad’s ‘What Strange Paradise’ wins Oregon Book Award for fiction

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Omar El Akkad’s novel ‘What Strange Paradise’ tells the story of a 9-year-old Syrian migrant who is stranded on a Greek island and the teenage girl who risks her own safety to try to help him .

Omar El Akkad received the Ken Kesey Prize for Fiction on Monday at the 35and annual Oregon Book Prize for his novel What a strange paradise. The awards – the first given in person since 2019 – combined the usual thanks and tributes with a sense of joy at coming together and expressions of wonder at the strangeness of the past two years.

El-Akkad congratulated the other finalists for their amazing books and thanked Zoom event organizers for her novel “where literally three people showed up.” Observing that his 5-year-old daughter has spent half her life in this “strange negative space,” the West Linn writer said, “Being in that room with all of you is something I’ve missed a lot.”

The sentiment was apparently widespread among the masked crowd of several hundred people who gathered at the Portland Center Stage at The Armory. An atmosphere of reunion and camaraderie reigned, while making up for lost time. Host Kesha Ajose Fisherwinner of the 2020 Fiction Prize and resplendent in red and orange, said she was waiting for a chance to wear the fabulous dress she bought for the non-existent ceremony in her triumphant year.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin says his non-fiction winner,
Jacob Darwin Hamblin says his non-fiction winner, “The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Bet With Peaceful Nuclear Technology,” is neither pro nor anti-nuclear. It’s history.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin de Corvallis, who won the Frances Fuller Victor Award for General Non-Fiction, said the award was particularly gratifying because of the hate mail her book spawned, The Wretched Atom: America’s Global Bet With Peaceful Nuclear Technology. People want to know if the book is pro or anti-nuclear, he said, explaining: “It’s history – it’s OK to read it without a pro or con opinion.” He added, “Historians are just people who like to read other people’s mail.”

The Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award was presented to Cynthia Whitcomb of Wilsonville, who was president of Willamette Writers from 1995 to 2012 and grew it from a small nonprofit to a statewide organization that nurtures and mentors writers. Upon accepting the honor, Whitcomb offered some writer’s advice.

“What is a writer? Whitcomb asked rhetorically. “Anyone who feels bad for not writing. It never crosses the minds of non-writers.

She noted that writers struggle with two words – discipline and procrastination. Discipline feels like punishment, she says. “You don’t have to write every day.” As for procrastination, his advice is to replace the word with “gestation”. You nurture and encourage an idea, she advised. She quoted the Oregon poet William Staffordwho said something to the effect that “all an idea has to do to be worthy of my attention is pop into my head”.

Noting that most writers are perfectionists, Whitcomb said, “There’s no such thing. Stop chasing him so hard. She summed up her three tips for the crowd:

  1. You’re not procrastinating, you’re pregnant.
  2. Don’t think, write it down.
  3. Your best is good enough.
Breena Bard said Monday was an exciting day for her.  In addition to winning the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature, she went to her son's school for the first time in two years to attend the Scholastic Book Fair.  Photo by: Weeno Photography
Breena Bard said Monday was an exciting day for her. In addition to winning the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature, she went to her son’s school for the first time in two years to attend the Scholastic Book Fair. Photo by: Weeno Photography

A total of 205 books from 44 Oregon cities were submitted for the awards, presented by literary arts, in seven categories. The other winners for 2022 were:

Eloise Jarvis McGraw Prize for Children’s Literature: Jennie Englund from Ashland, for Taylor before and after

Leslie Bradshaw Prize for Young Adult Literature: Courtney Gould of Salem, for The dead and the darkness

Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction: Allison Cobb from Portland for Plastic: an autobiography

Graphic Literature Award: Breena Bard from Portland for Intruder: A Graphic Novel

Stafford/Hall Prize for Poetry: Dao Strom from Portland for Instrument

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