Orcas Island Lit Fest: where words come to life

by Matthew Gilbert for the Orcas Island Lit Fest.

This annual literary festival returns June 2-3 with another slate of remarkable authors, thought-provoking discussions, and musical enchantments. But visitors to this year’s event will notice a few changes as the festival branches out to explore new genres and formats. What ties it all together? The power of storytelling to bring people together and even change lives.

Podcasting: Voices in Conversation

America’s past has plenty of dark moments, and Gilbert King’s passion for investigating historical injustice has led to three powerful books: The Execution of Willie Francis; Devil in the Grove, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction; and Beneath a Ruthless Sun, a gripping account of small-town wrongdoing. His latest project is Bone Valley, a nine-part narrative podcast about a murder and cover-up in 1980s Florida.

The emergence of the podcast as a prominent source of entertainment, education, and cultural insight will be the subject of the Lit Fest’s opening panel on Saturday, June 3. King will be joined by Jeannie Yandel and Eula Scott Bynoe, who cohost Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace on NPR station KUOW, and Nicole J Georges, a graphic memoirist and creator of the podcast Relative Fiction. Moderating the panel will be John Moe, best known for his long-running mental health podcast, Depresh Mode with John Moe, and author of The Hilarious World of Depression.

Debut Novels: Deepening the American Story

The Lit Fest’s second panel of the day features four first-time novelists, two of whom have already earned many accolades for their poetry, essays, and short stories. Kirstin Valdez Quade’s widely acclaimed The Five Wounds— named one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year, with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews, among others—is about a multigenerational New Mexico family navigating the challenges of faith, forgiveness, and redemption. Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah also received multiple starred reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book. It’s a searing riff on this country’s increasingly privatized prison system that literary critics have compared to Gladiator and The Hunger Games.

Quade and Adjei-Brenyah will be joined on the panel by Orcas Islander Victoria Grageda-Smith, whose debut The Thomasite, about a young teacher from Iowa who gets involved in the 1901 American-Philippine War, will be published on May 30, and JoAnne Tompkins, whose novel What Comes After, a layered telling of overcoming tragedy, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

Graphic Novels: A Maturing Art

If a picture paints a thousand words, what happens when you blend contemporary literary themes with imaginative illustrations and provocative prose? The “graphic novel,” and these panelists have mastered the craft. Seattle-based writer, filmmaker, playwright, and race car driver Garth Stein, whose breakout third book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was a New York Times bestseller that became a movie and a play, recently teamed up with author-illustrator Matthew Southworth on The Cloven, the first of three graphic novels set in a near-future Pacific Northwest about genetically modified human organisms looking for their true home. (Book two will come out later this year.)

This unique marriage of art and words will also be discussed by Nicole J Georges; Nhatt Nichols, a Northwest native who uses drawing, poetry, and comics to educate readers about political and environmental issues; and T Edward Bak, a longtime Oregon resident whose work explores the intersection of culture and ecology.

Word Play: An Evening of Songs and Stories

Each of the festival’s four headliners — Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Gilbert King, Garth Stein, and Kirstin Valdez Quade — will read at the weekend’s culminating performance on Saturday night at Orcas Center. They’ll share the stage with singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx, whose debut album “I Need to Start a Garden” and hit song “The Bug Collector” feature the soulful acoustic magic that has been filling venues during her sold-out tour. Singer-songwriters Olivia Awbrey and LéPonds will join Heynderickx to close out the unique literary experience of Lit Fest ‘23.

OILF Kids’ Fest at Orcas Island Library

Kids — along with adult fans of young adult fiction — will be treated to a free special event as they enjoy the words and wisdom of Haitian-born storyteller Ibi Zoboi on Saturday morning at Orcas Island Library. Zoboi, whose 2017 book, American Street, was a National Book Award finalist, states, “I write for young people to pour into their nascent and wild imaginations culture that needs to be preserved, stories that ought to be remembered, and inner truths that can liberate minds and change the world.”

More details about this year’s artists, events, and tickets are at www.oilf.org. Virtual tickets are available for those who can’t join the festival in person.