Saturday, October 8, 2016

City of Weird Contributor: Rene Denfeld

I drive past Powell's City of Books' downtown store every weekday on my way to work. Usually I cross the river via the Burnside Bridge, but lately I've been cutting over to Belmont/Morrison and taking the Morrison Bridge. You could say it was because of the road construction on Burnside, and you'd be kind of right, but the real reason is that taking Morrison lets me come upon the Powell's marquee head on rather than from the side and gives me a better view of City of Weird up there in "lights." Looking at the book title up there is like looking at my own name, but it's better because it's also like looking at 31 other names, the name of Laura Stanfill our publisher, and all thirty contributors. 

Now that books are going out to stores and the events are about to begin, I thought I'd write a little something about each of these wonderful people who made this book what it is. I'm going to start with the writers who will be reading at the Powell's launch this coming Wednesday (facebook event page is here, just saying), and today's writer is Rene Denfeld.

I'm a total, raving fangirl for Rene Denfeld. When she sent me a story for City of Weird, I kind of couldn't believe it. It was like being given a short story by, I don't know, Audrey Hepburn (if Audrey Hepburn were a writer). I mean, there's the initial, wow, she's a remarkable artist thing, and the wow, she's a star thing, but remember, Audrey Hepburn was a humanitarian, devoting much of her life to UNICEF. Rene Denfeld is like this to me - someone I so admire for her art but who I am kind of in love with for the good she does in the world.

Rene is an investigator who represents men and women facing the death penalty. Many of whom are already on death row. I cannot imagine the hurt she takes into herself while uncovering their stories and when having to let her clients go if there is nothing else she can do for them. I fully believe that the personalities and identities we possess come from genes and environment and experiences and influences and injuries we cannot control. My heart aches for the people whose luck landed them on paths that lead to the prison cells where Rene often meets them. Even considering that mine might be an extreme viewpoint, the compassion Rene gives people - and the way she approaches issues with openness and without judgment... there's that fangirl thing again.

Here are her words from a wonderful feature in the Oregonian:

I find long-lost family members, friends, and other witnesses. I spend a lot of time in prisons, trailer parks, tenements and shacks in the woods. I locate ancient records in dusty basements. Sometimes I uncover terrible secrets. In a nutshell, I learn why. What made this person? Why did they do the things they did? it can be a very sad, difficult job. People honor me with their memories, and so I absorb a lot of pain. But it can also bring moments of profound insight.

Rene used these experiences when she wrote her beautiful, French Prix award-winning novel The Enchanted. I saw the same combination of imagination and boundless heart in "The Sturgeon Queen," the story she wrote for City of Weird. I had asked submitters for stories playing on sci-fi and fantasy tropes, all taking place in Portland, and Rene gave me a man-eating sturgeon - and so much more. It's a story about Portland's history, about human kindness and human oppression, about gentrification, growing old, telling stories, telling lies, and the lost world of the Native culture that once thrived in the Pacific Northwest.

Here's a taste of her words, from the opening to the story.

My grandma told me this story. You have to mind my grandma. She liked to say she was a descendant from the natives that once filled this area—the men who worked the falls, lowering their nets, the women who waded for wapato in the low-lying river fields. 

My grandma was fond of telling stories, and at one time or another, she also claimed to be a native of Russia, the daughter of a convict who married a slave, and, once, when she was knee-deep in Wild Irish Rose, said she was a descendant of Mr. Clark himself, on his wild ride up the river, on which she said he sprayed his seed like a cottonwood tree in spring. 

I love her writing for the heart, the wit, the lovely, musical language, the sheer storytelling skill of it. I'm so excited and honored to have this story in City of Weird.

Rene also wrote the nonfiction books All God's Children, The New Victorians and Kill the Body the Head with Fall. Her next novel, The Child Finder, will be out in fall of 2017.

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