PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award winner, Native American writer Sherman Alexie, and four finalists read from their exquisite works May 8 at a gala 30th anniversary ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The celebration of extraordinary literary excellence featured readings by Alexie from “War Dances” (Grove Press); Barbara Kingsolver from “The Lacuna” (Harper); Lorraine M. López, “Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories”; Lorrie Moore, “A Gate at the Stairs” (Knopf); and Colson Whitehead, “Sag Harbor” (Doubleday).
The PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award is one of America’s most prestigious literary honors, and the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States.
One of the three judges introducing the writers, Al Young, said Alexie’s “’War Dances’ taps every vein and nerve, every tissue, every issue that quickens the current blood-pulse: parenthood, divorce, broken links, sex, gender and racial conflict, substance abuse, medical neglect, 9/11, Official Narrative vs. What Really Happened, settler religion vs. native spirituality; marketing, shopping, and war, war, war. All the heartbreaking ways we don’t live now—this is the caring, eye-opening beauty of this rollicking, bittersweet gem of a book.”
Alexie, shaking his head, told the audience, “It’s amazing, really amazing, for me and my family, and my tribe.”
A Spokane/Couer d’Alene Indian, Alexie added, “I am Native American. I am part of them, they are part of me.”
The Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas honored Alexie with its 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Another amazing aspect, which Alexie did not mention, is that he was born hydrocephalic, with water on the brain, and not expected to survive. His many other honors include a National Book Award.
Alexie joked about finalist Whitehead, an African American, “Colson really p—– me off. He’s good-looking and funny. I thought I had the brown funny guy thing covered.”
Alexie, whose writing dashes stunningly back and forth between humorous and heart-wrenching, read from his “Invisible Dog on a Leash”. It’s one of the shortest of his stories interwoven by related poems in “War Dances”.
Then, Master of Ceremonies Gwen Ifill quipped, “I think I’m funny and good-looking–” the audience burst into laughter, whoops, and applause — “and I’m brown, too.”
Earlier in the event, Colson Whitehead offered “Thanks for including me in all this nice company.” He added, “I didn’t want to put anything interesting in the book to make it worthwhile.”
“Sag Harbor”, one of two coming-of-age books to make the finals, is a fictionalized version of Whitehead’s summer of 1985.
“I didn’t like being a teenager, I didn’t like writing about them, and I don’t like them now,” the MacArthur Fellow deadpanned.
Most of the authors and their works evoked laughter as well as deep admiration for their luscious use of language.
The best-known among the authors, Barbara Kingsolver, said, “It’s so wonderful to be in a room with people who care about literature — Hallelujah.”
Kingsolver added, “We writers seem drawn to what nobody wants to talk about…This time, I wrote about one of the things people hate even more than snakes (as in “The Poisonwood Bible”) — Communism.”
In “The Lacuna”, a Mexican American writer of Aztec and Mayan “bodice busters, historic fiction” meets the famed artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, along with Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky when in Mexico City.
Judge Rilla Askew termed “The Lacuna” a “complex, compelling novel with capital N.”
Lorrie Moore said, “When finishing a book, one is always a little surprised that it’s not better — and also that it’s not worse. At least in my case, one always knows it’s a weird book.”
The book was Moore’s first novel in 15 years. She won the PEN/Malamud Award for short stories in 2005. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006, and winner of its Academy Award for Literature, Moore is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Judge Kyoko Mori described Moore’s book, about a 20-year-old midwestern college student and nanny to a multi-cultural child a year after 9/11, as revealing “the knowledge that comes from heartbreak and its aftermath.”
From one of the most heartbreaking book topics, homicide survivors, came one of the most endearing readings and comments, by author Lorraine M. López.
“Wow. This is incredible…as if a dream I never even dared dream has come true,” said López, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She is also editor of its multi-lingual “Afro-Hispanic Review”.
The award judges considered almost 350 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during 2009. Submissions came from more than 90 publishing houses, including small and academic presses.
The awards ceremony was followed by “the most elegant dinner you’re going to have for at least a week,” Ifill promised as everyone adjourned to the Folger’s wood-panelled Great Hall.
The readings were the most elegant literature we’re going to hear for a year until the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award.
For more info: PEN/Faulkner Foundation, www.penfaulkner.org. Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folger.edu.