Guardian First Book Award Goes to Biography of Cancer

Indian American oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee is honored for his "anthropomorphism of a disease" in The Emperor of All Maladies (Fourth Estate), which has won the Guardian First Book Award. According judge Lisa Allardice, Mukherjee, who began the part-memoir, part-biography in an effort to contextualize cancer for one of his patients, "has managed to balance such a vast amount of information with lively narratives, combining complicated science with moving human stories. Far from being intimidating, it's a compelling, accessible book."

The only nonfiction title on the shortlist for the award, The Emperor of All Maladies, which also took the Pulitzer Prize this year, beat out four novels for the ten-thousand-pound prize (roughly $15,700). Also competing for Guardian First Book Award were American Amy Waldman's post-9/11 novel, The Submission (William Heinemann); Down the Rabbit Hole (And Other Stories Publishing) by Juan Pablo Villalobos of Mexico and translated by Rosalind Harvey; The Collaborator (Viking) by Mirza Waheed of Kashmir; and Pigeon English by British novelist Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury), whose debut was also shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

"You never write books to win awardsthey are immensely gratifying but unexpected," Mukherjee said. "In recognizing The Emperor of All Maladies, the judges have also recognized the extraordinary courage and resilience of the men and women who struggle with illness, and the men and women who struggle to treat illnesses."

In the video below, the author discusses the origins of the book, and how it evolved into a biography of a disease.

Thurber House Announces New Residency Contest

Beginning next fall the childhood home of author and humorist James Thurber will open its doors annually to one writer for a monthlong retreat. The John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence of Thurber House, located in Columbus, Ohio, will receive a stipend of four thousand dollars and a private, two-room apartment in which to develop a work-in-progress.

The inaugural residency will be offered to a nonfiction writer, in honor of the prize's namesake, the late author John E. Nance, whose work in the genre includes books on the Tasaday people of the Philippines, where he was an Associated Press bureau chief, and the biography of a master potter. In subsequent years, the award will be given in other genres.

Eligible writers for the 2012 award must have published one book of nonfiction (including creative nonfiction) within the past three years or have a book under contract. The most recent book or manuscript, as well as a brief application, must be submitted to Thurber House by March 15. Complete guidelines are available on the Thurber House website.

Caroline Brown's Unconventional Journey

Instructor of applied theater at Cornish College of the Arts, Caroline Brown has facilitated workshops for diverse groups, including veterans, AIDS widows in Kenya, and incarcerated women, as well as P&W-supported writing/performance workshops with BABES Network-YWCA and Compass Housing Alliance in Seattle, Washington. Caroline shared some reflections on her work with us.

What makes your writing workshops unique?
For the most part, my focus has been on the use of theater and performance as a means of helping marginalized communities share their stories with a wider audience. Writing has inevitably been an integral part of this process.

What techniques do you employ to help writers open up?
I conducted a five-week writing workshop with Seattle-based BABES Network-YWCA, an organization that supports women living with HIV/AIDS. I asked the women to help me create group guidelines for the duration of the process. One woman shouted “spelling doesn’t count!” I was so pleased to hear her say this, as I know were the rest of the women. This simple guideline gave the women permission to avoid self-editing, trust their instincts, and find their voices.

I offer exercises that reveal commonality and reduce feelings of isolation amongst the group. I do this by asking participants to create collective poems or short stories that reflect both the diversity and similarities of the group. While conducting the workshop with Compass Housing Alliance, an organization that provides services and housing to homeless and low-income people, we created a composite character that reflected each individual’s respective experience. The group chose a key turning point for the character and took turns answering questions as that character. They were able to collectively narrate the story of how he met his goals. I feel strongly that the participants would not have been as engaged had the same subject matter been discussed outside the context of a fictional story.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for underserved groups?
The work can be tiring and there are times when I yearn for a more conventional career. It is during moments of doubt that I remind myself of experiences such as the one I had working with incarcerated women in the Rhode Island state prison system. Upon completing a writing exercise one of the women asked me through tears if “we did these exercises on the outside.” She was being released from prison the next day and was scared of “going back to her old ways.” The workshops helped her to recognize herself as a good person, something she had never felt before. Her fear was that without such an outlet, she might forget this feeling and start making unhealthy decisions again. What stopped me in my tracks was the fact that such workshops are not so readily available to those who need them the most.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I am inspired by the risks individuals take within the creative process and the freedom they gain from doing so. My greatest challenge in this work is to remember how important that journey is to everyone, including myself. After seven years of encouraging others to endure the challenges that come with the creative journey, it is important to remind myself to embark on the same. I owe it to myself as well as to those who have shown so much courage in the face of their own hesitations toward the creative process.
 
Photo: Caroline Brown. Credit: Sven McNichols.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

A Story Grows in Brooklyn

This fall the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival is sponsoring a contest for stories and essays centered on the most populous borough of New York City. The organization is looking for "compelling Brooklyn stories from writers with a broad range of backgrounds and ages, who can render Brooklyn's rich soul and intangible qualities" using their actual experiences in Kings County as inspiration.

One prose writer, selected by a panel of Brooklyn authors, will receive a prize of four hundred dollars, and the winning piece will be published on the festival website. The winner will also be invited to give a reading at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, near the borough's downtown area.

Story and essay entries, which should range from four to ten pages (up to twenty-five hundred words), should be submitted via e-mail by November 25. There is no entry fee. For more information, visit the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival blog.

The video below is a trailer for some of last year's festival offerings, featuring shots of Brooklyn past and present.

Whiting Awards Help Early-Career Writers "Negotiate With Their Doubts"

Last night in New York City the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation offered another group of emerging writers what could be a life- and career-altering gift. Since 1985, the foundation has annually offered fifty-thousand-dollar prizes to ten writers whose early work suggests the promise of a flourishing careerJeffrey Eugenides, Yiyun Li, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and Terrance Hayes are among the 270 poets, authors, and playwrights to have received the award in the past.

The 2011 Whiting Writers' Award honorees, most of whom have published only one book, are poets Don Mee Choi, Eduardo C. Corral, Shane McCrae, and Kerri Webster; fiction writers Scott Blackwood, Ryan Call, Daniel Orozco, and Teddy Wayne; memoirist Paul Clemens; and playwright Amy Herzog. None of these writers applied for the award; winners are nominated by a group of anonymous literary professionals, which have historically included editors, agents, bookstore owners, and critics.

Poet Mark Doty, who received the Writers' Award in 1994, delivered the prize address, encouraging the winners to "savor this brilliant occasion of attention and celebration" and store it for those inevitable occasions where rejection and self-doubt threaten to define the day.

"May these awards...help you to negotiate with your doubts," he said. "May this award lend you aid and comfort while you move ahead in what I hope will be a long, happy work in service of what is real."

In the video below, Don Mee Choi reads from her book, The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010).

Two Debut Novels Among National Book Award Contenders

The National Book Foundation (NBF) announced the National Book Award finalists today from Portland on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The finalists in poetry are:
Nikky Finney for Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)
Yusef Komunyakaa for The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Carl Phillips for Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Adrienne Rich for Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 20072010 (Norton)
Bruce Smith for Devotions (University of Chicago Press)

The finalists in fiction are:
Andrew Krivak for his debut novel, The Sojourn (Bellevue Literary Press)
Téa Obreht, who was honored by the NBF last year as a 5 Under 35 author, for her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife (Random House)
Julie Otsuka for her novel The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf)
Edith Pearlman for her story collection Binocular Vision (Lookout Books)
Jesmyn Ward for her novel Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury)

This year saw the first graphic book finalist, in the nonfiction category: Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (It Books). The nonfiction shortlist also includes biographies of Malcolm X and Karl and Jenny Marx, as well as Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve (Norton), a look at Lucretius's philosophical poem, "On the Nature of Things."

The National Book Award winners will be announced on November 16 in New York City.

In the video below, Finney reads and discusses the story behind a poem from Head Off & Split.

Poems, Stories, Entire Books Welcome in Winter Anthology Contest

The Winter Anthology, a "collection of contemporary literature informed by history and older art, twenty-first-century science and philosophy, and the ending of print culture," is accepting entries for its 2011 contest. All submissions will be considered for publication online and subsequently in Volume 2 of the anthology, alongside the poetry or prose of the winning writer, who will be awarded one thousand dollars.

This year's judge is poet Lisa Russ Spaar, a professor at University of Virginia whose poetry books include Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea Books, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea Books, 2008), and the forthcoming Vanitas, Rough, which Persea will release next year. Spaar has also published essays in Shenandoah and Virginia Quarterly Review, and her poetry appeared in Volume 1 of the Winter Anthology, with poems by Lucie Brock-Broido, Jean Valentine, and Charles Wright and novel excerpts by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Magdalena Tulli.

Works of any genre are eligible for the contest. Each entry, which may range from two poems or a single essay or story to an entire book of up to fifty pages, must be accompanied by a ten dollar reading fee.

The address for print submissions and a link to the Winter Anthology's Submishmash entry page (which requires writers to submit an eleven dollar entry fee) are posted on the contest website. Entries must be submitted by November 15, and a winner will be announced in the winter.

Novel of Korean War, Memoir by Former Prisoner Win Literary Peace Prize

The sixth annual Dayton Literary Peace Prize, recognizing "the power of the written word to promote peace," was awarded yesterday to novelist Chang-Rae Lee and journalist-cum-memoirist Wilbert Rideau. Lee received the ten-thousand-dollar award for his fourth novel, The Surrendered (Riverhead Books), and Rideau won for his memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance (Knopf).

Lee's novel unfolds during the Korean War, examining the repercussions of violence in the decades that follow the event. "This is a big novel which steadily transcends any thematic constraints and steps into real art," says fiction judge Ron Carlson, adding, "the dimensions of the book insist on a gritty and complex understanding of our best impulses in the worst of times."

Nonfiction judge Eric Bates says of Rideau's book, completed after the author spent forty-four years incarcerated in Louisiana prisons, "For his reporting alone, Rideau has made a critical and lasting contribution to our understanding of a prison system that long ago gave up on the notion of rehabilitation. But his memoir goes far beyond the limitations of journalism. He brings to his story a deep devotion to the power of literature, drawing on traditions as diverse as Saint Augustine and Frederick Douglass to craft a dramatic and moving tale that is both deeply felt and richly observed."

The winners will be presented their awards at a ceremony on November 13 in Dayton, Ohio, the seat of the historic Dayton Peace Accords, initialed there in November 1995.

In the video below, Lee discusses his winning book with Leonard Lopate of New York City public radio station WNYC.

Rose Mary Salum's Cross-Cultural Whirl

Since 2007, P&W has supported literary events in Houston, Texas. Literal, Latin American Voices, an award-winning bilingual magazine, was among the first Houston organizations supported by P&W. We asked its founder and director, Rose Mary Salum, author of the short story collection Spaces in Between, to share her experience as a presenter of Latin American literature and art.

What was your most successful literary program?
One of the most successful programs we hosted this year was Poetics of Displacement: Latin American Émigré Writers and the Creative Imagination. When Gisela Heffes invited us to collaborate with Rice University on this series, we immediately agreed. The response was amazing, especially to Sergio Ramírez, who I introduced! People approached me to express their absolute satisfaction. 

What makes your programs unique?
We invite established authors from Latin America, who are perhaps not as well-known in the United States. Everyone is familiar with the boom authors—the García Marquezs and Vargas Llosas. Besides these magnificent authors, there is a vast array of writers who are innovative and at the vanguard of literature. We have always questioned the practice of promoting writers familiar to our audiences to minimize the risk of failure. Ultimately, the quality of work is what must win in the end. Having a magazine with these characteristics (bilingual with Latin American subject matter, but still international) puts us in the peculiar place of voicing a de-centered point of view that steers away from the dominant culture, and we want to keep going this way. The United States is becoming more and more aware of the vast repository of literature that exists “down there.”

How do you find and invite readers?
I carefully choose dates and venues to make it easy for people to visit. There’s a huge niche for Latin American writers and readers in the United States, but we are scattered. Houston is a gateway at the perfect geographical point of connection between a continent with two languages. The mission of Literal is to exploit this location and get these cultures closer to each other.

Has literary presenting informed your writing life?
Every time I research new authors and read their books, their work has such an impact on me that some of my guests become characters in my fiction.

What is the value of literary programs in your community?
We cannot ignore the globalized world where influences roam freely. A program about literature is all about exchanging ideas, perspectives, and culture. Having said that, the programs we organize are always centered on the idea of being a platform for dialog, even if we are not familiar with other cultures within our own borders. “There is a tendency to abstract and aestheticize the colossal displacement of peoples and their cultures generated by globalization,” explains Lorraina Pinnell. A publication like Literal has a special role in addressing, in concrete terms and forms, cross-cultural contacts whirling through Canada, the United States, and Latin America. For our part, we are dedicated to resisting this tendency to abstract an entire reality; the publication and, moreover, the events we organize present distinct regions of the Americas in their various and sometimes clashing embodiments.

Photo: P&W-supported writer Sergio Ramírez with Gisela Heffes of Rice University. Credit: Enrique Vazquez.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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