|Ludmilla Cafritz, Cid Szegedy, Willie Lewis, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, and Azar Nafisi get their picture taken by Conrad Cafritz.|
by Carol Joynt
The theme of last year’s PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction gala was “Promises, Promises,” which was clever for a moment when Congress was debating a bail out bill, the presidential candidates were debating each other, and the rest of us were trying to assure our loved ones we would survive the emerging economic meltdown intact. That moment is behind us now, for better or worse. If you are reading this, you survived something, and maybe you’re wiser to boot. So hand it to PEN/Faulkner for ably branding our sociological flow; this year’s theme was “Revelation.”
The group’s 21st Anniversary Celebration was, as before, held in the wood-paneled, high-ceilinged, book-lined Renaissance theater and rooms of The Folger Shakespeare Library, which, in ironic contrast, sits within the tense high security zone that surrounds the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the office buildings of the House and Senate. In every direction there are tools of Homeland Security: cops, cop cars, dogs, more cops, more cop cars. You feel watched, very watched, but then there’s welcomed serenity as you give your car to the valet and enter the calmer confines of the Folger.
|Host Calvin Trillin welcomes guests to the PEN/Faulkner 21st Anniversary Celebration.|
|Alice McDermott, Debra Magpie Earling, and Eugene Brooks listen to Francine Prose.|
|It is an adult and civilized evening. Everyone is well behaved. Except in the words of the writers, there’s not the slightest hint of the volatile world outside. From the stage we heard opening remarks by host Calvin Trillin, followed by essays on “Revelation” from 12 acclaimed authors: Geraldine Brooks, David Anthony Durham, Debra Magpie Earling, W. Ralph Eubanks, Alice McDermott, Nam Le, Jay McInerney, Ana Menendez, Francine Prose, Beth Henley, Amy Tan, Luis Alberto Urrea, and two Washington student PEN/Faulkner winners, Lisa Femia, 16, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School and Matt Nguyen, 18, a senior at McKinley Technology High School.
Brooks, the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel March, said, “Write what you see – the wild mind’s eye. Open your eyes to visions. Everything is possible. That, friends, is revelation.” Durham, author of the Acacia Trilogy, said revelation is “holding my dying mother’s hand in mine and discovering her hand is mine. Her dying hand and my living hand are the same.”
|Geraldine Brooks, recalling "the sound of many waters."|
|David Anthony Durham.||Luis Alberto Urrea.|
|Eubanks, author of The House at The End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South, spoke about the “choice” he made in life to lose his southern accent, which he equated with being “unlearned.” He listened to the radio to “learn northern accents. I stopped elongating words and dropping G’s.” However, he said, “I may have erased Mississippi from my voice but its sound helped to make me a writer. My accent lies deep in my soul and reveals itself on the page.”
Le, who won the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize, found his revelation through the cancer diagnosis of a close friend. “My friend stricken by cancer made me realize the condition of being alive is by definition the condition of dying, and it just might be the truest thing we ever hope to understand.”
|W. Ralph Eubanks. "Tonight is all about revelation."|
|McInerney opened by letting the mostly local audience know, “Washington, DC, has been a revelation for me. I didn’t realize what a beautiful city it is.” His remarks focused on “being awakened to the transcendent capacity of language” through E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas. “This is where I started to discover that language could create meaning beyond merely conveying it.”
Urrea walked to the podium and dramatically tossed aside his written notes. The author of Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush and a native of Mexico said, “I feel confident I am the only writer here who started his career at the Tijuana garbage dump.” But he began a diary back then and found in his craft that “I was given these words from the angel at the bottom of the world.”
|Beth Henley, Nam Le and Alice McDermott listen to Amy Tan.|
|Calvin Trillin makes closing remarks. To the right are student writing winners Matt Nguyen and Lisa Femia.|
|Following the readings, the 236 guests adjourned to two separate rooms where round and rectangular tables were dressed with pretty colors and pretty flowers, and to a menu virtually identical to last year’s. The 2008 appetizer was Roasted Vegetable Tower and this year’s was Rockfish and Avocado Tower; last year’s entrée was Champagne and Peach Glazed Poussin and this year’s was Champagne and Peach Glazed Chicken. Last year’s dessert – Coconut Cake Timbale. This year’s? You guessed it. Call it the revelation of the writer who kept last year’s menu.
Finlay and Willee Lewis, Gene and Carol Ludwig, Maxwell MacKenzie, Bob Madigan, Rep. Ed Markey, Richard Levy, Hugh Jacobsen, Rush Jacobsen, Pamela Jackson, Jim Lehrer, Jackie Glassman, Noreen and Barrett Prettyman, Misha and Lis Petkevich, Michael and Susan Pillsbury, Tina Poole, Nora Pouillon, Henry Richardson, Chuck Muckenfuss, Ed Murphy, Evelyn Nef, Clarence Page, Bill and Alison Paley, George Pelacanos, Tim Seldes, Steven Shafran, Donna Shor, Lois Romano, Jan Rothschild, Susan Savitsky, Septime Webre, Stephen and Andrea Weiswasser, Robin and Eileen West, Nancy Tartt, Deborah Tannen, Richard Rymland, Mike Stanton, Gary Zizka, Beverly Williams, Cid Szegedy, Mindy Strelitz, Marshall Thompson, Jackie Zins, Yolanda Young, Donald and Jean Wolf, Karl Pribram and Frazier O’Leary.
|Francine Prose and Geraldine Brooks.||Catherine Bradley and Randy Cone.|
|Lou DeMattei, Senator Patrick Leahy, Marcelle Leahy, and Amy Tan.|
|Dominique Thormann, Scott Becker, and Mary Haft.||Jay McInerney, Anne Hearst, and Mary Haft.|
|Ana Menendez, David Anthony Durham, and Luis Urrea.|
|Pretty table settings, pretty flowers.|
|Dining in a Renaissance room lined with books.|
|Photographs by Carol Joynt and James Brantley. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: caroljoynt.com.|