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October 2, 2014

PEN/Faulkner Awards Showcase D.C.’s Literary Culture

It’s easy to forget, amid Capitol Hill’s partisan din, about the capital city’s rich literary heritage.

Then the PEN/Faulkner awards pop up, once a year, reminding all around that Washington, D.C., has a strong artistic culture that has nothing to do with fiery press releases and mind-numbing think tank studies. It can be the setting for what one awards judge described as the beginning of our “unsecret time,” and it can be where authors from such small press endeavors as Cinco Puntos Press and Coffee House Press explore the American experience, whether that be through war, the flooding of New Orleans or living on the border.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation board is populated by local authors incuding George Pelecanos, Azar Nafisi and Deborah Tannen, and the foundation provides its Reading Series in the capital region that features such luminaries as Jeffrey Eugenides, Terry McMillan and Robert Stone.

On May 4, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation honored its 2013 Fiction Award finalists and winner, using the Folger Shakespeare Library to showcase the talents of Amelia Gray, Laird Hunt, T. Geronimo Johnson, Thomas Mallon and Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

The awards ceremony, emceed this year by NPR’s Jacki Lyden, provided a little glitz to a part of Capitol Hill (201 East Capitol St. SE) that can be otherwise sleepy on the weekends. The literary pedigree of the event didn’t leave out politics entirely, as evidenced from the content of the fiction, as well as some of the statements of the award’s judges.

A.J. Verdelle, who introduced Mallon and his reading from his novel “Watergate,” provided the following in her program biography: “A daughter and descendant of Washington, D.C. freemen, Verdelle awaits a vote in Congress.” For anyone listening in the Capitol campus two blocks down the street, the message is simple: There might be little discussion of the D.C. franchise in Congress these days, but that doesn’t mean others are forgetting.

The works for which the honorees were cited were a diverse lot.

Gray’s “Threats” is a hallucinatory novel that traces the fallout of a spouse’s suicide on the survivor. Hunt’s “Kind One” is a novel set in antebellum Kentucky about a young woman’s relationships with her cruel husband and his slaves. Johnson’s “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” tells the story of two brothers who are Afghanistan War veterans and one’s search for the other amid Hurricane Katrina. Mallon’s “Watergate” is an historical novel that re-tells the story of Nixon’s downfall primarily through female characters who have seldom had their voices heard. And the winner, Saenz’s “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club” is a set of linked stories following characters living along the Southwest border and their connections through the Kentucky Club in Juarez, Mexico.

After the awards ceremony, the dinner that followed, which helps raise money for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s educational endeavors, such as the Writers in Schools program, took place in the library’s reading room, amid early Shakespeare folios and hundreds of years of scholarship of his works, contemporary authors and their supporters relaxing amid their cultural ancestors.

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