Benjamin Alire Saenz receives PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize

Benjamin Alire Saenz became the first Latino writer to receive the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize at a Saturday night ceremony in Washington.

The 58-year-old author of more than a dozen collections of poetry and works for children, teens and adults won the award for “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.” The book is a collection of seven loosely linked stories, published by Cinco Puntos, a small independent press in El Paso, Texas, where Saenz lives.

This year’s PEN/Faulkner judges — Walter Kirn, Nelly Rosario and A.J. Verdelle — considered 351 submissions published during 2012 and ultimately selected a winner and four finalists. Saenz received $15,000, and each finalist received $5,000, but small presses were the big winners, taking three of the five slots:

  • Amelia Gray, “Threats” (FSG)
  • Laird Hunt, “Kind One” (Coffee House)
  • T. Geronimo Johnson, “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” (Coffee House)
  • Thomas Mallon, “Watergate” (Pantheon)

All the authors read brief passages from their work on the stage of the Folger Theatre, which was set for a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” An enormous golden piano — a la Liberace – and a stunning spiral staircase gave the evening an added touch of glamour. NPR’s Jacki Lyden was the master of ceremonies.

Because Hunt, who is teaching in Casablanca, could not attend the ceremony, his sister, Lorna Hunt, read a selection from “Kind One” in his place. She spoke in a soft, spell-binding voice that made the tale about two slaves who imprison their mistress sound even more haunting.

When Johnson came to the podium and stood towering over it, he claimed to be nervous about reading from his debut novel, “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts.” But the passage he read about a woman losing her child during Hurricane Katrina was the most affecting presentation of the evening.

The authors were not always well served by the judges’ introductions, which ran long and, even for award citations, sometimes sounded impossibly effusive. (Or unintentionally critical. Verdelle claimed that Thomas Mallon has “sprayed his ink . . . high and low” and went on to refer to “Watergate” as a “chatty book.”) The extravagant introduction of Saenz insisted that his new story collection is “unparalleled” — an appraisal hard to square with the passage we heard, which was charming and witty but certainly “paralleled.”

Nonetheless, it’s been an excellent year for Saenz. “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club” is a finalist for the Gay General Fiction Award, and “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is a finalist for the LGBT Children’s/Young Adult Award, both of which will be given next month by the Lambda Literary Foundation.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation offers readings throughout the year and sponsors the Writers in Schools program, which brings nationally known authors and their books into urban public high schools.

@RonCharles

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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