Twenty-five years ago, Eudora Welty spoke at the very first PEN/Faulkner gala. You might say it was “One Gala’s Beginnings.”
Last night in Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library, another group of writers celebrated the gala’s silver anniversary.
In keeping with the long tradition of the event, each author read for just four or five minutes before taking a seat for the next author to walk on stage. It’s the most orderly and efficient collection of speakers D.C. ever witnesses.
The theme this year was “renewal,” and it inspired a rich variety of pieces from the 11 fiction and nonfiction writers invited to read to the black-tie crowd of PEN/Faulkner supporters. Some were funny, others were starkly serious, but they all responded to the idea of “renewal” in fresh, illuminating ways.
Christopher Castellani wove together reflections on the mind’s hunger for patterns, the delight at seeing unusual words repeated, and his efforts to keep his elderly father from renewing his driver’s license at the DMV.
Washington novelist George Pelecanos described the spirit of determination among wounded service members at Walter Reed Medical Center and juvenile delinquents in a writing class.
Mona Simpson read a short story about a minister looking back at a life of officiating funerals and weddings. In the end, he’s inspired by a divorced couple who want a “re-upping” ceremony to bless their commitment to their daughter.
Washington-born Anthony Marra, the 28-year-old wunderkind whose debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” is one of the best novels this year, described a Chechen man who is “reconstructing a world that war sought to dismantle.”
Another Washington writer, Mary Kay Zuravleff, read an autobiographical essay about traveling to St. Petersburg, the land her grandparents fled many decades ago. “I was afraid of my homeland,” she confessed, but her husband and daughter insisted they go. In a move heavy with symbolism, she bought her mother an enameled egg at the gift shop at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
In a powerful variation on the usual format, Iraq War vets Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton read their pieces together, alternating paragraph by paragraph. They described the challenges of coming home after months in battle. “Some people think ‘renewal’ is about wiping the slate clean. It’s not,” Scranton said. “It’s about learning to live with what you’ve done.” Noting that 2.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, they ended in unison by admonishing us to “remember.”
Meg Wolitzer lightened the mood with a witty piece about her early love of library books, which was encouraged by her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, a speaker at last year’s PEN/Faulkner gala on “resilience.”
Despite the literary star power on hand, attendees were most dazzled by Rachel Page, a 15-year-old sophomore at Woodrow Wilson high school. The winner of a PEN/Faulkner writing contest for students, she read a haunting essay that blended observations about the stages of a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly with reports on the stages of a piano teacher’s cancer.
More than 200 people paid $500 a plate to attend Monday’s gala, which raised money to support PEN/Faulkner’s fiction prize and its Writers in Schools program. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a member of the PEN/Faulkner benefit committee, said, “My staff knows this evening is sacrosanct — I wouldn’t miss it.”
At the close of the readings, master of ceremonies Calvin Trillin nodded toward the Capitol and said, “I hope you’ll join us next year. We’ll be open, even if they’re not.”