There was a time when all the stars of American literature seemed to be straight white guys named John.
If you need a sign of how far we’ve progressed from those monochromatic days, consider the finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award announced Wednesday in Washington:
●“After Disasters,” by Viet Dinh, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Colorado.
●“LaRose,” by Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
●“What Belongs to You,” by Garth Greenwell, a gay American who worked in Bulgaria.
●“Behold the Dreamers,” by Imbolo Mbue, a native of Cameroon who lives in New York.
●“Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” by Sunil Yapa, the son of a Sri Lankan father and a Montana mother.
These writers are the United States, and they tell this country’s experience with a dazzling range of voices and styles. In some cases, their books sound as relevant as this morning’s newspaper. Mbue describes an African immigrant struggling to establish legal residence for his family in New York. Yapa’s explosive novel re-creates the protest of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
Dinh’s and Greenwell’s novels follow Americans abroad. “After Disasters” is based on relief efforts in India after an earthquake. “What Belongs to You” tells the haunting story of an American teacher in Bulgaria who finds himself entangled with a homeless prostitute.
In Erdrich’s “LaRose,” a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s son, a tragedy that is addressed with fairness and compassion according to tribal custom.
In addition to the diversity of these finalists, their relative youth speaks to the new vibrancy of American fiction. All the writers except Erdrich are debut novelists.
The PEN/Faulkner Award, which bills itself as “America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction,” is administered by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation in Washington. The winner, who is to be announced April 4, will receive $15,000. The other four finalists will receive $5,000 apiece.
This year’s judges are Chris Abani, Chantel Acevedo and Sigrid Nunez. They selected the five finalists from almost 500 works of fiction by American authors published in the United States during 2016.
The awards ceremony May 6 at the Folger Shakespeare Library will be the year’s most elegant and enjoyable literary event. With the winner already known, no one has to endure the suspense of the horse race or the rictus grins of disappointment. Instead, all five authors will be in attendance to read from their work in a happy celebration of great books. A buffet dinner follows. Tickets can be purchased for $100 by calling the Folger box office at 202-544-7077 or online at folger.edu/penfaulkner.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
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