Julie Otsuka accepted the $15,000 first prize at the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction on Saturday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the District. “The Buddha in the Attic,” her slim prose poem about Japanese picture brides coming to America after World War I, beat out works by literary giants Russell Banks, Anita Desai, Don DeLillo and Steven Millhauser.
Otsuka and the finalists sat onstage in the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre, which was set as a 19th-century saloon for a coming production of “Taming of the Shrew.” A huge chandelier made from antlers hung over DeLillo’s head. Despite the “Deadwood” atmosphere, the evening showcased some of the most accomplished fiction writing in the country.
NPR journalist Scott Simon served as the master of ceremonies for a second consecutive year. He made only oblique reference to the gunfight between bound books and e-books that is tearing apart the publishing community: “I do want to express my hope that we will not confuse the medium with the message.”
Significantly, though, the first corporation to receive thanks for its financial support of PEN/Faulkner was Amazon.com, which donated at least $20,000 to the organization this season. (A recent series of investigative articles in the Seattle Times criticized the Internet retailer for its low profile in the philanthropic community.)
A PEN/Faulkner finalist twice before, Banks was the most relaxed of the authors onstage. In a strong, insistent voice, he read the opening pages of “Lost Memory of Skin,” his devastating novel about a young sex offender. Steve Yarbrough, one of the three judges, said in his introduction, “Banks shows no interest in avoiding moral questions.” His work is “tense, vivid and disturbing.”
“Lost Memory of Skin” was the only traditional novel among the finalists.
Desai couldn’t make it to the ceremony, but writer Manil Suri read a passage from one of the marvelous novellas in her nominated book, “The Artist of Disappearance.” Born in India, she is the only finalist also eligible for Britain’s Booker Prize, for which she has been a finalist three times. (Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the 2006 Booker Prize for “The Inheritance of Loss.”)
National Book Award winner DeLillo seemed grim as he rose and walked to the microphone. Without acknowledging the lavish introduction he received, he immediately began reading from “The Angel Esmeralda,” his first and only collection of short stories. He might have been struggling with a cold: His voice sounded hoarse, and he stopped repeatedly to clear his throat.
Millhauser, the 68-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner, came to the lectern looking like a very old man. But the moment he began to read, decades fell away from his body. Stooping to reach the microphone, he spoke with tremendous vitality — quick and sharp — delivering a monologue from his story collection “We Others.” It brought the only sustained laughter of the evening.
The ceremony culminated with the presentation of the $15,000 prize to Otsuka, whose victory was announced in late March. In a measured, surprisingly low voice, she read from the first section of “The Buddha in the Attic,” when a naive Japanese woman and girls are on a boat going to America.
This year’s judges, Yarbrough, Marita Golden and Maureen Howard, chose the winner and four finalists from more than 350 novels and short-story collections published by American authors during 2011.
PEN/Faulkner president Lisa Page announced that she will be stepping down at the end of June. Frazier O’Leary, an English teacher at Cardozo High School in the District, will be the organization’s new president.