Report on The Story Prize

Here to report on The Story Prize reading and award ceremony is Amin Ahmad, admirer of the short story and friend of One Story. You may recall Amin’s Valentines’ Day blogpost about how One Story helped spark a relationship between him and his current wife.

I was sitting right behind Daniyal Mueenuddin  in a dark Manhattan auditorium when he was announced the winner of the $20,000 Story Prize.

Mueeenuddin (author of the short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) continued to sit in his seat, either too shy or too exhausted to respond. Only when nudged by his companion did he bound onto the stage. Even then, the author was self effacing and modest—mumbling thanks to his agent and his late mother—before quickly leaving the stage.

And so the two-hour long program of readings and conversation came abruptly to an end, the largest prize in the short story world awarded almost as an afterthought. (The two runner-ups were awarded $5000 each.) As for me, I was left with many questions about the short story and its role in our lives.

Earlier that evening, Daniyal Mueenuddin had read an excerpt from his story “Saleema”, about a voluptuous young girl servant employed in the household of a rural Pakistani landlord. Mueenuddin described Saleema’s seduction by the various cooks she had worked with, ending with the line, “These experiences had not cracked her hard skin, but made her sensual, unscrupulous—and romantic.”

It was the sudden twist at the end of the sentence that made me sit up and listen.

I too, like Mueenuddin, grew up in a similar Indian household peopled by masters and servants. And I knew that the poorer our servants were, the more they tended towards extravagant gestures—an entire month’s salary spent on a violently colored sweater, the prettier maids inevitably carrying on histrionic affairs with the chauffeurs.

But I had never realized—until I heard Mueenuddin read–how reality and fantasy converge. The poorer you are, he seemed to be saying, the more you need romance.

Mueenuddin himself, during a conversation with Larry Dark, had come clean. “You can either be a pessimist or a romantic,” he’d said. “I prefer to be a romantic. Life is more fun that way.”

He was being funny, but that insight, in his writing, was hard earned. His stories captured perfectly the hard, cruel world of rural Pakistan, where people jockeyed and jostled to survive. That might have been enough for another writer, but Mueenuddin excavated even deeper, finding  hidden lives buried deep within the heads of characters like Saleema the maid.

Mueenuddin lives part-time in rural Pakistan, managing a farm he inherited from his father.  He is part of a tightly-knit feudal world;“Some of the servants in our family have been with us for fifty or sixty years,” he said. Living in Pakistan has given him so much material that he has “pages and pages” of notes for short stories. For him, life and writing are interwoven: the characters in his stories live and breathe around him.

For the other two finalists in the Story Prize competition, the relationship between reality and fantasy is more complicated.

Victoria Patterson (Drift) has set her book of short stories in Newport Beach, California. She read an excerpt from “John Wayne Loves Grandma Dot”, a story about a handsome, brain-damaged skateboarder named John Wayne. In a later conversation, Patterson said she wanted to take the iconography of Newport Beach—including the myth of tough-guy movie-star John Wayne, who lived there—and stand it on its head.  So instead of a heavy lidded, sneering cowboy, she created an outcast who lives secretly above the garage of Grandma Dot. Grandma, sensing his presence, leaves him money and beer. Their two lives are lived out at a remove; John Wayne sneaks into Grandma’s kitchen at night and makes sandwiches, smells her presence, watches her from afar. In the excerpt Paterson read, the two characters never physically touch.

In the Newport Beach that Patterson constructs, fantasy (her borrowing of a mythic movie-star moniker, the ghostly dance of the two characters) seems the only way to bridge the gap between people. When community is shattered, and individuals are left isolated and washed up, the only way to connect seems to be in the imagination. In its own way, Patterson’s is a chilling vision, as frightening as the dream-lives of brutalized Pakistani peasants.

Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned) takes fantasy to a different level. Tower read an excerpt from the title story, featuring a trio of Viking raiders. (In his rendition, the Vikings are treated as contemporary Americans; they even speak with cornpone Southern accents.) The Vikings come across a man in a field who has been raided so many times that all he has left is a stove, and his beautiful but one-armed daughter. (A previous set of Vikings, we learn, cut her arm off.)

In the dangerous dance that develops out of this comedy, one of the Vikings falls in love with the girl, who, one-armed, knows that she has little chance of getting a man. It all ends with the daughter carried off willingly, her father pushed to the ground, now completely bereft.

In conversation, Tower said that he wrote the story as a release from the rigors of writing within the confines of graduate school. As a clever joke, he yoked together the hopeless situation of a Raymond Carver short story with a bunch of cartoony Vikings. Much to his surprise, he tricked himself into caring about the characters.

And despite the loud laughs of the audience, we cared too. Tower had pulled off a literary sleigh-of-hand, transporting us into an alternate, fantastic universe; then he set us down with a bump, and it hurt.

I left the Story Prize with one comment ringing in my head. When Mueenuddin was asked how the servants and workers on his farm felt about his writing, he paused. “They’re embarrassed by it,” he said.

I understood perfectly what he meant. In a world where labor is real, brutal and hard, writing doesn’t seem like work. Sitting alone in a room and making up stories is seen as something frivolous, tainted, not respectable. It’s the reaction I get when I return to India and tell people I’m a writer.

But sitting in a room somewhere (in real, rural Pakistan, in a re-created Newport Beach, in the overheated literary atmosphere of a graduate program) is what Mueenuddin, Patterson and Tower do. They reveal, in their own ways, the hidden  intersections between reality and fantasy.

The lives we thought were so solid and real, they show us, are shot through with fantasies. Our lives, they seem to say, are really just stories that we tell ourselves. I for one, am grateful for the insight.

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