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Stanford Report, July 23, 2003

Everything is Illuminated author wins Saroyan Writing Prize


Jonathan Safran Foer was awarded the first biennial William Saroyan International Prize for Writing Tuesday for his novel Everything is Illuminated (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Foer, who will take home $12,500, was selected from a field of roughly 150 contestants that was then narrowed down to three. The other finalists were Hari Kunzru, nominated for his novel The Impressionist (Hamish Hamilton, 2002), and Adam Rapp, nominated for his play Nocturne (Faber and Faber, 2002).

None of the finalists knew before the announcement, which was made Tuesday night during a ceremony outside Green Library, who had been selected winner, according to Stanford Librarian Michael Keller.

"These three books wonderfully fulfill my original hopes and expectations," Keller said. "They are truly original, truly ambitious, deeply honest, utterly distinctive, and each has taken the author's own life identity and transformed it into art. These are not, as it happens, memoirs, but, very much in the way of Saroyan, they use memory and dislocation as the launching point for works of pure fiction, each grounded in a brilliantly understood reality."

Organizers of the prize, which is co-sponsored by the University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation, say they would like to see it join the ranks of such eminent literary awards as the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Judging from a shortlist of 15 entries were English Professor Eavan Boland, an essayist and award-winning poet whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The American Poetry Review; linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, a senior researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information who is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Week in Review and a regularly featured commentator on National Public Radio's Fresh Air; Hank Saroyan, nephew of the late novelist and a two-time Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director; and Alberto Vitale, the former chief executive officer of Random House.

"It was Saroyan's desire to establish a writing prize to encourage and perpetuate the art he so loved," said Robert Setrakian, chairman of the Saroyan Foundation.

Illuminated tells the story of an American college student and Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer who travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Most of the novel is narrated in comically mangled English by Foer's translator and guide, Alex.

Author Joyce Carol Oates describes it as a "zestfully imagined novel of wonders." In the New York Times Book Review (April 14, 2002), Francine Prose writes that "it's difficult to get through the first chapters" because "you keep laughing again, then stopping because you're tempted to call your friends and read them long sections of Jonathan Safran Foer's assured, hilarious prose."

Stanford University Libraries houses the world's largest William Saroyan archive, including an extensive collection of papers assembled by the author himself.

Jonathan Safran Foer