August 1, 2012
Authors Daniel Orozco, Elisabeth Tova Bailey win Stanford's 2012 Saroyan Prize for Writing
Awards honor short story writer who tells of the trauma in everyday routine and a bedridden author who chronicles her life with a gastropod.
By Cynthia Haven
The prize honors the American writer and playwright William Saroyan. (Photo: Courtesy Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)
Art thrives in the everyday – and this year's awards in the fifth William Saroyan International Prize for Writing prove it. The numbing routine of today's workplace and an author's biographical "thank you" to a common snail captured the attention of the judges this year.
The awards went to Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010) for non-fiction and, in the fiction category, to Daniel Orozco's collection, Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, 2011). Each of the winners, selected from a field of 228 applicants, will receive $5,000.
The finalists for fiction were Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and Miroslav Penkov's East of the West: A Country in Stories. The finalists for non-fiction were Arion Golmakani's Solacers and John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead.
The major literary award, sponsored by Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation, encourages new or emerging writers in fiction and non-fiction. The award honors the life and legacy of the American writer and playwright William Saroyan.
Bailey wrote her book while bedridden in Maine, and the snail was a gift. She told NPR that feeding it wilted flowers gave her "a feeling of being useful again," and the sound of it munching on petals reassured her in the night. She said it "moved so smoothly and gently and gracefully, it was like a tai chi master."
She admits that at the worst phase of her debilitating illness, "my life matched its life more than that of my own species," according to an interview on the website SheWrites.
"That I could write an entire chapter on slime or another entire chapter on the way a snail hibernates – there was just so much to say," she said.
Bailey said "the lives of the smaller and short-lived creatures are even more intense, more crammed with plot, than our longer human lives. … Like me, it woke up and went to bed. Like me it wanted something delicious for dinner," she said in an interview on BookBrowse. "Snails are also famous for spending many hours in courtship."
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating has won a number of awards already. It has been named one of NPR Morning Edition's top books for 2010 and also one of the American Library Association's Booklist's top 10 science and technology books. According to the eminent poet Maxine Kumin, "Readers will find her mental journey remarkable and her courage irresistible. I am very taken with this small book."
Orozco is a name familiar to the Stanford campus: He is a former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones lecturer in the Stanford English Department's Creative Writing Program.
But the Bay Area native's life was not always one of academic gigs. In a KQED interview last year, he recalled a job in a fiberglass fabrication shop in South San Francisco where "our boss was a jerk."
"On the job is where we all have to be, whether we like it or not," he said. "My mother packed licorice in a factory for over 20 years, and came home tired but still human, and I am in awe of how she managed that.
"For most people, the workplace is an extremely structured and regulated environment … you have to be civil to a boss or a co-worker who drives you crazy; you have to show up at 8 and leave at 5 and take lunch from 12 to 1 (not 1 to 2, not 12:15 to 1:15); you have to spend all day with people that you didn't choose to spend all day with, and you have to do it for about a quarter of every week for the rest of your life."
According to a New York Times review: "The bridge painters, warehouse crews and paralegal assistants in Orozco's stories have no clear way to control their destinies at work, and life piles on with a series of banal indignities on the clock and pointed crises off it. They witness suicides, murders and mass layoffs. One temp fields calls from the desperately unemployed, then moves to a job helping to plan the demise of an entire department. Her agency eventually rewards her with the Orwellian promise of 'permanent temporary employment.'"
Oscar Villalon wrote in Zyzzyva, "Nobody else is writing quite like Orozco. These are bracing stories. Rich with wicked humor and loving toughness."
After his debut book of short stories, he is now working on a novel.
This year's judging panel for fiction included award-winning authors Elizabeth McKenzie and Minal Hajratwala, a former editor and reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, and archaeologist Patrick Hunt. The non-fiction panel included Keith Devlin, executive director at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information; Fritz Maytag, legendary brewer, distiller and winemaker; and Hank Saroyan, writer, performer and nephew of William Saroyan.
The Saroyan Prize was last awarded in 2010, when the fiction prize went to Rivka Galchen for her novel Atmospheric Disturbances and the non-fiction prize went to Linda Himelstein for The King of Vodka. Other notable winners include Jonathan Safran Foer in 2003 for his novel Everything is Illuminated. George Hagen won in 2005 for his novel The Laments, and Kiyo Sato won in 2008 for her memoir Dandelion Through the Crack.
William Saroyan was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life (1939-40), the novel The Human Comedy (1943) and many volumes of short stories, essays and memoirs. Born in Fresno in 1908 to Armenian parents, Saroyan was a high school dropout and largely self-educated. He is best known for his short stories about the experiences of immigrant families and children in California. He died in 1981.
Stanford University Libraries houses the William Saroyan Collection, which includes manuscripts, personal journals, correspondence, drawings and other material.
Excerpts from the Saroyan Prize-winning books
From "The Bridge," in Orientations by Daniel Orozco
He spots the trouble right away, at the east end, just over his head – a section of hose hung up between the power line and the scaffold cable. He reaches up, stands on his toes, and leans out a little, his hips high against the railing. He grasps the hose, snaps it once, twice, three times until it clears. And just as he's turning around to give Whale the thumbs-up, a woman appears before him, inches from his face. She passes into and out of his view in less than two seconds. But in Baby's memory, she would be a woman floating, suspended in the flat light and the gray, swirling mist.
The witnesses said she dived off the bridge headfirst. They said she was walking along when she suddenly dropped her book bag and scrambled onto the guardrail, balancing on the top rail for a moment, arms over her head, then bouncing once from bended knees and disappearing over the side. It happened so fast, according to one witness. It was a perfect dive, according to another.
But her trajectory was poor. Too close to the bridge, her foot smashed against a beam, spinning her around and pointing her feet and legs downward. She was looking at Baby as she went past him, apparently just as surprised to see him as he was to see her. She was looking into his face, into his eyes, her arms upstretched, drawing him to her as she dropped away.
From The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
In early spring, a friend went for a walk in the woods and, glancing down at the path, saw a snail. Picking it up, she held it gingerly in the palm of her hand and carried it back toward the studio where I was convalescing. She noticed some field violets on the edge of the lawn. Finding a trowel, she dug a few up, then planted them in a terracotta pot and placed the snail beneath their leaves. She brought the pot into the studio and put it by my bedside.
"I found a snail in the woods. I brought it back and it's right here beneath the violets."
"You did? Why did you bring it in?"
"I don't know. I thought you might enjoy it."
"Is it alive?"
She picked up the brown acorn-sized shell and looked at it. "I think it is."
Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn't get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility – especially for a snail, something so uncalled for – was overwhelming.
My friend hugged me, said good-bye, and drove off. …
These field violets in the pot at my bedside were fresh and full of life, unlike the usual cut flowers brought by other friends. Those lasted just a few days, leaving murky, odoriferous vase water. In my twenties I had earned my living as a gardener, so I was glad to have this bit of garden right by my bed. I could even water the violets with my drinking glass.
But what about this snail? What would I do with it? As tiny as it was, it had been going about its day when it was picked up. What right did my friend and I have to disrupt its life? Though I couldn't imagine what kind of life a snail might lead.
I didn't remember ever having noticed any snails on my countless hikes in the woods. Perhaps, I thought, looking at the nondescript brown creature, it was precisely because they were so inconspicuous. For the rest of the day the snail stayed inside its shell, and I was too worn out from my friend's visit to give it another thought.
Cynthia Haven writes for Stanford University Libraries.