The PEN/Faulkner finalists: new and known

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The five PEN/Faulkner Award finalists have been announced, and it’s an interesting mix. In case you can’t see the graphic above, the nominated books are “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver, “Homicide Survivors Picnic” by Lorraine M. Lopez, “War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, “Sag Harbor” by Colson Whitehead and “A Gate at the Stairs” by Lorrie Moore.

One finalist, Kingsolver, has been a bestseller, with her 1998 novel “The Poisonwood Bible.” Two others -- Moore and Alexie -- appear regularly in the pages of the New Yorker. Whitehead is the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. They’re all high-profile writers, more so than Lopez, a Vanderbilt University professor who hails from LA. Lopez has quietly racked up smaller awards, and her book was published by a small press, BkMk, from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.


Lopez talked about the multicultural aspect of the stories that appear in “Homicide Survivors Picnic” in an interview on the BkMk Press website:

Q: Your collection has many Latino characters, and they all interact with characters from other backgrounds. Did you intend this bicultural or multicultural dimension of the book from the start, and do you think Latino writers face any special challenges in writing about Latino characters and culture for today’s varied literary audiences? Lopez: This is a complicated question, and I thank you for asking it. For me, I did not set out to do more than explore characters beyond their cultural definition. As mentioned, I wanted to avoid that performance of identity that essentializes cultural experience. I am not interested in providing the usual themes, characters, and props that many associate with Latino literature. These do not characterize my experience as a Latina, so why should I artificially simulate such things to validate stereotypic notions? I can think of no reason to do this, except to gratify expectations of others.... I am not out to give anyone (including myself) what he or she might be expecting. In speaking to other Latino writers, I find that we similarly resist gratifying expectations that our characters perform in culturally expected ways, say, rolling tortillas, bopping around the barrio, or gathering wisdom from a sweet abuela. More and more, Latino literature is evolving away from such stereotypes, and becoming more interesting and challenging in the process.

I think it’s safe to say that all the nominees are writing work that extends beyond expectations. The winner of the PEN/Faulkner award will be announced March 23 and celebrated at a dinner in Washington, D.C., on May 8.

-- Carolyn Kellogg