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Prize Jury 2015
  • Tessa Hadley
  • Kristen Iskandrian
  • Michael Parker

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  • Tessa Hadley

    Tessa Hadley was born and raised in Bristol. She's written five novels, including The Master Bedroom, The London Train, and Clever Girl, and two collections of short stories, as well as a book of criticism, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure. She is a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University and reviews regularly for The Guardian and for the London Review of Books.

    Juror Favorite:
    Tessa Hadley on "A Ride Out of Phrao" by Dina Nayeri

    I like everything about this striking, original, unexpected story. Its subject is a middle-aged Iranian doctor who made a new home years ago in America with her daughter but has never quite felt at home there. She goes to Thailand to work with the Peace Corps in a village near the city of Chiang Mai, where there are few modern conveniences and no air-conditioning, where the toilet is a hole in the floor, where she dreads the lizards climbing her walls at night. This sounds as if it might turn out to be a hand-wringing story about the guilt of privilege or the tragedy of underdevelopment—but actually it's such a gentle, haunting, private, funny little exploration. Much of its effort is to catch the character and experience of this particular rather extraordinary woman: resilient, unreliable, generous, prone to untruth, anxious over certain social superstitions (she mustn't let her "seams show"), modest in her sense of her own entitlement.

    And yet audacious too! How brave she is to make a new life in an utterly strange place, twice over. She has no idea that she's brave, however, and has rather a low estimate of herself—although she spends no time dwelling on that and doesn't indulge in self-pity. We don't feel her character at the level of her ideology, or through learning what she wants to get out of the world for herself, or because we're invited to engage with her angst. Sentence by delicate sentence, the writer pieces together the richly muddled comedy of this woman's history, and her thoughts and fears: We dwell with her rare open spirit—open to her new life, her own past, to the others she encounters and works with. She is so alive to every moment, and curious, alert in all her senses—"enthralled," for instance, by the wonderful Thai fruit she learns to peel, and to name. Dr. Rin, as the villagers call her, has planted herself—but so modestly, with no presumption that she could ever make sense of any of it—at the intersection of several different worlds, which might as well be different planets: America, Iran, Thailand. In its modest refusal to judge, or to lead us to any portentous conclusions or doomy moralizing, the story models such an appealing position, imaginatively, for our relations to our global world.

    The subject of the story is important, but of course it only works because of how it's done. The narrative is so subtly and intelligently positioned, inside Dr. Rin yet also able to give us a perspective on her from outside, as if we were watching her. And it's built out of such good detail—all the telling detail that gives us Dr. Rin's Iranian past, her Thai present, and her American interim. The detail is complex and nuanced—a rich ragbag of finely observed fragments—and yet somehow the steady, intelligent sentences find a way through it all so that we're never muddled or confused. The story finds its clear, pure line through its material; the writing is beautiful because it doesn't try too hard. "The rain blurs the lines of their faces and bodies, and their movements become dreamlike." Every observation is wonderfully exact. A seamstress has "a browning half tooth."

    Dr. Rin teaches English in a Thai school, and makes friends with an awkward boy, odd and physically unappealing, who may be slightly autistic, and whose father hits him. The boy tries to touch her breast, and she doesn't know whether this is moving or distasteful. Her thoroughly Americanized daughter, Leila—who can't forgive her mother for her lies, her bankruptcy, her quixotic hopes, her "running away"—comes from America to visit, but Leila can't bear the dreary poverty of the place, or do without a flush toilet. Yet the story doesn't set itself crudely up against Leila, it doesn't score points against her; she's lovely and young and strong and full of appetite, and we can imagine just how she finds her mother exasperating. This writing doesn't pretend to understand the world, or sum it up; there's no clinching resolution to any of the questions it raises. We never quite know what the boy wants from Dr. Rin, and there's never ever any confrontation with the boy's father—in fact he's the one who finally drives Leila back to Chiang Mai, to bathrooms and civilization. The story's language is plain, and never overwrought, yet it closes with an exquisite metaphor that feels like a leap of vision when it comes. Dr. Rin remembers the fruit—the Iranian persimmon, or the Thai mangosteen—in which sweet flesh is separated from foul by such a fine membrane.

    Kristen Iskandrian

    Kristen Iskandrian was born and raised in Philadelphia. She received her BA from the College of the Holy Cross and her MA and PhD from the University of Georgia. Her work has been published in Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, American Letters & Commentary, Memorious, La Petite Zine, Fifty-Two Stories, Pank, Tin House, and many other places. Her first novel is forthcoming from Twelve/Hachette in 2017. She lives in Birmingham, AL.

    Juror Favorite:
    Kristen Iskandrian on "Birdsong from the Radio" by Elizabeth McCracken

    This story glows with an eerie incandescence and has the aura of a fairy tale. "'Long ago,'" it starts—but the telling is through a character, Leonora, whose reliability we are made to doubt almost immediately, "and the telling was long ago, too." And so, we have a story that begins with a story, told to children who are no longer alive, through their mother who wanted to eat them, because, of course, "[c]hildren long to be eaten. Everyone knows that."

    There are many things to love about "Birdsong from the Radio": the images, indelible brushstrokes of language—"the unfurling flump of the bedclothes like the beat of the wings they thought they could see on her back"—the musicality of the sentences, their rhythm mirroring the stalking, lurking pulse of Leonora herself as she becomes something subhuman but also superhuman. The subject matter, which seems to encompass the whole of our human condition but also something deeply and dearly specific: a mother's love and need for her children—primal and unrelenting—set in stark relief to a father's love for radios, and his fear of his wife's rabid love.

    But the most captivating trait of the story, for me, is the voice—it comes from the belly of a timeless and placeless place, from the nowhere/everywhere where fables get forged. Its authorless authority means that its demands, which are great, must be met within the sphere of its own rubric and logic. That's a lot to ask of a short story, which is to say, this story asks a lot of itself, but it succeeds prodigiously. The starting point here is a mother's love writ as spectacle, as atrocity: love and madness as bedfellows in a tiny bed.

    We say that a mother's love is all-consuming, but here, we see it enacted almost in reverse—the love is the children, embodied in the figures of Rosa, Marco, and Dolly, and the love is a hunger, a sickness, something threatening, so that Leonora's only mode of survival is to try to eat them. First, in playful nibbles, and gradually, in fervent, frightening bites. When they, along with her husband, leave her, the radios that used to bring her comfort start taunting her—through the static she hears the whinny of their voices, "cuddled up together in one frequency," as though they have formed a team against her.

    After the children's quick, tragic death—dying as they lived, as a unit—Leonora's hunger becomes a feral grief. She turns more and more animal, "humped with ursine fat," "bearlike," "panda-eyed," and pronounces herself dead. But her hunger outlives her, gnaws like a second animal within her. To quell it, she turns to bread, that first, fundamental food: "Yeast, warmth, sweetness, a very child." The pared-down language manages to stay rich and evocative without cushioning or embellishing Leonora's anguish. The challah is as vivid as if it were painted and comes as much as a palliative to us, the readers, as it does to Leonora—"the sheen of the egg wash, its placid countenance." Her ritual, buying and eating a daily loaf, soothes her, saves her—which is what all of our rituals are meant to do.

    Perhaps the most satisfying element of this story occurs toward the end, when Leonora sits face-to-face with the father of the girl who killed her children, along with herself, in the car accident. Unkempt, unhinged, unwanted, Leonora sees in this broken, polite, civilized man a shard of her own reflection. Her way of reaching out toward it is to reach for more bread, giving it to him in an effort, it seems, to both massage and aggravate her own agony. It is an invitation to partake in the feast of her misery, or to create from the crumbs of their collective sadness a trough where they may feed side by side. Leonora recognizes that if she "accepted his sympathy she would have to feel sorry for him. She would have to transcend"—but she is unwilling to do this, unwilling to rise over and above the pain that has forged her, the children who have nourished her. And so the question becomes—and it's such a good one, for a short story, since short stories have long been saddled with the burden of redemption—what if someone doesn't want to be saved? Leonora's transformation is not static but rather infinite, holographic—from human into monster, monster back to human. For some of us, and certainly for her, sorrow is the beginning, the denouement, and the end.

    Michael Parker

    Michael Parker was born and raised in North Carolina. Twice an O. Henry Prize winner, he is the author of two story collections and six novels, including, most recently, All I Have in This World. He is the Vacc Distinguished Professor in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He lives in North Carolina and Texas.

    Juror Favorite:
    Michael Parker on "Cabins" by Christopher Merkner

    Since I read and comment upon stories to put bread on my table, I am forever making lists of Things I Need for Stories to Do in Order to Win Me Over. Although the items on my list often change, there are staples, mostly obvious ones: I need to be surprised; I need to be invested in all that is at stake for the characters; I need to be able to follow the access road so that it will lead me, surely and subtly, to the astral plane; I need for the rhythms of the story, in both sentence and form, to convey the desire that drives it. I need to, as Flannery O'Connor said, "feel the extra dimension that comes about when the writer puts us in the middle of some human action as it is illuminated and outlined by mystery."

    "Cabins" satisfied all my requirements. It had me by the third line. The slip into present tense from the established past, the sudden truncated rhythm of the sentences, the repetition of certain words: Something's up here. Sit up, slow down, pay attention. On the first read my footing was unsure. The numbers preceding each section might imply linearity, but the story roots around in the manner of memories involuntarily assembled. The structure perfectly mimics the narrator's anxiety. He has a lot to be anxious about. He and his wife of six years are expecting a baby. He's recently had a heart attack and bypass surgery. He is involved in a lockdown while visiting a prison, during which he witnesses an inmate kicked repeatedly in the head. Everyone he encounters—most of them acquaintances rather than close friends—is getting a divorce.

    "Cabins" is not short on dramatic action, but the deepest and most satisfying tensions occur when the reader, along with the narrator, attempts to construct some logical narrative from these disparate scenes. Of course the narrator is a step ahead—he has, after all, selected and distributed the interactions and details of the plot. But he's also confused, aimlessly in search of assurance, if not certainty, that his marriage is safe. When he visits the prison with a former neighbor who has started a therapy group for "inmates who were, had been, or feared they would soon be divorced by their partners or spouses," he listens to his neighbor thank the prisoners for "their willingness to 'see the world beyond love.'" The narrator, so aware and fearful of the fragility of marriage, attempts to see the world beyond love, but his fantasies of a remote cabin where he might live apart from his wife are, however distracting, ultimately empty.

    All of the above makes the story sound terribly serious. In fact, it's a scream, though our laughter is of the uneasy variety. The narrator has ridiculous conversations with his friends in hookah bars and on basketball courts. The details of the narrator's imagined cabin are hilariously absurd. The narrator and his friends are melodramatic if not bathetic, but their inflated emotions arise out of their vulnerability.

    What moved me most about "Cabins" was the way its shape offered resolve from a situation forever unresolvable. There are no glib attempts at answers here, only the mysterious transformation of doubt into brittle but vigilant faith.