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Prize Jury 2012
  • Mary Gaitskill
  • Daniyal Mueenuddin
  • Ron Rash

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Mary Gaitskill

    Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica, as well as the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To, and Don't Cry. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Last year she was a Cullman fellow at the New York Public Library, where she was researching a novel.

    Juror Favorite:
    Mary Gaitskill on "Kindness" by Yiyun Li

    This is a terrible story. It is an ordinary story. It is terrible, how ordinary it is. In it, a woman tells a girl named Moyan that her parents adopted her in order to make their artificial marriage appear real and then reads to her with a melodic voice never present in her speaking voice. Moyan learns that her mother is a "mental case" who ran through the streets crying for a married man. Her father offered to marry her mother, and her mother's parents agreed because otherwise they'd have to send their mentalcase daughter to an asylum. The woman reads to Moyan: There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. Moyan joins the army and there meets a painlessly beautiful girl who sings in a voice made beautiful by pain. Her lieutenant is kind to her, which revolts her; her lieutenant makes her cry by forcing her to sing in a tuneless voice in front of everyone. She sings "It Is a Shame to Be a Lonely Person." She cries. A sow is stretched across a road, suckling. Children cry for candy from the "Auntie Soldiers." There is a baby in a basket handed up to an old man at the train station. Moyan waves to the stranger who drove her there and goes home. Her mother is dead. Her father says she was the "kindest woman in the world" because she kept her promise. Moyan cannot visit the grave of the woman who read to her because the woman's estranged children won't let her know where it is. She gets a wedding invitation from the lieutenant. She reads her mother's romantic novels. They give her hope that it will all be well in the end. She is invited to the lieutenant's funeral. She doesn't go. Because she lives her life in the same neighborhood she has many acquaintances and so does not feel alone in her aging.

    Kindness seems to me a story of terrible loneliness made bearable because the woman suffering it is exquisitely sensitive to the most subtle acts of kindness, which are acceptable to her only when they come from strangers. It seems a story of a starving soul who every now and then senses a feast in the occasional scrap, which keeps her barely alive. It seems a story in which love hides in tiny places, in the memory of sunlight on the floor of a longdead person's apartment, in the voice of someone reading to you about imaginary people, or in the heart of someone you have never really cared much about.

    But that is interpretation, and interpretation of any kind seems nearly disrespectful to this work, this narrator. Moyan's voice is void of superfluous emotion; she says what happened, and while she might speculate in a small way about why or what someone felt, her speculation is unfailingly modest; it is perhaps this modesty that gives her story its quiet, desolate beauty. There is no transcendence here, no heroism, no self-deprecating humor; that is to say, there are no contemporary literary conventions. In this story there is human feeling, which turns and changes as life turns and changes, and for Moyan—as for most people—that must be enough. Her inability to take more than the bare minimum of what life offers to her becomes, in this story, a kind of dignity that lives and dies alone, unrecognized. I felt touched and grateful to read of it.

    Daniyal Mueenuddin

    Daniyal Mueenuddin's debut collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was the winner of the Story Prize, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Best First Book, Europe and South Asia). It was also a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a number of other awards. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Mueenuddin lives in Pakistan's southern Punjab.

    Juror Favorite:
    Daniyal Mueenuddin on "Kindness" by Yiyun Li

    Kindness. Even the title is deceptive, warm and uncomplicated as the story certainly is not. Yiyun Li plays a subtle game with her readers, concealing hard conflict in the shadows of what appears to be the quietest, the mildest of stories. The narrator Moyan, in her cat-footed voice, begins by telling us that her life has been without notable event, subdued and blameless. She has traveled very little, has neither family nor friends, never married, teaches math but doesn't particularly care for the job, has no hobbies. And yet, from this plain material, Li has created a story as dramatic and complex and penetrating as anything I've read in a good long time.

    The story is idiosyncratic in other ways. Is it a short story at all, or is it that contentious thing, a novella, which operates under a different code? Certainly it is longer than any of the other pieces in this collection and strains the limit of what will likely be read in one sitting—my definition of a short story. Given extra space, Li has not merely added detail, she has also freed herself from the characteristic arrow trajectory of a short story. Pilots describe helicopters, which are aerodynamically unstable, as a collection of parts flying in tight formation; the same can be said of Kindness, which has several different points of narrative weight, the emphasis distributed.

    What holds the story together, in fact, is not the cumulative development of the narrative, but rather, the voice. The story circles around the elements of Moyan's life, reinforcing and deepening our knowledge of her, by making us privy to her thoughts and reflections, dropping in and out of the stories within the story. The narrator's subtlety, which is a form of good manners, of hygiene, draws us increasingly into sympathy with her; Moyan is a knowing narrator—we take her at her word. Here she is, speaking of her single romantic adventure, which marked her entire life yet barely rose to the level of a relationship, with only a single moment of near avowal, in the shade of a wisteria:

    There had not been a boyfriend and perhaps there never would be one—the man who had not wiped away my tears under the wisteria trellis had later done so, repeatedly, when my memories were revised into dreams, and he who had chosen not to claim the love had left no space for others to claim it: In high school there had been a boy or two, like there is a boy or two for most girls during those years, but I had returned their letters in new envelopes, never adding a line, thinking that would be enough to end what should not have been started.
    There is neither self-pity in this nor a plea for our pity, and even this resignation, which can so often be merely a cover for timidity, leaves the impression of being sincere, deliberate.

    Moyan's quiet intelligence, her resignation, and her stoicism serve as a foil for the drama of the story. Her beautiful, intellectual mother is bedridden, unbalanced years ago by her unrequited love for a married man; her uneducated father drifts through life, deeply in love with this woman who agreed to marry and live with him, but only on the most limited terms; Moyan discovers by accident that she is adopted; she falls in love with a pauper, a derelict, who later becomes a great flautist; her mother commits suicide. This is a heavy load for a story to carry, is almost baroque, and yet the reader accepts it without demur, because the tone and the matter of the story so blend with and so balance each other.

    There is another quieter drama running through the story, a backbone on which the rest of the narrative is hung. The story jumps back and forth in time, but if it were straightened out and laid flat, we would see that a series of characters approach Moyan, wanting intimacy from her, and that each in turn is rejected in favor of the isolation—or the independence—that she feels is her inevitable portion. Professor Shan, Lieutenant Wei, Nini's father, even the Jeep driver who takes her to the train station after she is informed of her mother's death, all seek to overcome her resistance to their touch, the touch of their minds more than their hands. Moyan allows the approach&mdsah;without that there would be no story—but fleetingly, while drawing away. We acquiesce in this, find it sufficient that these relationships are unresolved, that these characters loom up to Moyan—and then back away, the moment passing unconsummated. Moyan's distinct sensibility binds the story together, her unexpected lonely affirmative power.

    Ron Rash

    Ron Rash was born in 1953 and grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He is the author of four novels, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Serena; three collections of poems; and three collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, winner of the 2010 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Twice a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, he is a previous recipient of the PEN/O. Henry Prize as well as National Endowment for the Arts grants in poetry and fiction. He teaches at Western Carolina University and lives in Clemson, South Carolina.

    Juror Favorite:
    Ron Rash on "Corrie" by Alice Munro

    When I agreed to be a juror for this year's PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, I suspected choosing a single short story out of many excellent ones would be a daunting task, and so it has proven to be. A first reading narrowed my list to ten, a second to five, and a third to three: Anthony Doerr's "The Deep," Miroslav Penkov's "East of the West," and Alice Munro's "Corrie." As is always the case with the best short stories, each rereading only enhanced my appreciation of all three and made me more reluctant to choose one. I placed them on a couch in my living room, perhaps in hopes that two of them, like impatient suitors, would weary of my indecision and simply vanish. None left voluntarily, so after a few days I reread each a final time and made my decision.

    I have always believed that short stories are closer to poems than to novels, and no story in this volume is more poetic than Anthony Doerr's "The Deep." The level of the language is astonishing, both in its vividness and its cadences. The story is worth reading for the elegance of the language alone. Yet "The Deep" completely satisfies as a story. Not only are the characters fully realized but so are the time and the place. Doerr has the ability to render Depression-era Detroit as a vibrant presence, yet his research, which must have been considerable, is invisible within the story.

    Miroslav Penkov's "East of the West" has many instances of memorable language, too, but what made this story most unforgettable is the scene in which Vera and Nose clutch the steeple of the drowned church. Serving as a visual refrain, this image resonates on many levels. Though the steeple and the clinging couple defy any pat interpretation, they clearly embody a whole culture's tragedy.

    Alice Munro's "Corrie," however, is the story I chose as my favorite. As with "The Deep," Munro's narrative is constructed with the precision of a formal poem. Each time I read "Corrie," I became more aware of how integral each detail is to the whole. As in Flannery O'Connor's best work, everything in "Corrie," from paragraph breaks to commas, has been set down in its essential place. Account, accounting, and accountability. Money and religion are center stage at the story's beginning, and they return at its conclusion when the revelation about the blackmail money occurs inside a church. (Another of the story's many nuances is that the decrepit, nearly abandoned church at the story's beginning, which we see only from the outside, is replaced by a bustling newer one at the end.) Corrie has always held a belief that there would be a reckoning, a payment due, for the affair. The crucial question is to whom. The answer may surprise the reader as much as Corrie, but the story's architecture, beginning with the opening line, makes the denouement almost inevitable.

    And yet—and this may be Munro's greatest gift as a writer—the story feels as if it is telling itself, operating at its own internal pace. Years and decades pass, and many other important events, inevitably, occur in the lovers' lives, but the reader is not made aware of them because they are not important to the story. And I do mean to the story. Part of this organic effect is created by a seeming disinterestedness. The story doesn't appear to care much if we find Corrie a sympathetic or unsympathetic character. Aspects that normally would elicit sympathy—Corrie's polio, her mother's early death—are muted, as are the less appealing aspects of her idle life of privilege. We do care though, because, like Corrie, we all must find ways to account for our actions as well as for the actions of others. We must, as Munro puts it at the story's end, find a way of "making everything fit into a proper place."

    "The role of the artist is to deepen the mystery," Muriel Spark once said, echoing a quote of Francis Bacon's. I kept thinking of that quote as I read and reread "Corrie," for Munro's story takes us deep into the mystery of how we make accommodations in our lives. Do we really know if we act out of selfishness or selflessness, this remarkable story asks us. Do we even know which is which?