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Melissa Seley: Giant Intimacy in a Tiny Auditorium–The 2012 PEN Awards

October 26, 2012

Writers, editors, and translators gather to remember Hitchens, honor culture, and experience elephant happiness.

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Image from Flickr via Dave Hoefler

By Melissa Seley

In a decidedly petite (i.e. packed to the gills) CUNY hall on a drizzly Tuesday night, PEN bestowed 19 Literary Awards to 45 writers and translators, among them Guernica‘s Siddartha Deb for The Beautiful and The Damned, fiction newcomer Vanessa Veselka for her debut novel Zazen and E.L. Doctorow for a lifetime of “fictional prose narrative that draws the world in, that allows a writer to locate enormous historical forces within individual lives,” in the words of the three judges who nominated Doctorow — Don DeLillo, Jennifer Egan and George Saunders. The tone of the evening was distinctly familial, at times intensely so. 

When Wasserman inquired what was on Hitchens’ mind, Hitchens took off his mask to utter two words: “Capitalism. Downfall.”

To accept Christopher Hitchens’ posthumous PEN/Diamondstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, attributed to Hitchens’ tome, Arguably, Hitchens’ widow, Carol Blue, and his friend and agent of 32 years, Steve Wasserman, recounted the days when Hitchens laid out thousands of essays on the floor and began cutting those that would not make it into Arguably, without a second thought. “He knew he could write more as fast as we could cut them,” Blue said. Wasserman then told the story of the last time he saw Hitchens, in a hospital room. Hitchens urgently asked for a pad of paper and began writing furiously in his bed. When he finished, he looked at the pad and was startled. What he’d scrawled looked like illegible runes. When Wasserman inquired what was on Hitchens’ mind, Hitchens took off his mask to utter two words: “Capitalism. Downfall.” 

When 90-year-old master-translator Gregory Rabassa, who first translated 100 Years of Solitiude (among other seminal Spanish and Portuguese works) got up to award his translator friend Margaret Sayers Peden, translator of Pablo Neruda and Carlos Fuentes among others, the first thing Rabassa did was ask the audience to amend his notes in the program back to the way he’d written them, replacing Peden’s full name throughout, with her nickname, Pet. When Michael F. Moore presented 12 PEN Translation Fund Grants to support new book length works in English, he pointed out that the awardees “represent all of the nations and cultures that were not represented in last night’s presidential debate.” 

It was Patricia C. McKissack, winner of The PEN/Steven Kroll Award for Picture Book Writing, however who captured the mood in the little CUNY auditorium on Tuesday night. Citing a group of kindergartners in New Orleans who wrote to McKissack after she’d sent their classroom a package of books following Hurricane Katrina, McKissack summed up her state of boundless gratitude and joy as “elephant happy.”

Melissa Seley’s nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications including H.O.W. Journal, The Spectrum Anthology, Gastronomica, Mary, Tokion, and Paper Magazine, and in the exhibitions Changing Urban Seen and Underwater NYC. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

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