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640 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Brando Skyhorse and Other Winners of the Literary Awards Season

Chauncey Mabe

It was probably the cheekiest question I’ve ever put to an author. Brando Skyhorse, speaking at Books & Books last summer, had just mentioned his girlfriend, when I raised my hand and asked: “But I thought you were gay?” The room exploded in shocked laughter, with Skyhorse standing at the front with a confused smile.

Fortunately he’s a good sport, enabling me to explain that I was so impressed by the depth and complexity of the women and girls in his first book, The Madonnas of Echo Park, that I found it hard to believe he was an ordinary heterosexual American male.

In fact, his novel (actually a collection of linked short stories) was the most impressive debut I’ve read since Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, also, curiously, a collection of linked stories.

It turns out I’m not the only one holding Skyhorse’s first book in high regard. Last week Madonnas was named winner of the Heminway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, reports the L.A. Times—although it’s a backhanded announcement blog, quoting the mixed review written for the Times by Alex Espinoza.

Espinoza condescendingly suggests that if he tries real, real hard, Skyhorse may learn to write as well about the Mexican American population of L.A. as his betters—Dagoberto Gilb, Yxta Maya Murray and Helena María Viramontes, whose power rests in the ability “to humanize the people they write about.”

Well, excuse me. I’m just a white book reviewer who has lived in the Southeast all his life, so maybe I’m not qualified to understand the humanity of L.A.’s Mexican Americans. But to me, Skyhorse’s signal achievement lies in humanizing people I don’t know—and not just people, but girls and women.

Here, for what it’s worth, is a quote from my review of The Madonnas of Echo Park:

“Also, for a man, Skyhorse has an amazing eye and ear for the way women talk, look, behave—and think and feel. Some of the most powerful stories in this collection are told from a woman’s point of view. “Cool Kids” is the story of an intense high school friendship between two girls, the glamorous and self-assured Duchess and the introspective but aspirational Angie. Every word rings true. It’s a bit of magic, that Skyhorse could know such things.”

My guess: Espinoza is annoyed at Skyhorse’s lack of political didacticism, praising as he does the older Latino authors’ “indictment of those in the media and publishing who consistently under- or misrepresent Southland Mexican Americans.” No doubt that’s a plenty important issue, but I see no place for it in The Madonnas of Echo Park.

In other lit prize news: The Jonathan Franzen backlash continues, with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad beating his Freedomland for the fiction award given last week by the National Book Critics Circle. This is what happens when Time magazine and The New York Times suggest you’ve written the greatest book since the invention of cuneiform.

I wouldn’t have voted for Freedomland, either, a very good book but not a masterpiece. I missed A Visit From the Goon Squad when it came out last year, and eagerly await the arrival of its paperback edition. Other winners:

Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live for biography.

Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns for general nonfiction.

Darin Strauss’ Half a Life for autobiography.

C.D. Wright’s One with Others for poetry.

Clare Cavanagh’s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics for criticism.

Finally, Deborah Eisenberg has won the PEN/Faulkner award for her Collected Stories, interestingly enough beating out Egan’s Goon Squad for the honor. A short-story writer, Eisenberg has never gained the audience she deserves, although that may finally be changing. The PEN/Faulkner comes two years after she received a MacArthur “genius” grant.

—From Open Page (15 March 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury