blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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A Reading by Hernan Diaz
captured November 6, 2018

Hernan Diaz, recipient of the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, reads from his winning novel, In the Distance. Diaz works for Columbia University as associate director of the Hispanic Institute for Latin American and Iberian Cultures and is managing editor of Revista Hispánica Moderna, an academic journal for writing about Iberian, Latin American, and Luso-Brazilian culture. In the Distance was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

John Ulmschneider: Good evening, everybody—wake up! What a great turn out tonight, so nice to have you here. My name is John Ulmschneider, I’m the dean of libraries and university librarian here at Virginia Commonwealth University, and on behalf of the students and faculty and staff of the university, I extend to all of you the warmest welcome to our seventeenth celebration of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. I have to express my particular thanks to all of you tonight for getting here through the rain, avoiding the basketball game, and attending this event on a particularly consequential night for our country. We couldn’t avoid scheduling this First Novelist reading on election night this year. It was just unavoidable, and I know many of you are keenly interested in the outcome of tonight’s contest, so during the reception and book signing afterwards, we’re going to be streaming the election results live up here on the screen. So you don’t have to do without it. But it does mean, I was talking to one of our guests earlier tonight, Joan Costa, she’s around here somewhere, and she said, “Actually, this is a real blessing. We get to have an hour and a half where we don’t have to think about this at all.” Thank you Joan for reminding us of that.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is one of our most important community engagements here at VCU, and the VCU Libraries is proud to sponsor and partner with the Cabell Associates and others to provide some of the financial and logistic support for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Program every year. It’s also a great honor and privilege to act in partnership with the VCU Creative Writing Program, and the Department of English, and with the College of Humanities and Sciences to manage the Cabell First Novelist Award each year. VCU First Novelist Award was established way back in 2001 by faculty members Laura Browder and Tom De Haven in the Creative Writing program. Earlier in the program Richmond native and VCU alumnus David Baldacci generously funded and supported the award in its early years, and I think many of you remember that. The award was renamed the Cabell First Novelist Award in 2008, as the VCU Libraries and the Cabell Associates joined with the Department of English and the MFA program to cosponsor the award. The Cabell First Novelist Award warrants an important part of the learning experience that’s provided by the novel workshop class, offered here by VCU’s Creative Writing Program. Which was, I believe, the nation’s first novel writing workshop, and it remains one of the few in existence today.

I’m delighted that we can hold this premier event here in Cabell Library’s lecture hall, which has proven to be a fabulous space for readings and events of all kinds. This space that you see is in very high demand by folks across this great university. During the last academic year we held 352 events with over 23,000 attendees in this venue and in our breakout rooms in this building, so it’s kind of a mini convention center nowadays. I’ve just learned that since July 1st, we’ve had over 200 events already, and we’re on path to break our records in the number of events, colloquia, and symposia readings that we hold here in the library. So clearly a meeting and event space like this, which is specifically designed for academic pursuit and intellectual engagement, holds very high value for our VCU communities. And here’s my advertisement: we need your help. We need your help to make this space truly the very best of its kind in Virginia for events like author readings and scholarly lectures of the sort that we’re doing tonight. Your donations are essential to helping us fulfill and sustain the full promise of this library and this space for all of our communities. We have a lot we still need to do here, so we can make all kinds of new events possible and improve the experience that you have when you visit with us. So remember that at the end of the day it’s the support of people like you, all of you, that make spaces and programs like what you’re experiencing tonight possible. You can find materials about our Friend’s Program in your chair. Stephanie, the president, or the former, ex-president is our friend—[she’s the] previous president, and she’s holding it up, and waving it like a prom queen. And from that brochure you can learn about the Friends of the Library and how you can help us. So please take one and consider, please, contacting us to help us with programs like the VCU Cabell First Novelist and many other events that we bring to our community.

Tonight’s reading marks the tenth year of co-sponsorship between the College of Humanities and Sciences, the English Department, the Cabell Associates, and the VCU Libraries to support the Cabell First Novelist programs, so this is an important landmark for us. Few partnerships anywhere have enjoyed the kind of amazing success that we’ve had in this collaboration. Since 2008, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award has grown enormously in stature, and in recognition, and is now a keystone literary award for writers who publish their first novel in the US. And, of course, it’s become a keystone literary event for the VCU literary arts community and for the Virginia literary arts community, as you can see from this wonderful attendance here tonight. Many thanks first and foremost go out to the Cabell Associates, whose officers are here tonight, for their support of the VCU First Novelist Award founded in 1981 by Margaret Cabell, the wife of Virginia and Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell.

The Cabell Associates today continue to encourage scholarly work about James Branch Cabell to foster his legacy and to elevate his profile as one of America’s most distinguished literary artists—a writer that truly helped define the art of fantasy writing for the likes of Neal Gaiman and others, and who remains today one of the country’s most distinctive historical voices of political satire. If you haven’t read Cabell, and you want a good laugh, go read some: you’ll wish that he was alive today to write his political satire of what’s going on. Joining the Cabell Associates tonight as cosponsors are VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, the Department of English, and the Creative Writing Program. [Also] the VCU Libraries, and the VCU Friends of the Library, the brochures on your tables, and the Barnes & Nobel bookstore @ VCU, who have books in the back that our guest author will be signing tonight. And finally, we owe grateful thanks to all the many folks in VCU Libraries and the Department of English who have done all kinds of work for tonight so that you don’t have to do any work at all, all you need to do is sit here and enjoy it. So, please a round of applause for all who made this possible.

Thank you. The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award annually honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. Every year the English Department receives hundreds of submissions and recruits a small army of students, and faculty, and staff, and others from around the university to screen books, and to vote on their favorites. We also have many members in our broader community in Richmond, and central Virginia, who are what I would call a well-educated lot indeed when it comes to literary fiction. And we’re delighted that they also had the opportunity to participate in our review process. So in fact, later this month, community members including VCU Friends of the Library, graduate alumni, and library patrons will be able to check out books from the first batch of novels for the 2019 awards, which will determine the winner for first novels published in calendar year 2018. You can find them on the first floor of James Branch Cabell Library. If you don’t see the display just ask at the desk there and they’ll help you out.

Guided by screener reviews, the English Department chooses three finalists. These books are then sent to a panel of judges, which always includes the previous year’s winner, previous other authors, and local readers, who will then choose the final winner. The diverse group of past Cabell First Novelist winners includes many novelists who have gone on to become major voices in American literary fiction. Recent winners include Angela Flournoy, for her novel The Turner House, a National Book Award finalist for fiction; Boris Fishman for A Replacement Life, a captivating short first novel for a Soviet immigrant with an astounding command of English; Helene Wecker for her celebrated fantasy-tinged The Golem and the Jinni; Ramona Ausubel for No One Is Here Except All of Us, which is a magical tale that grapples with history and the horrors of war; and last year’s amazingly funny and poignant The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang. So you can see that the Cabell First Novelist Award is a rigorous process, and the winners have gone on to do just amazing and wonderful things. And that’s why we’re so proud tonight to have this year’s winner Hernan Diaz. I know that you look forward to hearing him read and discuss his work, and we all look forward to seeing him in his future career after this wonderful first novel. By tradition the Cabell First Novelist coordinator, who organized and oversaw this entire judging process and getting things to the publishers and all that work has the great honor of introducing our author each year. So, presenting the winning author tonight is Kate Anifson, a third year student in the MFA program in Creative Writing here at VCU, and naturally enough, is focusing on writing fiction. So welcome, Kate!

Kate Anifson: Good evening. I’m Kate Anifson, and as was said, I’m a fiction writer in the MFA program. I have the privilege tonight of introducing you to the work of Hernan Diaz, the winner of the 2018 Cabell First Novelist Award for his novel In the Distance. This, his first work of fiction, has been met with great acclaim. In addition to winning the Cabell Award, In the Distance was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, finalist for PEN/Faulkner Award, and winner of the William Saroyan International Prize. In the Distance is remarkable in its ability to defy genre and convention even as it poses larger questions that transcend classification altogether. From its opening pages, in which Håkan arrives in 19th century San Francisco and begins his journey eastward in search of his brother Linus, it is immediately clear that In the Distance is a subversion of the Western genre, a reverse Manifest Destiny. Reviews have sought to categorize the novel by genre, with some calling it a Western, and others calling it ‘the anti-Western.’ One reviewer wrote, “is it a mystical parable about a troubled world, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic road novel drenched in blood and fire and thirst, an elaborate omage to the Odyssey, a historical novel about nineteenth century migration to the US?” The answer of course is simply yes.

At the center of the novel lies Håkan, a man of both tenderness and strength, whose quest for his brother becomes a pilgrimage with an increasingly hazy destination. The reader follows Håkan through a land that he does not know, meeting strangers whose languages he does not speak. So skillfully does Diaz capture that disorientation of foreignness that some readers have suggested that In the Distance is a work of magical realism. But in crafting Håkan’s sense of radical isolation, Diaz drew upon his own life experiences living in Argentina, Sweden, London, and finally New York, where he is now a scholar at Columbia University and serves as the associate director of the University’s Hispanic Institute for Latin American and Iberian Cultures.

“How do you write emptiness?” said Diaz in an interview last year, “how do you stretch and dilate the present without distorting it?” The tale is one of cruelty and unbearable loneliness, and of human inclination toward both evil and good. Håkan commits a singular act of violence and retreats back to the desert, devastated. Time passes and he grows ever larger in both physical form and in reputation, his brushes with civilization are more cold and alien than the desert wilderness. Diaz has spoken of his fascination with the Western, and as he puts it, “the genre’s state of derelict semi-abandonment by the American literary tradition,” noting that the Western embraces America’s most potent mythologies about itself and its own genesis by romanticizing the worst aspects of the imperial drive of the United States, including brutality against nature, genocidal racism, sexism, vigilantism, greed, plunder, and guns. Diaz saw an opening, and sought to, in his words “hijack and repurpose the genre, to say something new about the United States.”

To say something new, perhaps about our immigrant roots, about how events and individuals become mythologized, and how truth becomes distorted, and how the American experience has always been that of the foreigner. Diaz wrestles with the larger questions that have haunted the history of America since its birth. Questions of uprootedness and foreignness, as Diaz himself put it: “Who has a voice, and who does not? Who is allowed to tell their story, and who is silenced?” It is no accident that so many reviewers sought to identify, to name the specific genre into which In the Distance falls. Like Håkan we are all searching for our bearings, unsure what remains out there on the horizon and what is a mirage. As Diaz writes in the novel, “Håkan looked out at the plain until it became vertical, a surface to be climbed rather than traversed, and he wondered what he would find on the other side if he made it all the way up and straddled the sepia walls stretching into the drained dim sky.” Please join me in welcoming Hernan Diaz.

[In the Distance, Hernan Diaz, Coffee House Press, 2017. 11–14, 146–147, 60–62.]  

John Ulmschneider is the dean of libraries and university librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library.

Kate Anifson is the VCU First Novelist Fellow and a third-year MFA student in fiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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