Snow, Secrecy, and a Speech from the Queen: The 2018 Whiting Awards
A Report From the Land of Lobster Rolls and Endless Wine
The Whiting Foundation pulled out all the stops for their 2018 awards: a speech by Toni Morrison, trays of lobster rolls, freshly-made chapbooks containing the winners’ work, and a full layer of frosting all over New York City. This last detail, a snowstorm on the first day of spring (a little on the nose, global warming!), seemed like it would backfire, but the Whitings recovered just fine: all ten winners had arrived, the lobster rolls were intact, and the show would go on. Wanting to get the appropriate mileage out of my black Timbs, which are not very functional IRL but look okay with a black turtleneck dress, I trekked uptown to the New York Historical Society on this snow day evening.
The Whiting Awards are described as having “a process that has kept us clear of political pressures and arm-twisting”––the judges and nominators aren’t revealed, and in a world as small and close as publishing, that holds a lot of weight. I personally love how the Whitings don’t seem to have many rules as to who can win: they’ve been given to writers who haven’t yet published a book and to writers who’ve published four. They seem to be judging purely on the work, which is truly admirable.
It started with an air of mystery, appropriate for an award ceremony cloaked in secrecy. The mystery at the pre-reception was, how on earth do we get wine? Deirdre Coyle and I managed to commandeer a tray with two other friends and we huddled over our communal drinks like they were a fire and we were outside in the snow. I think it was a community-building exercise. We were steps way from trust falls when they called us downstairs and we took our seats for the famously brief ceremony.
It began with Courtney Hodell delivering a lovely introduction about Toni Morrison, as well as the unfortunate news that our spring snowstorm had kept her from traveling. A wonderful substitute was found in Elizabeth Alexander, who graciously took the stage to read Ms. Morrison’s comments. “This is a very unusual task,” Alexander said. “The Queen has given me her new words to deliver. I’m taking this as seriously as can be.”
Anne Boyer won for Poetry and Nonfiction: of her work, they said, “it looks cool, but is hot to the touch.” Patty Yumi Cottrell, for Fiction, was cited as “casting the reader into the tense space between humor and horror,” a great description of her novel I’m Sorry To Disturb the Peace. Nathan Alan Davis, who won for Drama, was called “a genuine poet of the theater.” Hansol Jung, also Drama, was said to prove that the ancient form of the theater can still capture something meaningful about our vibrant and contemporary world. “Her play Wild Goose Dreams is the best depiction yet of the Internet,” they said, and that her work “could not be more essential to this moment.”
Rickey Laurentiis, a Poetry winner, was called “a magician who can slow down time” with his heady, sensual poems. He also was wearing a killer jumpsuit, and I somehow missed his fishnet socks, but Leslie Shipman clued me in to them later. The Whiting Foundation spoke highly of Drama winner Antoinette Nwandu‘s examination of race, power, and violence, saying that “the theater needs more of Nwandu. American Letters needs more of Nwandu.” Tommy Pico’s poems were hailed as contemporary epics, “poetry of rare brilliance.” As I write this, I’m ordering Brontez Purnell‘s Since I Laid My Burden Down based on the remarks—he “manages to rescue the notion of intimacy from cliche” with sexy, sweaty work that falls between raunchy and rhapsody—and I’m kicking myself for not knowing him earlier. The work of the lovely Esmé Weijun Wang was said to “change the way we think about illness,” an important and extraordinarily difficult task. Weike Wang, the final winner in Fiction, was hailed for “taking apart what we know about the immigrant experience and putting something bold and new in its place.”
Though the praise was thoughtful and revealing, the ceremony was over quickly––another reason to love the Whitings! Out we went to the land of lobster rolls and endless wine.
I saw Ben Samuel of Restless Books, who said it was nice to see each other outside of the gym (because we both go rock climbing, NBD). Nicholas Mancusi was committed to a wise professor look in a black turtleneck and tweed blazer, with martini in hand to boot. Where was his cigar, inquiring minds wondered? Becca Schuh of Triangle House and everywhere-freelance-land walked up also holding a martini and announced very calmly that she thought she lost her phone. “I’m sure I’ll find it, this is a small place.” (Reader: the New York Historical Society has a capacity of 420 guests.)
Ariel Lewiton had previously claimed she was coming in a snowsuit but she pulled a fast one on us by showing up in a glamorous black jumpsuit. Safiya Sinclair, a former Whiting Award winner, was looking unreal gorgeous in a drapey, sparkling black dress that probably made all the snow in her path melt. I saw Katie Raissian of Grove Atlantic in her typical neutral-palate, too-hard-for-anyone-else-to-pull-off outfits and lurked behind her for about twenty minutes trying to wait for her to stop talking to people who looked important so I could lunge at her. (An exercise in patience because a lot of people lunge at her.) I met Patty Yumi Cottrell’s sweet roommates by the bar who also commended the ceremony’s brevity and said they were enjoying the party. Lauren Wilkinson said she was so excited to see her best friend Tommy Pico win. May-Zhee Lin of Riverhead was pumped about Rickey Laurentiis and Tommy Pico. Erin Cox of House of Speakeasy told me she was planning to read Chemistry, because her grandfather was a scientist and she was intrigued by the combination of science and fiction.
Another Tiny Food of Note were the mini sliders speared on toothpicks sticking out of a large loaf of bread (I’m not describing it that badly, it’s just very confusing), and as we all rushed the poor waiter holding them, vegetarian Blair Beusman dryly noted that they reused the bread vehicle –– as if that would deter us! I talked to Katy Waldman of The New Yorker and the amazing red tortoiseshell glasses by the bar, and we talked about how good Lit Hub Daily is (I don’t do it, so I can say it).
Each winner was to receive two items that night: an envelope containing the first installment of their $50,000 prize, and a book that the selectors deemed to have some special significance to their work. I met Tommy Pico for the first time and saw he’d been given Gertrude Stein. He was in LA when he got the call about the prize and didn’t pick up the unknown number all day, fearing it was a debt collector (very relatable, and the outcome we all wish for in that situtation). Patty Yumi Cottrell was given Jane Bowles, an author she already loved, and she observed how lovely it was to see the diversity of authors recognized tonight. Weike Wang was given a copy of Nabokov and was carrying around flowers given to her by a friend. Though the crowd still felt large and blooming, it did feel a touch more intimate because of the extenuating weather circumstances, and the room was full of friends gushing with pride and love for the winners. Even more than the short ceremony and tiny snacks, I love that the Whiting Awards take such pride in their winners, and we, the audience, do too.
All photos by Beowulf Sheehan.