by Nancy Freund
First to the microphone after Katrin Schumann’s glowing introduction of the Seminar’s three Emerging Writer Award winners, was Erika Higgins Ross, of Western Massachusetts, (Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress) whose moving work, The Before Times, opens with a debutante-gone-wild who has recently died, possibly of a drug overdose, leaving behind an eight-year-old child in the tenement house where she lived. The child’s grandmother Judith does not yet know of the child’s existence. Nor does she seem to know her daughter’s best friend, Andrew, who’s hit hard by the devastating news. With a carefully calibrated emotional resonance, Erika treated the audience not just to her sophisticated reading voice, but her remarkable singing voice as well. She delivered a gorgeous verse of Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, which is artfully braided into the novel. Erika’s background as a clinical psychologist no doubt informs her writing, but it’s her bachelor’s degree in Theater as Education that really took center stage in her reading Sunday morning. After coming to know Erika’s generous and insightful workshopping input during Rebecca Makkai’s sessions earlier in the week, as well as the later chapters of her novel-in-progress, it was a special pleasure to hear her read this opening excerpt.
Next, the audience heard Houston-based Bengali-American doctoral candidate Prittha Bhattacharyya (Cecilia Joyce Johnson Award for a Short Story) read from “Surrogates” about an early homosexual relationship that is abruptly and completely cut off immediately after it begins, only to re-emerge years later when the protagonist has become an OB/Gyn specializing in fertility, and his prior lover, Praveen Kapoor, appears in the doctor’s office with his wife. Exploring immigrant culture and sexuality, fertility, gender, and generational conflict, Prittha read the scene with a breathless rapidity mirroring the pace and build of her short story. The doctor’s post-coital question of his lover about his wife, do you even care for her? demands a response not just from Praveen Kapoor but from Prittha’s reader (and audience) as well. A beat later, Praveen laughs in response, a resigned, hollow sound, and the scene swells with a poignant intensity.
The final Emerging Writer Award winner to read was Cuban poet from Miami, Veronica Silva (Scott Merrill Award for Poetry, selected by Billy Collins). Her imaginative work plays with language, form, and content through both the unusual and the mundane. Her poem “Etymology of Meal” at first seems to be about words and food – a grandmother buying rice, introducing her granddaughter to the rice seller. Line by line, though, the poem expands. It seems to enrich itself as it moves through the verses, investigating gender and generations, womanhood and time, culture, and the subtlety of humor and tiny joys in a long, loving marriage – as witnessed by the poet persona, or granddaughter of the rice buyer and daughter of the married couple. Men feature in the poem primarily to highlight the various roles and desires of women – to expand a kitchen to remain in the presence of family while cooking, for instance… or to win a competition, sorting grains of rice such that one’s rice water will contain the most starch. Wins and losses are measured by grains of rice – nearly microscopic, and yet, the tiny joys are deceptively immense.
Emerging Writers receive full tuition to the Seminar and Workshops, travel and lodging, and an honorarium. Short Story writer, Dontiel W. Moniz, was an early KWLS Emerging Writer, as was Patricia Engel, who was awarded the prize in its first year. Both were mainstays of this year’s Seminar, speaking on several panels throughout the weekend.
Nancy Freund writes novels, essays, poetry, and flash. She’s a dual-nationality American-Brit in Switzerland. “41” was her third Key West Literary Seminar and Workshop.