Congratulations to this year's National Book Awards finalists. It's great to see Aleksandar Hemon on the list for The Lazarus Project, a book mentioned on this blog before. One of the highlights of PEN America 9 is a conversation between Hemon and Rabih Alameddine. Hemon and Alameddine are friends and have a great comic rapport, which came across in person and survives on the page. The conversation is not online, so you'll have to order the issue to read it. Here’s a snippet (they're discussing Alameddine's 2008 novel, The Hakawati):
HEMON: There are a certain group of writers—and you would call them intellectuals if you were drunk—who suddenly took up the banner of Western civilization, defending it from Islamists and Islamic fascists, which is just about anybody who is not part of the crowd. Is this book a repudiation of their position—Marilynne Robinson, an NBA finalist for Home, appeared in PEN America 8: Making Histories, with some remarks about memory and amnesia in Iowa, very apropos of her new novel. She also appeared in PEN America 2: Home and Away, paying tribute to Proust.
ALAMEDDINE: What do you think?
HEMON: —and if so in what way?
ALAMEDDINE: I hope in a very subtle way. The book is not a repudiation, actually. It is a changing of the subject. The book started a bit earlier, but I was hit at a particular point—when George Bush said "They hate our freedoms."
The other finalists for fiction are Rachel Kushner for Telex from Cuba, Peter Matthiessen, for Shadow Country, and Salvatore Scibona, for The End. (While I haven’t read any of these, I did hear Scibona, an acquaintance, read part of his novel at a Happy Endings reading, and the section he read, at least, was terrific.)
On the subject of literary awards, here's a (somewhat belated) link to a piece about Nobel Prize secretary Horace Engdahl’s comment that “Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States.” This particular piece has very sane responses by Edward Albee, Junot Díaz, and the current president of PEN American Center, Francine Prose. It’s true, as Engdahl noted, that more literary translations should be published in the United States. But the notion that the literary world has one geographical center seems dubious, to say the least. I certainly didn't get that feeling at this year's World Voices festival.