Announcing the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Finalists!

Judges have selected the five finalists for the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction. The finalists are Sea Monsters by Chloe Arijdis (Catapult), Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li (Random House), Night Swimmers by Peter Rock (Soho Press), We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin (One World), and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press).

“These five finalists represent clear evidence of the breadth and diversity of contemporary fiction,” said PEN/Faulkner Executive Director Gwydion Suilebhan. “We are delighted to be able to celebrate such exemplary literary achievements.”

This year’s judges—Patricia Engel, Ru Freeman, and Porochista Khakpour—considered more than 400 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2019 calendar year. Submissions came from more than 160 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher to submit.

“Edward Said once wrote that humanism is the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history,” said this year’s judges in a prepared statement. “In writing that spins between the deeply personal to the brilliantly fantastic, these five writers have looked deeply, and with empathy, into the humanity of their characters and given us books that defy genre. Their courage and skill open the field for a new kind of literature that is dazzlingly inventive and vital.”

The “first among equals” winner, who will receive $15,000, will be announced on April 6, 2020. The remaining four finalists will each receive an honorarium of $5,000. All five authors will be honored at the 40th Anniversary PEN/Faulkner Award Celebration, which will be held on May 4 at 6:30 pm at the Willard Hotel. Tickets are $600 for an opening reception featuring specialty cocktails inspired by our finalists, a seated dinner, the award ceremony, and a post-event reception as well. Tickets can be purchased online at http://bit.ly/PFAward2020

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican American writer who grew up in the Netherlands and Mexico. She is the author of three novels, Book of Clouds, which won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France, Asunder, set in London’s National Gallery, and Sea Monsters. Chloe completed a PhD at Oxford in nineteenth-century French poetry and magic shows and was guest curator of the Leonora Carrington exhibition at Tate Liverpool. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writers Award for 2020. Chloe is a member of XR Writers Rebel, a group of writers who focus on addressing the climate emergency. She lives in London, where she often writes for art journals. 

Yiyun Li is the author of five works of fiction—Where Reasons End, Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl—and the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers to watch. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Peter Rock is the author of ten works of fiction, most recently The Night Swimmers, SPELLS, Klickitat and The Shelter Cycle.  The recipient of fellowships from Stanford University, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he currently lives with his wife and daughters in Portland, Oregon, where he has taught writing at Reed College since 2001. Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s adaptation of his novel My Abandonment, premiered at Sundance and Cannes and was released in 2018.


Maurice Carlos Ruffin 
is the author of We Cast A Shadow, a finalist for the PEN/Open Book Award, and longlisted for the Center for Fiction Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize; and named one of the best books of the year by NPR and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly ReviewAGNIThe Kenyon Review and elsewhere. A native of New Orleans, Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.


Ocean Vuong
is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the New York Times bestselling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. A recipient of the 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, he is also the winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have been featured in The AtlanticHarper’s MagazineThe NationThe New RepublicThe New Yorker, and The New York Times. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

 

The 40th Anniversary PEN/Faulkner Award Celebration

Monday, May 4 at The Willard Hotel
6:30 pm, Cocktails
7:30 pm, Dinner and Award Program

Join us on the 40th anniversary of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction as we celebrate this year’s distinguished books and authors. This exquisite literary evening—our sole fundraiser in 2020—will feature presentations by our PEN/Faulkner Award judges, original readings by our five PEN/Faulkner Award finalists, and a star-studded list of notable guest authors from throughout PEN/Faulkner’s storied history.

The Board of Directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation invites your generous participation as a sponsor. Your support will advance our mission to celebrate literature and foster connections between readers and writers to enrich and inspire both individuals and communities. Proceeds from this year’s Awards will provide critical resources for our initiatives, including:

  • Our Education Programs. We inspire the next generation of readers and writers by providing free books and author visits to thousands of public and public charter school students in schools throughout all eight wards of DC.
  • Our Literary Conversations. We bring dozens of writers to DC to inspire cross-cultural civic discourse about vital contemporary issues with members of the community.
  • Our Literary Awards. With the annual PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the largest artist-selected prize of its kind, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, we recognize significant achievements by leading American writers.

THE PEN/FAULKNER AWARD CELEBRATION TEAM
Meena & Liaquat Ahamed
Beth & Shalom Baranes
Lisa Barry & James Gale
Katherine & David Bradley
The Honorable Ann Brown
Molly Elkin & Ivan Wasserman
Ann & Tom Friedman
Ginny Grenham
Kay Kendall & Jack Davies
Mary & Robert Haft
Willee & Finlay Lewis
Cathy Merrill, Washingtonian
Susan Richards Shreve

OUR HOST COMMITTEE
Amy & Bret Baier
Buffy Cafritz
Wm. Randall Cone
The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation
Entravision Communications
Esther Safran Foer & Bert Foer
Julie & Jon Garcia
Renée K. & Stephen Gardner
Jay & Robin Hammer
Andrea Hatfield & Buck O’Leary
Mirella & Dani Levinas
Tracy B. & Greg McGillivary
Carol Melton & Joseph Hassett
Louisa & Bill Newlin
Malcolm & Virginia O’Hagan
Politics & Prose Bookstore
Eileen Shields-West & Robin West
Emily & Antoine van Agtmael

THE PEN/FAULKNER FOUNDATION BOARD
H.G. Carrillo, Chair · Tracy McGillivary, President

Louis Bayard, Jackson R. Bryer, Conrad Cafritz, H.G. Carrillo, Susan Coll, Molly Elkin, · Renée K. Gardner, Ginny Grenham, Mary Haft, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Dale LeFebvre, Tony Lewis, Jr., Willee Lewis, Richard McCann, Malcolm O’Hagan, Frazier O’Leary, Lisa Page, Bethanne Patrick, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Katherine Field Stephen, and Deborah Tannen

OUR FINALISTS
Chloe Arijdis
Yiyun Lin
Peter Rock
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Ocean Vuong

GUEST AUTHORS
Patricia Engel, 2020 Judge
Ru Freeman, 2020 Judge
Porochista Khakpour, 2020 Judge
Elliot Ackerman
Marie Arana
David Baldacci
Lou Bayard
H.G. Carrillo
Susan Coll
Esther Safran Foer
Lauren Francis-Sharma
Paul Goldberg
James Hannaham
Angie Kim
Matthew Klam
Julie Langsdorf
David Maraniss
Jane Mayer
Imbolo Mbue
Richard McCann
Alice McDermott
Sabina Murray
Toby Olson
Lisa Page
Susan Richards Shreve
Deborah Tannen
and more to come!

MASTER OF CEREMONIES
Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World

DOWNLOAD OUR SPONSORSHIP REPLY FORM NOW

You can also sponsor the event online or contact us directly at shahenda@penfaulkner.org or (202) 898-9063. Thank you!

Announcing the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award Longlist!

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the PEN/Faulkner Award, we asked this year’s award judges to select a long list of the ten most significant books published in 2019. We are pleased to announce the following books which have been longlisted for the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction:

Sea Monsters – Chloe Aridjis
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Sing to It – Amy Hempel
The Topeka School – Ben Lerner
Where Reasons End – Yiyun Li
The Night Swimmers – Peter Rock
We Cast a Shadow – Maurice Carlos Ruffin
A People’s History of Heaven – Mathangi Subramanian
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
The Bird King – G. Willow Wilson

Wired: A Literary Conversation on Mental Health – Tickets On Sale Now!

We are excited to announce that our first Literary Conversation of 2020, Wired, will be held on Thursday, February 27. Tickets can be purchased here.

According to the NIMH, almost twenty percent of American adults live with a mental illness. From social anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, mental illness is becoming more prevalent in today’s society and everyday dialogue.

To combat the continuous misunderstandings about this topic, authors Zack McDermott (Gorilla & The Bird) and Esmé Weijun Wang (The Collected SchizophreniasThe Border of Paradise) have relived their highs and lows in the pages of their work to not only break the stigma of mental illness, but also to humanize it. They will be joined by author and cultural critic Isaac Fitzgerald (The Rumpus, BuzzFeed Books) in this discussion of mental health and literature today.

The onstage discussion will be followed by a Q&A with the audience and a book signing. Books will be available for sale.

This event is co-sponsored by GWU’s Colonial Health Center as part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s Literary Conversations series.

Black Lives Matter Week of Action

Ten percent. In 2018, that was the percentage of published children’s books that featured a character who was African or African American. Ten percent.

The total percentage of children’s books featuring African or African American, Asian Pacific American, Latinx, or First Nations characters was only 23%. That’s still less than the number of children’s books that featured an animal or inanimate object (27%), and significantly less than the number of children’s books about white characters (50%).*

The public school population in DC is composed of 90% students of color. When less than a quarter of children’s books show any characters of color, the representation gap between students’ identities and the characters in the stories they read is a stark problem. 

Narratives serve as vehicles of culture, language, and identity–affirmations of who we are in the world. As Rudine Sims Bishop notes, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” In this way, stories can become mirrors, validating our lives and experiences. 

At PEN/Faulkner, our education programs provide DC students with mirrors that reflect back who they are. We donate books so that students can build their own personal libraries; conduct author visits in classrooms for enlivening, enlightening discussions; and offer writing workshops in which young people can tell their own stories. 

We have actively widened our circle of partner authors to include a more diverse list of authors and books. As one educator recently told us, not only are visits with authors an opportunity for students to meet a writer in person, “It is also important for students to see writers who look like them and [who] can share with them their lived experiences.” 

From February 3-7, DC schools will recognize the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools. Built on the momentum and actions of the national Black Lives Matter movement, this week is an opportunity for schools to bring Black Lives Matter into their classrooms to examine injustices at the intersections of race, class, and gender.

As part of the week, PEN/Faulkner authors have been invited by educators to join in the discussions. Keeping in mind the need for better and deeper representation in children’s literature, several authors will join the week’s actions, including Jason Reynolds, the newly named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; Alan King, a poet whose recent collection tackles masculinity, fear, and the reality of Black lives in joy and sorrow; and L.Y. Marlow, a writer and activist whose fiction and nonfiction about the lives of women and girls of color doubles as empowerment to help them face their inner and outer monsters.

BLM Week of Action in DC area schools is sponsored by the DC Area Educators for Social Justice and Teaching for Change. We are proud to play a part.


* Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Celebrating Our Education Programs

The name PEN/Faulkner may conjure images of literary delights, from dynamic authors in conversation to our prestigious, peer-juried awards in fiction and the short story. Alongside these nationally-reaching endeavors, we bring more than one hundred writers to schools across our home city of Washington, DC every year to engage students in the power of the written word.

PEN/FAULKNER’S EDUCATION PROGRAMS AT A GLANCE

For more than 30 years, our Writers in Schools program has personalized literary
expression by bringing renowned authors to classrooms in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools. We donate a copy of each writer’s book to every student in each
classroom we visit, and students prepare burning questions ranging from “How does your experience of racism impact your writing?” to “Do you like Mambo sauce?” (a condiment specific to DC culture). When writers visit, conversations are enriching and
enlightening—for everyone. Writers sign copies of students’ books…and sometimes they get asked to sign hoodies, tennis shoes, water bottles, and even students’ arms. Young people in our education programs make genuine and meaningful connections to writers, and they often find the power to share their personal narratives as well.

In the past few years, we’ve deepened our work with young people by expanding our literacy efforts—through identity-based and language-based programming such as Nuestra Voz; by returning to schools more frequently in order to spend more time with students; and by adding writing programs both during the school year and in the summer months. We believe in expanding young people’s compassion and knowledge about the world through the written word by creating opportunities for exposure, connection, and new ways to grow.

When the winner of our recent Youth Essay Contest, Queenal Ayaba, read her personal essay about the impact violence and war in her home country of Cameroon has on her at our recent Gala, Senator Patrick Leahy sought her out after the reading. He told her she shared a powerful story, and he encouraged her to stay in touch. Author Michael
Cunningham told us how impressed he was by students in a recent visit—and how they
gave him hope for the future. And poet DaMaris B. Hill emphasized how crucial democracy is, conducting her time with students through a collective and wholly democratic approach to the discussion, all while weaving in references to Shakespeare, Angela Davis, and Ida B. Wells.

We’re honored that educators invite us to their classrooms again and again to join in the journey of learning with their students. With more than 90% of our partner schools
designated as high-poverty, the power of narrative, and the encouragement for youth to
shout their personal stories, is especially needed.

WE ARE PROUD OF WHAT WE DO

Voices from PEN/Faulkner Interns: Sabrina Sthay

This fall, PEN/Faulkner had the privilege of being joined by three amazing interns. Before they left us, they each wrote essays inspired by their time in the organization. It’s our honor to share them with you. We started with a piece by Anique Jones, continued with a piece by Demory Hobbs, and we’re wrapping up with this essay by Sabrina Sthay:

CELEBRATING DEAF AND HARD OF HEARING AUTHORS

We now live in a time in which diversity is not only crucial, but cherished in our workplaces, school systems, and even social settings. It is due to my hearing loss that I have always been fascinated by the growing attention paid toward the Deaf and hard of hearing  communities. 

I was only four when I lost my hearing, but it never stopped me from wanting to excel in the world. I knew I had my place in a world of flowing creativity and literature. I’m not the only one with such rich passions, but sadly, the fine arts and literary achievements of those who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing are not often celebrated. In honor of some of these individuals, I want to recognize them and their achievements.

Stephen Colbert 

Colbert is well known on The Late Show and The Daily Show, but he has also written three books and is an author for the Tek Jansen comic book series. What you may not have known about Colbert is that he became deaf in his right ear when he was a young boy due to a severely perforated eardrum. 

Donald Harington 

Entertainment Weekly recognized Harington as “America’s Greatest Unknown Writer.” The surrealist author of the Stay More series, Harrington has received multiple rewards, including the Oxford American Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature, The Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction, Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame, and the Porter Prize of Literary Excellence. When Harington was 12, he became ill with meningitis, which left him hard of hearing in both of his ears. Nonetheless, he pursued his writing and had a 22-year teaching career at the University of Arkansas as well. 

Marlee Matlin 

Matlin is an idol in the Deaf community. She has conquered so much! When she was nearly two years old, she became sick and lost her hearing. Today, she is not only a mother, but an actress, author, and an activist for the Deaf community and other causes. She has penned the following books and memoirs: I’ll Scream Later and Deaf Child Crossing. She also co-authored Nobody’s Perfect and Doug Cooney.

David Wright 

Wright is a South American poet who suffered from Scarlet Fever when he was seven years old. Due to his illness, he became deaf.  He has written a collection of poetry and an autobiography Deafness, A Personal Account. He has also translated The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. 

Cece Bell 

Bell is another award-winning author and graphic novelist. Her book, El-Deafo, is based on her childhood and the struggles she encountered growing up deaf. The book was the recipient of the Newbery Medal Honor and Eisner Award. 

Sara Novic 

Sara Novic is the author of the book Girl at War, a coming of age story set in Yugoslavia. Girl at War was named one of the best books of the year in 2015 by Bookpage, Booklist, and Electric Literature. It was also the Alex Award Winner and a Los Angelos Times Book Prize Finalist, and it was Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. In a post in The Guardian, Novic talks about her progressive hearing loss, the struggle to overcome stereotypes, and the benefits of being deaf. 

The successes of these authors, who face similar challenges to me, is not only empowering and hopeful for me, but magnificent. I’m glad that as we increasingly celebrate literary diversity, we are beginning to hear the voices of Deaf and hard of hearing writers, too.

Voices from PEN/Faulkner Interns: Demory Hobbs

This fall, PEN/Faulkner had the privilege of being joined by three amazing interns. Before they left us, they each wrote essays inspired by their time in the organization. It’s our honor to share them with you. We started with a piece by Anique Jones, and we’re delighted to continue with this essay by Demory Hobbs:

UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling: the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve been thinking about how these stories differ. I’ve been thinking about how we usually aren’t perfectly honest, how sometimes this is intentional and other times we don’t even realize what we are missing. And other times, we are telling the truth the best we can handle it.

In fiction, I love an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is one whose credibility is compromised, so the reader must read between the lines to uncover the truth. Just like in life, narrators are unreliable for many reasons. 

There are two broad categories for unreliable narrators: There are intentionally unreliable narrators, misleading and persuading the reader to side with their usually villainous view. (Think Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.) Then there are unintentionally unreliable narrators, whose naivety prevents them from giving the whole picture. (Think the child-narrator Jack in Room by Emma Donoghue.)

Unreliable narrators do more than entertain. This point of view can be an important literary device in illustrating the complex consequences of trauma. This is a category that lies somewhere between intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, because the narrator is most notably hiding the truth from themselves. 

When a person experiences a traumatic event, the brain goes into defense mode. Sometimes, this means doing its best to block out the event. This is called dissociative amnesia, in which the memories of the traumatic event or details surrounding it are buried deep within the mind. This can involve small details, like not remembering how you got home after an accident. It can also be much more substantial; with childhood trauma, some survivors will have no idea something significant happened until years later. As trauma survivors look back on their lives, they have no choice but to fill in the gaps, trying to make sense to themselves and to others.

With some important life events, we recall every detail. Maybe you remember the exact tie you were wearing when you got a big promotion or exactly what you ordered at the coffee shop when you first met your significant other. So some might wonder: how can something affect your life so much if you barely remember it? The phenomenon can be hard to understand and hard for survivors to explain.

Unreliable narrators can be employed to illustrate the missing pieces between trauma and memory. With this type of unreliable narrator, readers can sense there is something untrue in the tale, but they do not feel lied to. They follow along as protagonists hide from some truths and uncover others. Every instance of trauma is nuanced, and everyone responds differently. Even so, I have broken up the use of the post-trauma narrator into three categories.

Aware Narrator, Unaware Exterior: Sometimes, the narrator remembers the trauma they have endured but is unable to retell it or accept it. This narrator depicts his trauma in a seemingly unrealistic, even fantastic, way (example: Life of Pi by Yann Martel). He may be struggling to explain within the context of the story, meaning the other characters don’t believe or understand, or he may be directly addressing the reader. The reader discerns that something terrible happened and that the narrator is struggling to cope with it. There may be a gap between the narrator’s knowledge and the reader’s, but the reader understands that the narrator is not intentionally lying but rather is working hard to relive and fully convey a painful memory. This type of narrator is useful in allowing the reader to understand how unspeakable trauma is dismissed or accepted by those outside it.

Unaware Narrator, Aware Exterior: Other times, the narrator does not remember the traumatic event or its consequences, but the characters they interact with know what has happened. This narrator will have her credibility undermined at every turn in the story, but neither the reader nor narrator know why (example: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn). This dissociative amnesia is paired with other, more obvious mental struggles. In Finn’s novel, it is diagnosed as agoraphobia, but any type of anxiety or perceived paranoia fits. What’s important for the success of works like these is that the reader knows everything the narrator knows, yet understands that this knowledge is not the whole truth. The narrator has no obvious motivation for lying but seems to be doing so compulsively. Either along with the narrator or through the other characters’ dialogue and actions, the reader is eventually able to see the trauma the narrator has blocked out, which explains the paranoia and strange behavior she has exhibited. By having the perspective of the seemingly crazy character, the reader can realize how disorienting and scary it is to think you are telling the truth and not be taken seriously.

Unaware Narrator, Unaware Exterior: A third use of the unreliable narrator to illustrate trauma is in cases when neither the protagonist nor the people around them are aware of the trauma they have experienced (example: Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower). This is an extreme case of dissociative amnesia, usually related to child abuse. In this case, the reader knows everything the narrator knows, and may pick up clues leading to the truth before the narrator realizes. The reader is on the same journey as the narrator who is struggling to understand his own mental and emotional weaknesses without a full picture of what has influenced him. The reader witnesses the pivotal moment in the narrator’s life when something causes him to remember the trauma he has closed off. In these cases, the reader is able to see how the knowledge of this trauma can shape his understanding of himself and the world even years after it has occurred.

Voices from PEN/Faulkner Interns: Anique Jones

This fall, PEN/Faulkner had the privilege of being joined by three amazing interns. Before they left us, they each wrote essays inspired by their time in the organization. It’s our honor to share them with you, starting with this piece by Anique Jones:

LOOKING THROUGH THE GLASS

A small bookstore sits between a chic & casual wine bar and Turkish café in the entrance of Georgetown. It’s atypical. There aren’t defined rows or a plethora of subjects to choose from. There are two floors, the second smaller than the one below it. It looks like a generational town-home; smells of old wood, paper, adhesive, and ink; and seems as if it had its furniture removed to accommodate a lifelong worth of wisdom. There I stand in front of a glass window that emanates a peaceful aura, looking at an elderly couple take their glasses off and put them back on to read the premises of books. In that moment it seems as if a distinct world exists behind the window, a world that escaped from a pretentious neighborhood dripping in name brands. The fluorescent store sign calls my name and, before I kn0w it, I am on the top floor with Pema Chödrön’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change in my hand.  

I flip to a random page and start reading. 

“When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment.” 

Pause. What? I slide the book back into the middle of the stack. I circulate the mom-and-pop shop two, even three, times. 

*  *  *

I ended up in the same spot with the same book in my hand. Ten minutes later, I was handing the girl at the registerwho had a soothing voice, wavy brown hair, and angelic facial featuresa $20 bill.

In that moment I posed this question: How can it be possible for one to lead a beautiful life in the midst of uncertainty and change?

As I stood with the book in my hand, I entered into a period of reflection. My thoughts ruminated. It was almost as if I was looking for a definitive answer to tell me what was beautiful about a life absent of certainty and thrilled for change. In the course of my life, all I had ever experienced were the negative effects of uncertainty. As for change, that was always a complex process I had to grapple with. So, was Chödrön telling me that there was an answer to fix the troubling emotions that came with uncertainty and change, like a textbook solution or a definition to a word?

Hadn’t I just spent the entire summer meditating on books that spoke of the importance of remaining grounded in the most difficult of times, that taught me the meaning of joy, and that championed peaceful living? Hadn’t I been living alone in a studio apartment in Foggy Bottom trying to find my happy place, teaching myself how to fight destructive emotions that plagued me?  So, now, was this all wrong? I was supposed to not fight? And not remain grounded but ease into every single one of my feelings?

Yes.

Plot twist. You thought I was going to say the exact opposite of what I just said; that I was going to put up a fight against the concept of Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, but I have done neither. 

Why?

Because it was in that moment of contemplation that I was able to piece my questions and thoughts together. I realized that the decisions I have made throughout my lifetime have dictated my future, but they were all made with a leap of good faith. When I applied to ten-plus colleges, did I know which one I was going to choose? Did I know whether or not George Washington University was a good fit for me? Was I really prepared to leave my family and New Jersey behind? Could I have ever predicted that the major I intended on pursuing my degree in would change within the course of my first semester? The answer is no, no, and no.

This blog post hasn’t been written for me to thoroughly analyze all of the above. Rather, I have been interested in shedding light on a topic that perpetuates in society: that the human experience pits individuals against themselves. We live this life wanting to be certain about every decision we make: love, family, career. But the groundbreaking truth is that we will never know whether X decision was right until we have gone through the experience. Maybe it will take more than these words for that to sink in. That is okay. However, I must say that if you stop and think for one moment about your greatest life experiences and lessons, you will find how that is true.

If I had not looked through that glass window, I may have never discovered that the beauty in life rests in uncertainty, change, and the pursuit of happiness. If one thing is certain, it is that those three concepts are inevitable to the human condition. As I closed the book after reading the last page, the glass window was no longer the one from Georgetown. It was a mirror.

Giving Tuesday, December 3

At PEN/Faulkner, we’re excited about the work we do in our local community. In the last year, we gave free books and author visits to thousands of DC students, and we brought dozens of major authors to our city to inspire critical conversations. We need you to keep that momentum going. Our goal is to raise $10,000 to support our Writers in Schools program and our Literary Conversations series.

The holiday season is fast approaching. Just after Thanksgiving, people around the world will make a huge impact by participating in Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving back. We invite you kick off this season of generosity strong by helping us keep making a difference in DC. You can donate directly, or you can set up your own fundraising page and reach out to your network yourself.

Your support makes a big impact. Even $15 on Giving Tuesday can make a significant difference by putting a new book into the hands of a DC student. $60 covers the cost of an hour of writing instruction in a DC classroom, and $300 helps us honor the writers who give their time to our education programs.

As an added incentive, we’re offering supporters a few special thank you gifts: signed copies of last year’s PEN/Faulkner Award finalists!

  • Call Me Zebra, by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, our PEN/Faulkner Award-winner
  • The Overstory, by Richard Powers
  • Love War Stories, by Ivelisse Rodriguez
  • Don’t Skip Out on Me, by Willy Vlautin
  • Tomb of the Unknown Racist, by Blanche McCrary Boyd

For a donation of $100, you can select the book of your choice.* For $250, we’ll send you any three of those titles. And if you join our team and raise at least $450 for PEN/Faulkner, we’ll send you all five!

* Supplies are limited — there are only 30 copies of each title available! We’ll be sending around a form for you to select your top choices once the day is done.

Our mission is to celebrate literature and foster connections between readers and writers to enrich and inspire both individuals and communities. Thank you for helping us achieve that goal, and happy holiday!