James Hannaham has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for “Delicious Foods,” his bravura novel about racism and labor abuse. The $15,000 prize was announced Tuesday by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation in Washington.
“Delicious Foods” tells the story of an African American boy who, despite losing his hands, tries to rescue his mother from a Southern produce farm where she’s kept in virtual slavery. It’s a harrowing depiction of drug addiction and the plight of migrant workers. Among the novel’s most radical qualities is that parts of it are narrated by the voice of crack cocaine itself.
For Hannaham, an associate professor of writing at the Pratt Institute in New York, the success of his second novel has come as something of a surprise. “I thought it was such a misfit, but it’s turning out to be a lot more popular than the kid I thought it was,” he said by phone in reaction to the news of his award.
“It’s visceral,” he said, “and one of its main questions is about dismemberment as the unsettling endgame of discrimination. It’s also nasty, and it’s not at all genteel. It’s not a novel that tries to be about the small things that happen to literary people.”
That implicit criticism of the quiet nature of literary fiction is intentional. Coming from the world of experimental theater, Hannaham, who co-founded the New York performance group Elevator Repair Service, suggested that he has been disappointed by the staid tone of many literary novels. “If you look at composers or poets, experimentation is the most fun they can have. What’s wrong with the literary world that there isn’t more respect for and enjoyment of experimentation?”
Whether or not that’s a fair appraisal, Hannaham has won the approval of one of the country’s most literary organizations. The PEN/Faulkner Award — now in its 36th year — bills itself as “America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction,” which gives it a distinct quality of independence.
The judges for this year’s prize were Abby Frucht, Molly McCloskey and Sergio Troncoso. They considered almost 500 books by Americans published in the United States during 2015.
The PEN/Faulkner Award finalists, whose authors will receive $5,000 each, are:
● Julie Iromuanya’s “Mr. and Mrs. Doctor,” about a Nigerian immigrant who deceives his family back home into believing that he has become a doctor.
● Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” about a North Vietnamese spy who flees to California after the fall of Saigon and continues working for the communists.
● Elizabeth Tallent’s “Mendocino Fire,” a collection of stories.
Hannaham and the four finalists will read from their work at a ceremony on May 14 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Tickets to the ceremony, which includes dinner with the writers, are $100. Go to penfaulkner.org or call 202-544-7077 for more details.