Resilience. It’s a good word for Washington on this particular day and this particular week, and for a few reasons—all of which were referenced Monday night at the 24th annual PEN/Faulkner awards dinner, where “resilience” was the theme. Its definition is “to spring back into shape after bending.” During the cocktail hour, some guests expressed that they thought the theme was apt on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. At the less somber end of the spectrum, some thought it described the Redskins’ win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. As the late summer/early fall party season begins, it could also be applied to Washington social life. In the past few years the event business has faced quite a few challenges, most of them financial, and yet people keep showing up—maybe not as many as before, but enough keep paying the average $500 to $1,000 for a ticket to back causes that need all the help they can muster.
PEN/Faulkner is a good example. The money raised at the dinner certainly helps to underwrite a glamorous and intellectual evening for the guests, and to give awards of $15,000 and $5,000 to winning authors, but it also brings acclaimed writers into the DC public schools. The writers who spoke at the dinner last night spent the earlier part of the day with public high school students. At other times, PEN/Faulkner organizes book groups for teen parents at various DC schools, including Anacostia, Ballou, Cardozo, and Dunbar. Some authors also visit young people who are incarcerated in city facilities.
Still, the event is in need of more robust support. Last night there were 194 people in attendance, compared with 254 in 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession. The attendees were rewarded with a many-faceted analysis of the meaning of resilience, by ten authors and one host, who spoke from the evocative Elizabethan stage of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The host, Calvin Trillin, said that “when it is applied to human beings, rather than metal alloys, resilience means to recover from misfortune.” Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, said the routine tests of resilience are marriage, jobs, and parenthood, but he cited 9/11 and the Haitian earthquake as transcending routine. “The vast majority of us can go much further than we thought possible,” he said. “When the landscape of your life is destroyed, what you do is wake up the next day and just keep going.” Vaddey Ratner certainly knows what it means to keep going. She is a Cambodian refugee who faced peril at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and who came to the US unable to speak English but who graduated summa cum laude from Cornell. “When I think of resilience I think of all those who made it possible for me to survive,” said Ratner, who is the author of In The Shadow of The Banyan. “For writers, words are the means by which we endure.”
Elissa Schappell, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, called her fictional story a “palate cleanser” and told a tale of teenage pregnancy and abortion with an unexpected ending. Poet Major Jackson put his theory of resilience into a prose poem that ended with a haiku, Susan Richards Shreve, an author and English professor at George Mason University, told of a childhood accident and the struggle to regain self-assurance. Tijuana native Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway, recalled a cocky Mexican homeless boy named Felix. He described him as born “standing up and talking back,” and endlessly inventive about making his sorry life seem positive. “This guy is my hero,” he said. “No matter how low you are kicked around, there’s this little nugget of self.”
Another among the featured writers was Louis Bayard, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University and who grew up in the Washington suburbs. His talk was humorous, recalling his father’s passion for detailing his daily commute from Springfield, Virginia, to Chevy Chase, Maryland, to his job at the B.F. Saul Company. Also amusing, if prescient, was Hilma Wolitzer, author of An Available Man. She lamented that “books seem to be on the way out.” She said she’s “not a Luddite” and uses all the latest technology, but she draws the line at electronic publishing. “It’s comforting to know I cannot be electrocuted reading a regular book in the bathtub.”
After the readings the guests sat down to a candlelit dinner in the Folger Shakespeare Library reading room, with its two stories of walls lined with books. The menu, from Design Cuisine, included pomegranate chicken over wilted arugula and a dessert of banana sticky pudding. The talk at our table was about resilience, again with references to 9/11 and the Redskins, but also a lot about one particular book—not a novel, but rather No Easy Day, the account by Navy SEAL Mark Owen of the killing of Osama bin Laden, who proved, after all, to be not all that resilient.