Why We Chose Them

David Lynn
January 11, 2016
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This monthly column usually offers editors’ thoughts on why we originally fell in love with—and ultimately published in the Kenyon Review or KROnline—a particular story or poem or essay. It’s become one of our most popular features. Readers and, especially, other writers really want a glimpse into what works, what grabs an editor by the throat and won’t let go.

This month, however, I’m delighted to share a different critical challenge: how and why we fell in love, so to speak, with two remarkable younger writers and ultimately awarded them KR Fellowships. Once again this past autumn we received several hundred applications, and the sheer literary quality of the writing samples was stronger than ever. So how do we decide? Who are we looking for?

Surely in these grueling searches we seek writers who, in addition to having finished an MFA or PhD, are far enough along professionally to make the most of the opportunity. That tends to mean they have already demonstrated some significant publication. Often we explain to talented candidates that though they show promise, they may not be quite ready—and encourage them to reapply in two years.

But the single most important criterion is simply the work itself: the literary merit of the writing submitted. And that’s what I believe was most resonant in the applications of the two exceptional writers who will be KR’s new Fellows, Jaquira Díaz and Margaree Little. They will arrive next summer in Gambier to spend two years teaching, writing, and working with mentors. Our goal is to support their progress toward the next stage in their careers as more fully accomplished authors and as skillful, well-prepared teachers.

Jaquira Díaz, who will succeed Melinda Moustakis as the Fellow in prose, was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami. As a matter of fact, Jaquira was a finalist four years ago in our first Fellowship search, but she had to withdraw before the completion of the process. Since then she has appeared in both the Kenyon Review and KROnline. In an earlier Why We Chose It column, I discussed the power and beauty of Ms. Díaz’s story “Ghosts,” which appeared in KR’s Winter 2014 issue. Here’s an excerpt from that column and story:

The prose here—and throughout the story—is taut, precise, visual, visceral. Jaquira Díaz can write—that much is clear.

What one grasps early on, moreover, is the story’s literary ambition. Yes, it has a narrative “present,” when the central action unfolds, but it also touches on other of Vega’s military deployments. Whether in Iraq or here in Campo Verde or earlier on the mean streets of Miami with her mother, both dying and threatening to kill her, Vega’s life, [the narrator,] has been characterized by violence and isolation and a desperate instinct for survival. And in Campo Verde she even discovers a measure of love, of a sort:

I feel my way to Ramos’s tent in the dark. He’s awake and doesn’t seem all that surprised to see me. He pulls off his shirt, and I’m glad I don’t have to endure the awkwardness of his rejection and then to face him in the morning. Our faces are slick with sweat, our necks sunburned and covered in grime. My hair is knotted. We reek of motor oil and mosquito repellent and foot powder, and when he goes down on me, I’m sure he imagines his wife.

This is a stunning, sophisticated story, strong evidence of both the achievement and the potential of its author. Standing before us at a public reading during the search, Jaquira claimed the room and didn’t let go. She is something of a force of a nature.

Jaquira Díaz is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and an NEA Fellowship to the Hambidge Center for the Arts. Her work is noted in The Best American Essays and appears in Ploughshares, The Guardian, The Sun, and The Southern Review, among other publications. Her story “Ghosts” was a Notable Story in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 volume and received a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology.

From the start the searing quality of Margaree Little’s poems separated her from other superb candidates. Here is an excerpt from “The Heron,” a meditation on discovering an immigrant’s body in the desert of the American Southwest:

An Egyptian king buried with a boat to travel in:

wasn’t he like that in a way,
the man we found,

the dust like balm if balm were dry?

And like the king’s boat, made to go down the river
to another world,

wasn’t he left with what he’d need to travel more,
since what he had was after all

all he’d had to travel that far with?

Or a crocus, you could say he was like that,
the way he haunts like a bulb in the ground

haunts with what it is becoming,
or if not a crocus, if not a king,

anything that’s ever been lost, hurt, discarded—

you could compare him to anything,
she said, that’s why he’s so heavy.

But that also means if you put him down

he stops being what he is.

Quiet, soft spoken during her public reading, Margaree’s performance was very different indeed from Jaquira. Yet she too seized the moment, drawing us forward in our chairs to hear poems that are wise and deep and penetrating. They left indelible trails in the audience’s imagination. Ultimately, it was the music and fierce honesty of poems such as “The Heron” that convinced us that Margaree deserved a KR Fellowship.

Margaree Little will follow Jamaal May as our poetry Fellow as of August 1. Her first book, Rest, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and The Southern Review.

We look forward to welcoming both of these exceptional authors and teachers to the Kenyon Review family.

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