Stanford, CA–Friday Black (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Homesick: A Memoir (Unnamed Press, 2019) by Jennifer Croft are the recipients of the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing awarded by Stanford Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation. The biennial prize was designed to encourage and recognize emerging authors in memory of William Saroyan the Armenian-American novelist, playwright, and short-story writer. Friday Black and Homesick: A Memoir are debut books for the authors; each will receive a $5,000 prize.
“The goal of the Saroyan Prize is to raise awareness of the work of our award recipients as well as the wonderfully talented authors who make up our shortlist,” said Mimi Calter, deputy university librarian at Stanford. “I am always pleased to review the submissions and this year I think the spirit of William Saroyan’s legacy is clearly reflected in our winners and finalists.”
Friday Black, a collection of 12 stories that won in the fiction category, confronts issues of race and social injustice head-on. Adjei-Brenyah’s explosive voice is timely as the United States wrestles with its history. His talent is made apparent almost immediately as his writings intentionally teeter between carnage and compassion leaving readers to process a series of intense emotions. In addition to the Saroyan Prize for Writing Award, Friday Black received the 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and earned Adjei-Brenyah recognition by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 Under 35 Authors.”
Adjei-Brenyah places ordinary characters in extreme situations, whether it be race as a sport, ethics of genetics, or a thriving culture of greed and consumerism, the short stories in Friday Black uses extraordinary examples to give weight to reality. These stories tackle instances of racism and unrest and allow readers to explore the many ways the fight for humanity can occur. The book will challenge and inspire, and provides ample topics to dive deep into conversation.
In his review of Friday Black, George Saunders, renowned writer of short stories and professor of English at Syracuse University wrote, “These stories are an excitement and a wonder: strange, crazed, urgent and funny, yet classical in the way they take on stubborn human problems…”
The Saroyan Prize in nonfiction went to Croft, an award-winning translator who artfully intertwines photography and poetic prose in the retelling of the challenges and tragedies that filled her childhood. Homesick: A Memoir is an intimate coming of age story that reveals the foundation on which Croft has developed an internationally recognized career and the healing and perseverance involved along the way.
Although the story is hers, she tells it through sisters Amy and Zoe. Zoe suffers from debilitating and mysterious seizures, spending her childhood in hospitals as
she undergoes surgeries. Meanwhile, Amy (Croft) flourishes intellectually, showing an innate ability to glean a world beyond the troubles in her home life, exploring that world through languages first. Amy’s first love appears in the form of her Russian tutor Sasha, but when she enters university at the age of 15 her life changes drastically and with tragic results.
“Homesick is brilliant and lovely and breaks the boundaries of traditional memoir in ways that are exciting and human and real,” noted a judge as part of the Saroyan Prize review. “Jennifer’s clear and direct prose, her playful exploration of language, and her ability to dive into the complex issues of family and the heart made Homesick leap above…”
Finalists for nonfiction included How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) by Alexander Chee and In the Dream House: A Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2019) by Carmen Maria Machado.
This year’s panel of judges included Sumbul Ali-Karamali, Patrick Hunt, Elizabeth McKenzie, Hank Saroyan, and former Saroyan Prize winners Mark Arax (2005) and Lori Jakiela (2016). Additionally, over 225 volunteers, many Stanford alumni, participated as readers for the 2020 Prize.
Calter also offered praise for the volunteers. “Even with the difficulties of 2020, our judges and volunteer book reviewers were committed to seeing this Prize through. It is because of their determination and spirit that the Prize was able to be held in spite of the challenges of a pandemic.”