By Ron Charles September 24
(Courtesy of Grove/Atlantic)
“The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” an epic about America’s unbridled military ambitions, has won this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize for fiction. In their announcement of the $10,000 award this morning, the judges said that novelist Bob Shacochis “creates an intricate portrait of the catastrophic events that have led to an endless cycle of vengeance and war between cultures.”
This complex, demanding novel about a father-daughter pair of spies was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and received lavish critical praise when it was published last September. Moving back and forth over five decades, the story provides an extraordinary vision of 20th-century atrocities and explores the foundations of our ongoing war on terror.
Shacochis, who grew up in the Washington area and now teaches writing at Florida State University, says, “The Dayton award is a young prize, but given its birth in a bona fide peace process and its vision, as well of the distinguished pedigree of its past recipients, perhaps in 10 years or 20 or 50 its status will enter that rarified zone reserved for the Nobel, sans the dynamite.”
Unfortunately, despite the remarkable quality and dramatic relevance of “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” it has generated far more enthusiasm among critics than among readers. But for Elisabeth Schmitz, Shacochis’s editor at Grove/Atlantic, today’s announcement confirms what she’s always thought about the book. “Nobody tells it straight the way Bob does,” she says. “Twenty years in the writing and set on three continents over a turbulent century, this book does nothing less than to show us why America stands where it does in the world today.”
Shacochis attributes his life’s work to the values imbued in him as an adolescent in the Washington area: “In ‘The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,’ I was writing about what I know, what I have known since growing up in the ’50s in McLean. The people running the most powerful nation on earth were our parents and our neighbors and the families sitting next to us in the pews at church (for me, St. Luke’s in Langley, where after Mass on the first Sunday in June, 1968, my 16-year-old self went up to Bobby Kennedy to shake his hand and say, ‘Good luck in California, Senator’).”
He asks rhetorically, “How could I grow up where I did, and when I did, and not become a writer obsessed by the dynamics of politics and power and, ultimately, peace, after being an eyewitness to such a continuous waste of the nation’s treasure and blood, and our soul as a nation outcast into a wilderness of fear? My adolescence was an adolescence of assassinations.”
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Peace Corps volunteer, Shacochis worked for years as a journalist, covering, among other troubles, the U.S. invasion of Haiti. (He can still recall – with a certain degree of pique – the day his mother called him in tears because his 1999 nonfiction book, “The Immaculate Invasion,” was panned on the front of Book World. “I wish my mother were alive to witness how The Washington Post has come back around to a much more felicitous view of my work – and me.”)
“There are good reasons,” he says, “why we find ourselves mired in the wars of today, this battle between West and East, and my novel tries to dramatize those reasons, and root them in the lives of characters that have surrounded me all my life: the Cold War warriors, the soldiers and sailors, the spooks that sat next to us in high school at the pizza parlor in McLean.”
Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin said he hopes today’s prize for “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” “will bring it even more attention – and readers. As a number of reviewers noted, it is the sort of novel of politics and ideas with a broad canvas that is rare these days.”
Also announced Wednesday morning, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction has been awarded to “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” by University of California at Davis law professor and human rights activist Karima Bennoune.
In her review in The Washington Post last year, Rachel Newcomb wrote, “Bennoune offers a compelling, meticulously researched account of the legions of Muslims whose struggles against fundamentalist violence are almost never reported in our media…. ‘Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here’ should be required reading, not only for those of us who are professionally involved with Muslim-majority societies, but also for anyone who mistakenly believes that Muslims are doing nothing to end fundamentalist violence.”
The Dayton judges also named two runner-ups: Jo Roberts’s “Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe” and Margaret Wrinkle’s debut novel, “Wash.”
The Dayton Literary Peace Prizes – inspired by the 1995 accords that ended the war in Bosnia – “celebrate the power of literature to promote peace, social justice and global understanding.” At a ceremony on Nov. 9 in Dayton, Ohio, Shacochis and Bennoune will each receive $10,000; Roberts and Wrinkle will each receive $1,000.
As previously announced, novelist Louise Erdrich has been named this year’s winner of the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, named in honor of the late diplomat who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords. (Erdrich’s “The Round House” was a finalist for last year’s Dayton prize for fiction.)
To be eligible, books must be published or translated into English and “address the theme of peace on a variety of levels, such as between individuals, among families and communities, or between nations, religions, or ethnic groups.”
Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he’d go crazy.