Lori Jakiela and T. Geronimo Johnson win Stanford’s 2016 Saroyan Prize for Writing

The biennial literary award given by the Stanford Libraries was awarded to two writers who draw on their personal experiences in their work.

BY GABRIELLE KARAMPELAS

Lori Jakiela and T. Geronimo Johnson, the two winning authors of the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, pull from personal and real-world experiences in their literature.

Such a writing technique characterized the award-winning work of the late literary legend Saroyan, for whom the prize is named. The Stanford University Libraries administers the prize every two years.

Jakiela’s Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books, 2015) is the story of one woman’s search for her birth mother coupled with the parallel story of her own motherhood and her own re-making. She explores what it means to be a mother, what it is like to have two very different blood connections and what it means to form a family.

Fritz Kasten, one of the three nonfiction judges, was struck by Jakiela’s work, noting, “It is Lori’s writing that encourages my renewed interest in books of the imagination.”

Kasten, a musician and bibliophile, found Jakiela’s style refreshing and welcomed: “Lori writes with a truly fresh voice, no easy or common accomplishment.”

Jakiela’s poetic prose engages the reader as she maps out her identity and searches to strike a balance between the families she is born into and the other she has made herself.

In the fiction category, T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow, 2015) squarely confronts issues of race, privilege and politics in a dark and socially provocative comedy about four University of California, Berkeley, students who stage a dramatic protest during a Civil War reenactment in rural Georgia.

A literary coming-of-age novel for a new generation, Johnson, who is a former Stanford Stegner Fellow and teaches writing at UC Berkeley, combines social insight and satire to illustrate the promise and perils of youthful exuberance while painting an indelible portrait of contemporary America.

Welcome to Braggsville is a national bestseller. In a review, the Associated Press remarked on the book’s relevance to modern day society: “Johnson deftly pokes dark fun at a wide swath of culture, high and low. … But as 21st-century American culture crisscrosses with the nation’s history, Johnson’s story evokes more than satirical humor. A sense of conscience and moral purpose takes shape at the heart of the book.”

 Lori Jakiela and T. Geronimo Johnson, the two winning authors of the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, pull from personal and real-world experiences in their work. (Image credit: L. Jakiela; Elizabeth R. Cowan)

Lori Jakiela and T. Geronimo Johnson, the two winning authors of the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, pull from personal and real-world experiences in their work. (Image credit: L. Jakiela; Elizabeth R. Cowan)

Jakiela and Johnson will each receive $5,000 as the award. A reception honoring both winners and their works will be held this fall.

Other finalists included:

  • Fiction, Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) by Amina Gautier and Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) by John Keene
  • Nonfiction, Russian Tattoo (Simon & Schuster, 2015) by Elena Gorokhova and Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War (Viking, 2015) by Susan Southard

It was a record-setting year for the 2016 Saroyan Prize for Writing. The Stanford Libraries received 361 entries for books published between January 2014 and December 2015.

Sonia Lee, the libraries’ associate director of development and manager of the prize, said she hopes the increasing popularity is indicative of a larger positive trend for literary writing. “We are encouraged by the increasing number of submissions received each year,” she said.