What’s the Story #19

We are sitting in the Thai Place, a dark, quiet restaurant in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh, when I clink my water glass with a spoon. None of the other nine people at the table knows why I am clinking my glass.

Three of my grad students in the M.F.A. program at the University of Pittsburgh—Karen Levine, Jessica Mesman and Kathy Tarr—are here with me celebrating Kathy’s new teaching assistantship. Joining us are writer Gabe Welsch and photographer Paul Ruby, passing through town on assignment for a magazine. Here too are writer Floyd Skloot and his wife, Beverly, in Pittsburgh visiting their daughter, Rebecca, and son-in-law, Gualtiero, also at the table. Floyd’s book, which chronicles his life after being incapacitated by Epstein-Barr virus, will soon be published by the University of Nebraska Press. This is one of his rare cross-country trips; the effort exhausts him and requires weeks of rest and recovery before he can work again.

I have just returned from a meeting at the headquarters of JPMorgan Chase in New York, where the winner of the Walter V. Shipley Award—$10,000 for the best essay on the subject of diversity—was selected. Originally the winner was to be announced in fall 2001, but September 11 and the devastation it caused at Chase have left the project in limbo for months.

If you write for literary journals, as many of the best writers do, you know $10,000 for one essay is an unprecedented sum. It costs less than $10,000 to produce an entire issue of most journals; writers often are paid only in copies. At Creative Nonfiction, we pay $10 a published page—better than most.

Creative Nonfiction received nearly 1,000 entries for the Shipley Award, narrowed down through a painstaking process of reading, evaluation and discussion over many months. Those deemed the best seven were submitted to Mr. Shipley and a half-dozen other executives at JPMorgan Chase who, collectively, would make the final selection of the $10,000-prize winner. Those finalists are published here, anchored with essays by prominent writers commissioned especially for this Diversity Dialogues issue to think and write about the meaning of diversity in the 21st century.

Floyd Skloot is a former actor and marathon runner who, 12 years after the virus attacked his brain, continues to ponder his status as someone whose brain damage relegates him to the category of “disabled.” In his essay, A Measure of Acceptance, which he submitted for the Shipley award, he relates what happens when the government demands he undergo a battery of humiliating tests in order to keep his disabled status—as well as the disability payments that support him and his wife.

Because A Measure of Acceptance presents, in Floyd’s own words, “an encounter between the disabled and insurance industry in the starkest of lights,” Floyd had assumed that Chase, a member of the financial-services industry, might feel implicated “as being part of an industry that is being criticized.” Thus, he concluded, his chances of winning the Shipley Award, even though he had been named a finalist, were dim, at best. So when I clinked my glass at the Thai Place that evening, stood up and proposed a toast to Kathy for her teaching assistantship, Floyd thought nothing about it. Even when I brought up the Shipley Award, seemingly as an afterthought, Floyd had no clue, guessing that one of the other people at the table whom he did not know might be the $10,000 winner.

I had not planned this surprise for Floyd, a short, slight man of 54, who walks slowly, with a cane, and seems always cheerful and energetic. But the importance of the coincidence resonated with me: all of these people, including Floyd’s wife and daughter, now spontaneously coming together for one night and in one place only a few hours after I had returned from New York, where the contest winner had been selected after more than six months’ delay. I was excited, not just to pull off a surprise, but because I couldn’t help thinking that it meant something bigger and more far-reaching than just a congratulatory announcement in a restaurant. God knows, Floyd, whose income as a writer has yet to exceed his expenses, could use the money. But what writer or artist, especially those who work with literary magazines, couldn’t?

There was something more than all the coincidence and spontaneity here. The fact that an international corporation headquartered in New York would help a small literary journal in Pittsburgh provide a forum for writers from throughout the world to openly discuss and debate racism and prejudice for the sake of promoting diversity was a true gesture and symbol of the coming together of cultures and ideas—a tradition that has enriched our country from the moment of its formation. When JPMorgan Chase, multimillion-dollar sponsors of the Super Bowl, can reach out, recognize and invigorate a highly artful and talented collection of writers, as were all the Shipley finalists, something important is happening, and attention should be paid. A change of mood and of attitude is occurring, albeit slowly and ever so painfully. So I clinked my glass and said the words. “The Walter V. Shipley Award, $10,000—to Floyd Skloot from Portland, Oregon, a man who has suffered, endured and, remarkably, survived—presented by Creative Nonfiction and JPMorgan Chase.” These 10 people—friends, acquaintances and strangers coming together—symbolized a significant moment of diversity and confluence that neither I nor anyone else at the table would soon forget. Some things, tiny magic moments, glow in your mind forever, like stars.

The essays in this issue examine many of the different aspects of diversity, including race, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental disability, species, language, and sexual orientation.

Julia Copeland’s Blindsided begins with the intriguing first sentence, “Last week I discovered I was black.” Jewell Parker Rhodes, in Mixed-Blood Stew, tells of her mixed-race background and the permeable nature of the color line. Shara McCallum’s essay begins with the story of her African/Indian/European/Jewish father and then explores the complexities of being a mixed-race American woman able to “pass.” Faith Adiele weaves together her story of growing up biracial, single-parented by a white mother, with her ordination in Thailand as a Buddhist nun.

John Edgar Wideman captures the devastation of hatred that can be spawned by race in Looking at Emmett Till, which tells of the 14-year-old black youth viciously murdered in the Deep South in 1955 for talking to a white woman. Andrei Codrescu’s essay reminds us that the bigotry that fueled that horrendous crime continues to exist today in the “New” South and elsewhere. And Richard Rodriguez takes us on a highly allusive tour of the many meanings of brown, raising important questions about the use of English as a tool of the white empire—and about its use by the author himself, a man with “brown thoughts.”

Patricia Frisella documents dramatic scenes of violence, terror and discrimination involving a different and widely misunderstood minority—the mentally ill. Eliot Sloan explores gender issues in an attempt to better understand the impact of her father’s gay identity on both their lives. Judyth Har-Even recounts an experience familiar to very few of us—that of the Orthodox Jewish divorce ceremony.

Chavawn Kelley, a white Easterner living in Wyoming, tells of being asked to teach writing to her mostly Native-American class using an outdated and disturbingly inappropriate lesson plan. Across the border in Utah, Terry Tempest Williams acquaints us with the Utah prairie dog. The disappearance of this “sentinel of the prairie,” she points out, is emblematic of something much larger—the “sixth extinction … that is costing the earth some 30,000 species a year.” Human habitats also are disappearing—special, intimate places like Shabilsky’s Restaurant in Seattle, Wash., where people of diverse cultures, generations and abilities come together in Kate Small’s Gone in Translation.

On a broader perspective, anthropologist Kurt Schwenk probes the basic question—Why are humans prejudiced against those who are different?—and digs deeply into the foundations of Western knowledge to show that what we have learned and understood about race and diversity is grounded in faulty science. And Francine Prose examines the social phenomenon of “going native”—the adoption of another, often disenfranchised, group’s identity, usually by someone from the dominant culture. Prose finds that while going native can be “a matter of colonialism and sexual and cultural exploitation,” it also can be part of a life-changing process of self-discovery.

Copeland, Kelley, Har-Even, Sloan, Frisella and Small, along with Skloot, were the finalists for the Shipley Award. We want to thank also all the other entrants to the essay competition and to say how heartening we found it to read so many fine, articulate essays about diversity.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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