James Hannaham Wins the PEN/Faulkner for Fiction for ‘Delicious Foods’

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The Washington Post reports that the prestigious peer-juried PEN/Faulkner Award in fiction has, for 2015, gone to author, Pratt professor and Elevator Repair Service co-founder James Hannaham for his novel Delicious Foods.

The prize — which awards its winner $15,000 — was announced today, and the author’s response to the Post suggested that the open reception of his novel has been surprising given its bleakness and experimentalism. He said, “I thought it was such a misfit, but it’s turning out to be a lot more popular than the kid I thought it was,” expressing that the book is “nasty and not at all genteel” in its depiction of “the unsettling endgame of discrimination.'”

He’s not exaggerating the darkness of his book — though its gravity is often delivered with a sense of humor. Delicious Foods, for one, is partially narrated by crack cocaine itself (already personified as “Scotty”), as a voice living inside the head of a central character. Hannaham explained in an interview with the LA Times:

One of the main things that people use humor for is just to get through really horrible things. In a certain sense, that’s kind of what happened with this book. I thought, “How the hell am I going to get through this without it being a total bummer?”

The story begins following the murder of a black civil activist, when his widow Darlene (the aforementioned central character) begins using crack cocaine, and then vanishes to a produce farm creepily named Delicious Foods — where she is paid with drugs in exchange for her slave labor — leaving her 11 Eddie year old son (who also narrates the novel) to search for her. The story speaks to the often invisible fates of slave laborers around the world — and in the US itself. Hannaham spoke to Guernica of his particular perspective on the conditions many migrant workers face in America (when asked why he centered his novel around a black American instead of an immigrant):

This particular variety of modern slavery was interesting to me because of its connection to chattel slavery in the past of African-Americans. I didn’t feel like I was uniquely suited to tell the story of Mexican immigrants who might’ve been in similar or worse situations. So I didn’t. And I feel like maybe this book will inspire somebody else who feels closer to that experience. What the hell century is it that this kind of thing is still going on in the same place…?

Hannaham’s novel won the award out of a pool of 500 other American books that were being considered. The other finalists — who’ll each be awarded $5,000 — included Julie Iromuanya for Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer, Elizabeth Tallent for Mendocino Fire and Luis Alberto Urrea for The Water Museum.