Imagine a teenage Elvis Presley impersonator striving to get away from the ghetto in Lagos, Nigeria. Chris Abani did, and last week he was honored at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston for the resulting novel, "GraceLand." He's a visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. There he's described as a favorite of students, with innovative teaching methods using music and building houses out of cards to discuss literary structures.
Mr. Abani received the 2005 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award founded by PEN member Mary Hemingway to draw attention to first books of fiction as well as to honor the memory of Ernest Hemingway.
On the same occasion, April 10, the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award, named for longtime Boston Globe editor Laurence L. Winship, was presented for fiction to Edward J. Delaney ("Warp & Weft"); for nonfiction to Swanee Hunt ("This Was Not Our War"); for poetry to Kevin Goodan ("In the Ghost House").
The name of the Bolognaragazzi Award comes from the Bologna Children's Book Fair held earlier this year. Italy, the US, and Spain were represented on the international jury for 2005.
France came out ahead in the fiction award to Emmanuelle Houdart's "Monstres Malades," a large-page illustrated book of monsters with various everyday ailments. It was cited for a sense of humor that "avoids frightening the reader, evoking instead compassion and laughter...."
Canada sent the nonfiction winner, Ange Zhang's "Red Land Yellow River." It tells of the author's years as a child and young adult under Mao, with illustrations and photos resulting in "a rare example of a teaching application of autobiography."
Rwanda supplied the "new horizons" winner, John Kilaka's "Ubucuti bw'imbeba n'inzovu." In it, says the citation, "we return to a time when images were not the fruit of television reporting but a transmission of behaviors, wisdom, words, dreams, and visions."
Among honorable mentions were two books from the US:
Fiction - "Doodler Doodling," by Paul O. Zelinsky and Rita Golden Geinian. "Doodlings created by a young girl ... offer a sweet and harmonious journey into the civilization of books, a wise itinerary in the world of figures."
Nonfiction - "The Light Bulb," by Jennifer Fandel. "The scientific invention itself, narrated as a great fascinating adventure, is accompanied by a captivating human museum, full of inspiration, suffering, and hope focused on improving human living conditions."