Askold Melnyczuk, 2011 Garrett Award Recipient

A much beloved teacher of writing and literature, Askold Melnyczuk teaches at the University of Massachussetts Boston and in the Writing Seminars of Bennington College. He is the founding editor of Agni Magazine, which he established in 1972, and also the founding publisher of Arrowsmith Press, which he established in 2005. Melnyczuk is the author of three novels and a novella, The House of Widows, The Ambassador of the Dead, What Is Told, and Blind Angel. He has also served as the translator and editor of many other works. A former chair of PEN New England’s Freedom to Write Committee, he has also taught in prisons and helped to establish a writing project for “at-risk” youth.

The following remarks have been adapted from Melnyczuk's acceptance speech on February 3, 2011.

Askold Melnyczuk: Thanks David. Thanks to the Board of AWP. Thanks too to Cat Parnell, Peter, Bill, to Alex Johnson always, and to so many others for your generous support over the years.  I’m honored to be standing here with you tonight. Delighted too to be again in the company of one of my favorite writers, Jumpha Lahiri.  

The one time I met the grand, generous, and gregarious George Garret—I guess that makes him the first 5G Network—on a summer afternoon at Bennington, we talked about writing and he said the one rule he followed was to evoke every one of the senses on every page of prose. Good advice, which I’m about to ignore.
Stepping outside the study, a writer’s relationship to his community—communities— may appear problematic and complex. We do our work in silence, and to ourselves, for so much of the time that we can come to believe we’re spontaneously generated, self-sustaining, and, who knows, immortal. Ah my friends. As Jorie Graham hauntingly writes:

 …The world we live in
Is going to change, to more than disappear.
This is the light that blinds you by degrees
that it might always feels like sight.

“To make you see,” wrote Conrad, that was the writer’s task. See what? Why the truth, and truths, of life of course. To see, to try to understand, and to remember—not only our own joys and sorrows but those of others, of families of the hundred thousands of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Gaza, Sudan. One reason sciences thrive in our time and literature seems to stumble behind may be because literature, Martin Gardner observed, thinks it’s about “I” and science knows it’s about “we.” In fact, I believe there is no real argument between solitude and solidarity—between Dickinson and Whitman and Dunbar. They are points on a continuum.  Good work, the writing that matters, does so because it records perceptions we might have overlooked in our busy world. Its value derives from giving voice to all those who might otherwise pass invisible through life. 

“All us we folk / person community first,” writes D.C.’s own native son Thomas Sayers Ellis. This silent suffering and joyful “folk” is defined neither by class nor by race nor by gender nor by geography. It’s our task to find language for all that’s wordless or mute within and outside us, to remind ourselves of the deep and real bonds of responsibility and delight that exist between us. The work that matters recognizes the boundlessness of phenomena, and of what the poet Gertrude Schnackenberg describes as “the infinite obligation owed to every living thing that’s smaller than the universe.” I will make no great claims for art over other human endeavors. At every turn others attend, support, and guide us. Even here, in this rather daunting space, at this conference, in this hotel: others provide us with shelter, food, free cable, and easy to follow directions for the Metro. At the same time, in this historic moment, literature is more important than ever. It is literature, the news that stays news, as Pound put it, that gives consciousness form and conscience its shape and direction, and a book, wrote Boris Pasternak, “is nothing but a burning, smoking piece of conscience.” 

We live inside what journalist Chris Hedges aptly calls an empire of illusion. Its enticements and seductions surround us, striving actively to distract us from our rare yet common purpose. That purpose can’t be reduced to a bon mot or a glib phrase but I know it has something to do with exposing the nature of this “empire of illusion”—of how it works and what it will do to us and the rest of the world unless we as find the language to name it and thereby to begin disarming it.

Consider: Economic inequality in this country is greater than it is in Egypt. Fiction writers are the wikileakers of the literary world. To us the Bradley Mannings and Assanges and Berrigans are always heroes. The goal of the imperial illusionist is to persuade us to fear each other, to compete with each other, to strive against each other. The writer who matters recognizes this and is not deceived.  He is a free man, a free woman, who knows what to damn, and what to praise. As Mahmoud Darwish reminds us:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories.

Thank you.

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Each year, AWP welcomes nominations for the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Consult our award guidelines for more information. Award recipients are selected by AWP's board of directors.