Last Monday, images of orcas floated above the chairs assembled in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor.
The giant whales were conjured by My Tran, author of “Tree rings, like concentric ghosts” — the winning piece of the 2019 Chautauqua Janus Prize. Surrounded by a bar of refreshments, hors d’oeuvres and chairs brought in from other rooms to accommodate the growing crowd, Director of Literary Arts Atom Atkinson introduced the fresh Brown University graduate as a “cross-genre/gender artist” before Tran took the podium for their 25-minute-long lecture.
Judged this year by Vi Khi Nao, the author of 11 books and a Week Three writer-in-residence, the Janus Prize is named after the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, a nod to the innovative works the award was created to uplift. Funded by a donation from Barbara and Twig Branch, the Janus Prize includes $5,000, as well as all travel and expenses for a summer residency at Chautauqua Institution during the summer season.
“Tree rings,” published in the Spring/Summer of 2019 issue of Black Warrior Review, is an intricate and heavily researched piece of prose that addresses loss, language and time in a series of brief sections. Tran’s lecture, which was divided into three parts, traded in similar themes of grief and meaning-making with the story of J-35, an orca who continued to swim with her calf’s body 17 days after it died. The translations that arise between beings — alive, dead, fictional or bestial — served as the crux of Tran’s talk, which also engaged characters from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Tran argued, there is a world of life and grief in the black bandages that one of One Hundred Years’ characters, Amaranta, wears around her hand.
Tran, a writer and sculptor, had given presentations as an undergraduate at Brown, but nothing that was “officially called a lecture.” Although they found the endeavor intimidating, the “loose parameters” alleviated stress.
“I got to go in whatever directions I wanted,” they said after the lecture. “Everyone was super encouraging, which helped with nerves. One lady said she cried.”
After hearing Tran’s poetic speech, Wick Poetry fellow Sony Ton-Aime said he has to find another favorite book.
“I can no longer claim (One Hundred Years of Solitude) as my favorite book, because there’s no way I would ever be able to write an essay like that,” he said.