There’s a scene from “Sex and the City” where Carrie Bradshaw’s publisher throws a big party to celebrate the release of her first book. All of New York society seems to be in attendance.
“If you’re a writer, this party is like a culmination of a New York writer’s dream,” Cyrus M. Copeland said. “That didn’t happen for me.”
Copeland is the winner of the 2016 Chautauqua Prize for his memoir Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, a Mother’s Heroism, and a Son’s Quest. The book details Copeland’s family’s experience in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis. His father Max, an American, was arrested for espionage and his mother Shahin, an Iranian, decided to represent him in the revolutionary courts.
The prize was officially presented to Copeland Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said the mission of The Chautauqua Prize is to honor a piece of fiction or literary nonfiction that is “both a contribution to writing and also a really good read.”
“I think this year’s choice exemplifies both of those in such an amazing way,” Babcock said.
Babcock said 165 books from 78 publishers were submitted for this year’s prize. The books entered go through several rounds of readers to form a shortlist of finalists, and then a winner is chosen. Babcock said the response to The Chautauqua Prize — through both the number of entries and the Prize readers’ enthusiasm — shows that “we are readers and writers here at Chautauqua.”
The physical prize is specially designed to reflect the winning book, and it’s first presented to the author at the Prize dinner, which was held on Tuesday night in the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall Ballroom. The menu for the dinner is also meant to honor the winning work, so this year’s meal included Persian delicacies such as zereshk polo and Bastani.
This year’s prize took the form of a book safe, which Babcock said was meant to represent Copeland’s father’s love of reading as well as the need to keep secrets sometimes. The prize was designed by local artist Mike Uyesugi, whose work Babcock had seen at Gretchen Gaede’s gallery on Bestor Plaza. Babcock said part of the mission of the design of the physical prize is to have a local artist create it, and she appreciated the thought and detail Uyesugi brought to it.
Copeland began his presentation by recounting the unexpected experience of winning The Chautauqua Prize. He was joined at Chautauqua by his mother — who he described as “a heroine for the ages” — and his sister Katayoun.
Copeland said after Off the Radar was published, there was no publisher’s party, no huge book review, no translations of the work into another language.
Copeland said he fell into a bit of a funk and wasn’t quite sure why the book wasn’t making a splash, but he eventually got over it.
He was preparing to go on a 500-mile pilgrimage in Spain when he got the call from Babcock telling him he’d won The Chautauqua Prize — a call he received on Friday the 13th.
Copeland said that call turned what he thought would be an unlucky day into his luckiest yet, and he now considers Babcock his “literary fairy godmother.”
“The blessing can actually arrive before you embark on the pilgrimage, instead of after it,” Copeland said. “Here’s the thing: Life can surprise you, like this moment for me right now.”
Before coming to Chautauqua, Copeland said he did some research and found that “Chautauqua” can mean “two moccasins tied together,” a concept with which he could relate.
“I feel like I’ve been walking in two very different moccasins for almost all of my life,” Copeland said.
Copeland discussed his multiple heritages — Iranian and American — and how those two threads of his identity have clashed over the years. Copeland said when most people get to the stage he’s at in life, they have a midlife crisis.
“I ended up having a mid-country crisis,” Copeland said.
Copeland said he’s seen his two homelands be in conflict for decades, something he likened to being the child of a divorce, only that the divorce is “big and it’s ugly and it’s happening on the international stage.”
He felt stuck between the two cultures he considered essential to who he was.
“My therapy was writing this book,” Copeland said.
As he learned more about his parents while writing Off the Radar, Copeland said he realized their family held a unique position in a time of heated political turmoil.
“I realize something now: that our family was a representation of a larger geopolitical conflict that was unfolding between Iran and America,” Copeland said. “We Copelands weren’t just living on the nexus of one of the most iconic disruptions of the time — we were the nexus. Half Iranian, half American and torn between two homelands that we loved.”
Copeland said getting to write about his experience and to have it embraced by Chautauquans — “booklovers, tastemakers, kingmakers, lovers of the written word” — was deeply gratifying.
“So now you know why this moment, with you all, is a very special one to me,” Copeland said. “I’m deeply honored to be here at a place where two moccasins are tied together, in a community that values not just the written word, but also the very place where our stories and beliefs and faiths — and shoes — intersect. And speaking of shoes, I just want to say I’m very happy I’m not walking in Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes right now. This moment with you guys in the Hall of Philosophy is way better than her party.”
Copeland finished his presentation with a final word of thanks.
“I am grateful to you guys and to Chautauqua Institution for putting Off the Radar on the radar, and for letting me talk about the bigger themes of what it means to be a citizen of this lovely, difficult world,” he said.