Grief-Stricken Orcas, Black Bandages Featured in My Tran’s Janus Prize Talk

Author My Tran answers questions after reading excerpts from their work, “Tree rings, like concentric ghosts,” during the celebration to award Tran and their work the Janus Prize, Chautauqua’s literary award to honor writers who use craft in innovative ways and make use of the concepts of both the past and the future on Monday, Aug 5, 2019. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

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.

Tags : literary arts

The author Amy Guay

Hailing from coastal Sarasota, Florida, and Nantucket, Massachusetts, Amy Guay is excited to live near yet another significant body of water while she spends her summer as the Daily’s literary arts reporter. A fresh Georgetown University graduate, Amy has an extensive background in absorbing free or discounted art and then writing about it. Her favorite book is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.