When it came time to write her award-winning short story, “Jean,” Stephanie Nina Pitsirilos wanted to try something a little different.
“This story is a condensed version of one of my novels,” said Pitsirilos, a writer and winner of the fifth annual Chautauqua Janus Prize. “A thing I like to do is take a novel and challenge myself to make it into a short story. So in that sense, it’s an exercise in craft for me.”
The Janus Prize is awarded to an emerging writer whose work of fiction of non-fiction features daring formal and aesthetic innovations. As the winning author selected from five finalists by guest judge Aisha Sabatini Sloan, an essaying, memoirist and author of Borealis, Pitsirilos will give a lecture and reading to a Chautauqua audience at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10 in the parlor of the Athenaeum Hotel.
“Jean,” Pitsirilos said, is a story that follows a Nuyorican teenager who uses Marvel comic books as a star map to navigate through life and her family wormhole. Pitsirilos’ story was published in Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology.
“It’s very much fiction, but it’s based on a lot of family memories on my mom’s side of the family,” she said. “I took my nerdy adolescence, my love of comic books and my experiences being a girl in the 1980s, and combined it with my mother’s home environment growing up in a very specific area in the Upper West Side in Manhattan.”
Pitsirilos, a prose and comic book writer with work in numerous anthologies and a 2021 Broken Pencil finalist zinester, said she took a speculative approach to this story, fusing it with real childhood memories.
“My grandmother lost her youngest daughter, Maria,” she said. “And so I tried to look at that event from a speculative perspective — what if she had lived? What if her life had headed in the way that they thought it was heading? And how does the family deal with that trauma?”
Sony Ton-Aime, Chautauqua’s Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts, said he’s “so excited” for attendees to hear Pitsirilos speak.
“Everyone is invited to join us,” he said. “However, we have seats for only 100 people,” so he recommended people reach out to the literary arts receptionist on the second floor of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall to place a reservation.”
Ton-Aime counts “Jean” as “one of the most interesting stories I’ve read in a long time.”
“ ‘Jean’ is a type of superhero story,” he said. “It has wormholes that lead into different dimensions. But ultimately, it is all about a family navigating trauma. It’s an utterly profound and complex piece of fiction.”