“A writer to watch”: Elaine Ray wins prize for her first published fiction

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New prize for new voice. (Photo: Photo by Rachael Behrens)

One of the finest people at Stanford just won a substantial literary prize –the $1000 Gival Press Short Story Award. We couldn’t be more chuffed.

The Book Haven was one of the first to know about the short story and the prize. Elaine Ray sent her story “Pidgin” to us some time ago. We hesitate to read anything by friends and colleagues – hard to weigh in with a thumbs-down, and the diplomacy in such cases can take as long as the reading (or longer, depending on the ego of the writer).

Our immediate verdict: “Terrific! Go for it!”

We were surprised that the former director of the Stanford News Service, and one of the most beloved people at Stanford for her generosity and kindness, had emerged in fiction with an utterly new voice. We agree with the judge who called it “mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic,” throwing light on a lost world that as foreign to most of us as the Incas.

We we’ve written before about Elaine and her blog,  “My Father’s Posts,” named in honor of her father, the journalist Ebenezer Ray, who died when she was thirteen: “What I knew was that  my father had been a newspaper man. He had worked in the composing room of the Pittsburgh Courier before he was disabled  by Parkinson’s disease. I also knew that he had dabbled in photography: There was an abandoned darkroom in our basement, and there were  lots of photos around our house, including my baby picture, which earned Honorable Mention in the Carnation Healthy Baby contest in 1955. …I knew he was born in 1897, immigrated to the United States from Barbados, and had lived in New York  for many years before settling in Pittsburgh.” His story is the fictionalized backdrop of ‘Pidgin.'”

ebenezerHer reaction to the $1000 award? “Blown away and humbled. The first piece of fiction I’ve ever gotten published wins an award.” According to one of the judges, Thomas McNeely, author of Ghost Horse: “In fewer than twenty pages, Pidgin sketches a world of its narrator of color’s post-colonial migration, political activism, and imprisonment within the choices offered him by history. At the same time, it’s a narrative that seems shaped by mysteries that transcend and yet throw into sharp relief its political moment, the chief one being the brilliant voice of its narrator, who is at once mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic. Elaine Ray is a writer who plays by her own rules, and is a writer to watch.”

An excerpt, in the voice of her “father”:

My plan was to land a job at one of those big Negro newspapers. But first I had to put in some time with Oliver and Olivia Burns, a couple with ties to the printer I had worked for back home. Mr. and Mrs. Burns owned an establishment that printed invitations, birth announcements and funeral programs. They had clients who fell into three categories: The well-heeled customers they received in the front parlor of their shop with the curtains open— most of them were white or Negroes who could pass for white, like the Burnses themselves. In the second tier were those who were welcomed in the shop, but with the curtains drawn. They were mostly prominent, but browner-skinned Negroes. At the bottom rung of the Burnses’ pecking order were those who brought in most of the money. They tended toward the darkest hues, were working class or poor, and were not welcomed in the shop at all. Those are the ones I was hired to call on.

That’s how I met Lucille Braithwaite, an enterprising Trinidadian who had worked her way into a comfortable living in the ten or so years that she’d been in New York. By night, she toiled in a government factory in Tarrytown. By day and on weekends, she made extra money doing hair, managing a rooming house and hosting gatherings ý rent parties, recitals and receptions— in the upstairs parlor of her Harlem brownstone. She was known to pack a shotgun, lest anyone bring trouble or think about coming between her and her money. She was unmarried and had no children, but kept a parrot named Scarlet whose first language was Pidgin English.

Scarlet was a master of impersonation, picking up accents, inflections and languages with impressive precision.

“Who did you say sent, you?” Lucille asked the day I knocked on her door. At first glance it was hard to tell who was talking: the woman or the bird that stared from atop her head. Both gave me the once over.

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“Mr. and Mrs. Burns. You wanted to order some leaflets?” I tipped my hat—a straw cross between a pith helmet and a fedora. The bird snatched it.

“Don’t be rude, Scarlet,” Lucille reprimanded, a touch of amusement around her eyes. She opened the door wider and handed my hat back.

Had it not been for Scarlet’s antics, Lucille, whose hair was wrapped in a brightly colored scarf, would have looked like she was wearing a piece of intricately constructed millinery festooned with bright red, blue and yellow feathers.

“Where are you from, Mr. Clark?” Lucille asked.

I did not realize how ridiculous I looked until I was reflected in Scarlet’s marble eyes— a dark, diminutive, bespectacled figure in navy shorts, a starched white shirt, navy blazer, knee socks and leather sandals.

Lucille was tall, slender, and the color of strong tea. She had a beaklike nose and full lips. When she listened, she stood with her torso thrust forward and her hands on her hips, her elbows taking on the shape of wings.

“Barbados,” I said.

“That must be how you know the Burnses,” Lucille warmed. “Come in.” She led me into a spacious sitting room with two matching upholstered chairs, also bright with color, with a coffee table in between. There was a card table with four folding chairs in one corner and a large wicker birdcage in the other. The place was neat as a pin.

 You can read the whole thing here at the Arlington Literary Journal.


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