Judge’s Comments: Fiction (2013)

Body and Bread by Nan Cuba (Engine Books)
shortlisted: From This Wicked Patch of Dust by Sergio Troncoso (University of Arizona Press)

Judge: Miroslav Penkov

That I, a man born and raised a very long ways away from American shores, should be asked to read and evaluate books about the American Southwest, by writers from this particular region, might seem a bit counterintuitive at a first glance. After all, what does a Bulgarian really know of Sergio Troncoso’s El Paso, of Nan Cuba’s Texas farms and Aztec myths? And yet, here I am, in the position of the judge. Which, after all, makes sense. Because, to appreciate a story one need not be born of its land; because I’ve now spent the last thirteen years of my life away from home, here in the Southwest. Eight years in Arkansas, five in Texas, a few months in between in Oklahoma. I say all this not to seek credibility, but rather to make a point: I have found myself in a unique and privileged position. I can read this year’s finalists simultaneously as an outsider and as a person from within their world.

From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Sergio Troncoso’s new novel, is the story of the Martinez family; the parents who leave their home in Mexico in search of a new, better life across the border; their children – three boys and a girl – who grow up between cultures, who struggle to find, understand and ultimately claim their own place in this world. The novel’s structure is elegant and seemingly simple – chapters arranged chronologically, snippets of life, at times fully dramatized in vivid scenes, at others condensed in efficient summary. The pages turn, the children grow up, their parents grow old. The bordertown changes. What is it to be American, Mexican, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim? What is it to struggle – for sustenance, for the freedom to choose who you want to be? Effortlessly, with elegance of style, Troncoso weaves a tapestry of lives, of human beings who by the end of the book feel not just real, not just intimately close, but undeniable, inescapable, a part of ourselves.

Body and Bread is Nan Cuba’s first novel, a tale that is brave and fearless and messy in just the right way. Past and present come together with a fury; one story drags after itself another, and in the eye of this vortex we see: a little girl, the narrator, growing up in a Texas of the 60’s; her grandparents and parents, her brothers, the Czech immigrants renting the family farm and raising children of their own. The lives connect in a rich tapestry, here too, like in Sergio Troncoso’s novel; the tapestry reveals a bigger picture, of one woman, of a family, of a place. Nan Cuba’s prose is clear and lyrical; the voice of her narrator strong, intimate, engaging. She spins her tale without fear and achieves the difficult movements in time necessary to tell the story with grace, effortlessness and skill.

Nan Cuba and Sergio Troncoso have written books that will speak to any reader, anywhere in the world, because they speak to the heart, of primordial things, things which transcend regions and cultures. Yet, these are books infused with history, personal and collective, with the sense of landscapes inextricably intertwined with the characters that populate them.

Body and Bread is the winner of the 2013 PEN Texas Southwest Book Award for Fiction.

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