Portland author Jerry McGill’s debut novel has earned an elite honor: being shortlisted for the 2022 PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award.
Recently published by McGill, “Bed Stuy,” an interracial love story set in New York City, is one of 10 books under consideration for the award, which honors a debut novel of outstanding merit with a American author who has yet to publish a feature-length fiction book. The $10,000 prize is one of many overseen by PEN America, a nonprofit organization that works to protect free speech.
“As a writer, you always dream of having these kinds of accolades, but somewhere deep in your heart you often think, ‘I’m really not good enough to be in the category of some of these people’. “, McGill mentioned. “This is a good thing.”
Authors can’t nominate themselves for PEN awards, so McGill learned that ‘Bed Stuy’ was on the long list when his publisher, Little A, sent him a congratulatory email.
“It amazed me to see who has won it in the past and who is on the committee to determine it,” McGill said. Past PEN/Hemingway Prize recipients include Pulitzer Prize winners Jhumpa Lahiri and Marilynne Robinson; Ha Jin, winner of the National Book Award; Yiyun Li, MacArthur Fellow; and Edward P. Jones, winner of both a MacArthur and a Pulitzer.
Although “Bed Stuy” is McGill’s first published novel, it is his second book, following his memoir “Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me.” McGill, now in his 50s, was a 13-year-old boy returning home from a New Year’s sleepover when a stranger shot him in the back, permanently crippling him.
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“Bed Stuy” follows Rashid, a young black man who, to his surprise, falls into a passionate affair with a middle-aged Jewish woman, Rachel. Rashid and Rachel meet through his mother, Muriel, a sculptor who dines regularly at the Italian restaurant where Rashid works and hires him to model for her – a modeling experience drawn from McGill’s own life.
The stark differences between the characters are what makes the novel: Rashid, a waiter, lives with his mother in the traditionally African-American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Rachel is a classical flautist married to a professor from Boston. Muriel is a Holocaust survivor widow whose default mood is bitterness.
“I’ve had a few experiences in my life that made me think, hey, I’m really fascinated by the differences between cultures, what happens when people from different cultures try to come together to make a relationship work, and what happens when their cultures are so varied and so disparate,” McGill said. “And it became that story.”
McGill does not limit its exploration of these relationships to romance. “Bed Stuy” opens with a scene from Rashid’s childhood in which he reacts differently to an important event than his brother, foreshadowing the challenges to come.
“I was trying to understand the fact that you can have someone who looks like you and comes from your background, and they can still hurt you and maybe someone who can harm your life and cause you a lot more. pain than someone from another part of the world,” McGill said.
McGill also takes time to develop relationships not often depicted in literature or pop culture: Rashid’s close platonic friendships with a young black man he went to school with, Marlon, and with his cousin foster, Stacy.
“Whenever we see filmed depictions of black men, it often seems to be this combative thing or this competitive thing,” McGill said. “I don’t see black men supporting each other, especially young black men supporting each other a lot and being portrayed as articulate, vulnerable with each other. And I just thought, I have to show it, I want to show it in this work.
As for Stacy, she represents McGill’s desire to write “a very powerful black female voice who has very strong ideas about who she is and at the same time can be someone who is a wonderful support and friend for Rashid.” . But she is so vocal about her opinions that Rashid finds himself keeping her in the dark about Rachel.
“I love that he’s in this romantic relationship and he can’t talk to her about it because he’s afraid of her opinion on it,” McGill said.
He heard that readers had differing opinions about Rashid and Rachel’s relationship. “Some found it inspiring, some found it disappointing, some were, like, angry at the end.” But if readers were emotionally affected, that was his goal.
“I wanted readers to be touched by Rashid and Rachel’s relationship,” he said. “I wanted them to see them as three-dimensional characters and I want them to understand the complexities involved.
“I’m not trying to preach to anyone about the differences that grow in different cultures and the need to accept each other. But I want people to walk away understanding why sometimes relationships are harder than we think.
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