At the PEN America awards ceremony on Monday evening, writer Amy Sauber received the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for her short story “State Facts for the New Age,” a Rumpus Original Fiction piece published in September 2016. This power of this remarkable story—Sauber’s first-ever fiction publication—is readily apparent in its strong sense of character and its sharp, bleakly funny voice as it follows Bekah, a middle school geography teacher in her thirties whose six-year relationship just ended. Bekah weathers this life-changing shift while teaching a class of disinterested eighth graders and seeking healing in whatever ways she can, including some, well, alternative therapies:
Dr. Hura is the therapist I will never see again. I know this, sitting cross-legged on her couch, as she recommends a Biomat, a long electronic mat about half the length of a twin bed with crushed up amethyst crystals inside a series of horizontal ridges.
Sauber’s skill for characterization shines in this first scene, revealing Bekah through small details like the way she rakes “seismographic earthquakes” into the sand of Dr. Hura’s miniature desktop Zen garden, and revealing Dr. Hura through details like the very fact she has a miniature desktop Zen garden. Bekah’s deadpan skepticism as she regards Dr. Hura’s astrology books and New Age-y trappings is belied by a bone-deep sense of desperation. She is weary, but the kind of weary that teeters on the edge of frantic, that has sunk so low that it circles right back around to mania. She yearns for healing—preferably quick, easy healing. So even as she rolls her eyes and Dr. Hura “namastes goodbye,” Bekah puts the Biomat on her credit card.
The story is humorous at the same time as it peels back a deep sadness, a juxtaposition that bares the highlights and shadows of each in sharp relief. Sauber renders Bekah’s grief over her breakup—which doesn’t seem an adequate word for the severing of a six-year relationship—with subtle but telling touches that resonate:
At home, I lie on the Biomat and stare up the wood grain on my ceiling. I try to see patterns or faces or shapes, something Micah would do. I slide my hand under my underwear, but I give up on this.
“In the future,” I tell myself, but I don’t finish my sentence. My clothes are smushed to one side of the closet. On the walls, a few nails stick out like warts.
Through her concise prose, Sauber communicates the impression of emotion being held at arm’s length, too strong and heavy to embrace at once. But such reckoning can’t be held off forever, and resisting it is about as useful as lying on a mat of warm purple crystals. As Bekah soldiers through her week, holding it together at work while thinking uncharitable thoughts about her students (“little shitstorms”) and lying on the Biomat at home for far longer than recommended (making her “so dehydrated [she’s] peeing ochre”), you can feel the wave of Bekah’s reckoning coming, and when it finally breaks, it’s embarrassing and messy and raw and beautiful, and not without hope.
Sauber was one of twelve emerging writers who were honored with the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize, which is awarded to the writers of debut short stories in the previous calendar year and hopes to aid in the launch of their writing careers. Additionally, the twelve stories will be collected in an anthology, The PEN America Best Debut Short Stories, published by Catapult. This is the award’s first year, and it is an exciting new addition to PEN America’s already prestigious and generous roster of awards, prizes, and grants given every year for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, theater, and translation.
Logo art by Max Winter.