Seven finalists named for 2020 Chautauqua Prize

CHAUTAUQUA — Chautauqua Institution is pleased to announce seven exceptional books as the 2020 finalists for The Chautauqua Prize, now in its ninth year:

“Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey,” by Mikhal Dekel (W.W. Norton)

“What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” by Carolyn Forche (Penguin Press)

“Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

“Feast Your Eyes,” by Myla Goldberg (Scribner)

“The Parisian,” by Isabella Hammad (Grove Press)

“Breathe: A Letter to My Sons,” by Imani Perry (Beacon Press)

“Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Riverhead Books)

The winning book will be selected from this shortlist and announced in late May.

Fleeing east from Nazi terror, over a million Polish Jews traversed the Soviet Union, many finding refuge in Muslim lands. Mikhal Dekel’s father, Hannan Teitel, and her aunt, Regina, were two of these refugees, and in “Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee Odyssey” — a finalist for the 2020 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature — Dekel presents a unique narrative of the Holocaust, whose focus is not the concentration camp, but the refugee, and whose center is not Europe, but Central Asia and the Middle East. Chautauqua Prize readers lauded Dekel’s “careful yet tender reporting,” calling the book “a voyage in self-knowing. … Her honest, compelling narrative inspires serious thought and discussion.”

A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche’s “What You Have Heard is True” is a devastating, lyrical and visionary memoir about a young woman’s brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. Written by one of the most gifted poets of her generation, this is the story of a woman’s radical act of empathy, and her fateful encounter with an intriguing man who changes the course of her life. Readers called Forche’s work “a compelling narrative” and “a timely book.” Forche “has opened my eyes a little wider about the dark secrets” of the world, one wrote, and written a book they consider themselves lucky to have read.

Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in 19th-century Africa, “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” is a captivating story of those who carried explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone’s body across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England. “Rather than repeating the usual legend of the Livingstone expedition, Gappah reinvents the story to reveal the tyranny and complexity of colonial power,” one reader wrote, and the author’s “inspired treatment and graceful prose breathes life into her riveting account.” Another called the work a “Homer-esque, cross-cultural mini-epic … the odyssey itself is a pleasure in prose.”

The first novel in nearly a decade from Myla Goldberg, “Feast Your Eyes” is a compelling and wholly original story about a female photographer grappling with ambition and motherhood, a balancing act familiar to women of every generation. “Feast Your Eyes,” a 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, is framed as the catalogue notes from a photography show at the Museum of Modern Art; this structure captivated readers, who described it as “part documentary, part memoir, part lyric essay.” “This book is incredible in form and content,” one wrote, bringing “themes of censorship, artistic freedom, women’s rights and familial relationships together in a gripping and deeply personal way.”

Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad’s “The Parisian” illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence. “Rarely does one find a book that successfully explores multiple threads in great depth, but this is one,” one reader wrote. “Palestinian culture and history … come vividly alive, woven into the lives of (Hammad’s) characters and into the story itself.” Particularly lauded was the protagonist, Midhat: “It has been a long time,” one reflected, “since I’ve encountered such a powerful character in such a marvelous book.”

In “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons,” Imani Perry draws upon the tradition and ideas of figures like James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells, and explores the terror, grace and beauty of coming of age as a black person in contemporary America and what it means to parent our children in a persistently unjust world. Readers called “Breathe” “an exceptionally inspiring book,” filled with “strong metaphors and adept turns of phrase, loving ideas and fierce encouragement.” This “outstanding and tragically necessary” work, readers said, is “intense and intensely personal, wide-ranging and up-close, steeped in historical awareness and lived experience.”

A missionary doctor, a jazz pianist, a post-World War II society woman, a young woman in present day and teenagers in a world yet to come: A house in Bangkok is the confluences of these lives shaped by upheaval, memory and the lure of home. Time collapses and these lives collide in Pitchaya Sudanthad’s “Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” his first book, which readers called “a powerful debut” and an “astonishing first novel.” “Complex and challenging, but also rewarding and exhilarating. … It is a cultural treasure with nearly every character worth knowing,” one wrote. “Sudanthad’s language is as stunning as his imagination.”



Awarded annually since 2012, The Chautauqua Prize draws upon Chautauqua Institution’s considerable literary legacy to celebrate a book that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and to honor the author for a significant contribution to the literary arts. The author of the winning book will receive $7,500, and will participate in a prize ceremony and reading as part of the 2020 Chautauqua Summer Assembly online. For more information, visit chq.org/prize.


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