Hernán Díaz, author of ‘In the Distance,’ wins VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

Hernán Díaz's “In the Distance” is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award f...
Hernán Díaz's “In the Distance” is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. (Courtesy photos)

Hernán Díaz has won the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during a calendar year. His winning book, “In the Distance,” published by Coffee House Press, tells the story of a Swedish immigrant crossing America’s western frontier in the years between the gold rush and the Civil War, a story that encompasses both the vast landscape and the quiet depths of one man’s suffering. 

Díaz will receive the award Nov. 6 at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he will give a reading and participate in a roundtable and panel discussion with VCU students and the public. The event will be held in the Cabell Library Lecture Hall (Room 303) at 7 p.m. For additional details, visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event/.

Díaz was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 17th year, which is presented on behalf of VCU’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program and sponsored by the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU and the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The other finalists were S.J. Sindu for “Marriage of a Thousand Lies” and Anelise Chen for “So Many Olympic Exertions.”

“In the Distance” tells the story of a young Swedish immigrant, Håkan, who finds himself penniless and alone in California. The boy travels east in search of his brother, moving on foot against the great current of emigrants pushing west. Driven back again and again, he meets naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians and lawmen, and his exploits turn him into a legend. Díaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and genre, according to the publishers, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness.

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, “In the Distance” has received great critical acclaim. The New York Times described the book’s “affecting oddness” as its greatest virtue, alongside “its ability to create lustrous mindscapes from wide-open spaces, from voids that are never empty.” Publisher’s Weekly writes that, relative to other novels centered around a quest through the American West, “In the Distance” is “more whole, more crackling, alive, awake and speaking.” And, the Pulitzer Prize Committee called “In the Distance” “gorgeously written” as it “charts one man’s growth from boyhood to mythic status” on Håkan’s journey “between continents and the extremes of the human condition.”

Díaz, who was raised in Argentina and Sweden, describes both the wandering Håkan and the land itself with a graceful clarity that proves as haunting as it is illuminating, according to the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award judges. His writing, they said, is elegant yet deceptively accessible, lush yet spare. Without pretension, he crafts a devastating epic, a portrait of both man and country that reveals the roots of the American western mythos.

Díaz is the author of the nonfiction “Borges, Between History and Eternity.” He is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute for Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University, and serves as the managing editor of the Spanish-language journal Revista Hispánica Moderna. 

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program’s yearlong novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 cash prize. Travel expenses and lodging are also provided for the author and two additional panelists, most often the agent and editor of the winning book, who will attend an evening of events that focus on the creation, publication and promotion of this year’s winning novel.

More than 100 novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A universitywide panel of readers in addition to members of the Richmond community reduced the list to 10 semifinalists and ultimately three finalists. The finalists were then considered by a panel of judges consisting of Jade Chang, winner of the 2017 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for “The Wangs vs. the World,” Idra Novey, author of “Ways to Disappear” and “Those Who Knew,” and Akil Kumarasamy, author of “Half Gods.”

In addition to Chang, recent winners of the award have included Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House” and Boris Fishman for “A Replacement Life.” A full list of winners can be found at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/winners/.

The deadline for the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is Aug. 30 for books published January through June 2018. For books published July through December 2018, the deadline is December 31, 2018. For more information, visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu.

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