The AML conference of 2013 was a huge success. Awards are posted below, with citations. All citations were written by the judges in the various categories.
I will be submitting grant proposals so that AML can continue in full force, and invite each commenter to tell why the efforts of this organization matter either to you individually or to the LDS Church institutionally. Note that one of our chief objectives in the future is to become more international.
Smith Pettit Award
To: Eric Samuelsen
Eric Samuelsen has been one of the most influential and respected playwrights that Mormonism has produced. Having just recently retired from BYU as their playwriting professor, Samuelsen has influenced a generation of playwrights who can trace their creative lineage to him. But it is his prolific and powerful body of work that is his most visible legacy. His characters always feel real and layered; his use of language is vividly contemporary and memorably stirring; his plays are topical and timely; and he certainly isn’t afraid to make a moral stand for what he believes in, religiously, politically, or socially. His work has integrity, depth and compassion.
Because of the topical nature of much of his work, Samuelsen can be seen as a Mormon Henrik Ibsen or Charles Dickens. He is a Mormon reformer who, though at times at odds with the social majority of his culture, wishes to use his work to improve Mormon culture by championing the progressive Good through his incisive, insightful, and powerfully wrought plays.
The Five Books of Jesus by James Goldberg
Jesus and his disciples walk wherever they need to minister. And in James Goldberg’s debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, the cadence of the steps the disciples take sets a rhythm for the language Goldberg uses. The first thing that strikes a reader is how poetic and lyrical the story feels. But the novel is more than just pretty words– Goldberg takes on the difficult task of fictionalizing the ministry of Jesus Christ, and doing it in a way that never feels anachronistic, revisionist, or cheesy. Jesus and the disciples minister, to be sure, but they’re also involved in the daily struggles of life– avoiding the crush of crowds, being misunderstood, and going for days with too little sleep and too much work. Goldberg is especially proficient at giving the reader glimpses of insight into what the disciples, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ family were thinking during this time of ministry. Readers will be impressed by Goldberg’s command of the language and by the way that he makes the familiar story of the Gospels feel fresh to readers.
Terryl and Fiona Givens for The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life
The God Who Weeps is an intricate inspiring literary tapestry. It weaves together poetic, philosophical and theological concerns of some of the most renowned thinkers. In an academic yet humble offering, it identifies mankind’s soul as one yearning to find understanding and meaning, not only in the day-to-day experiences of life but especially in the confusing and soul-wrenching times of our existence. Terryl and Fiona Givens illuminate how Mormons make sense of life through belief in the pre-mortal experience, having a purposeful perspective on mortal life’s array of joys and sorrows, and a uniquely hopeful attitude that arises from the Mormon doctrine of heaven.
Mormonism’s perspective on heaven resonates love and peace. This book beautifully states these beliefs: “God is personally invested in shepherding his children through the process of mortality and beyond” and “the project of human and that God designed offers a hope in the entire human race. It is universal in its appeal and much alike.” This resonates deeply for those who yearn for God’s understanding.
“Help Thou Mine Unbelief” is the title of the epilogue and concludes the book with the humility of true sai9nts who are also academics. Life is different for everyone. Some people have innate faith; others struggle their entire life with doubts, yet they cling to faith. Terryl and Fiona Givens seem to embrace and understand all–those with and without doubts–as they accept and testify of a God who weeps.
To: Karen Kelsay
For: Amytis Leaves Her Garden
In choosing Amytis Leaves Her Garden, my sense of being a poet, who loves the catching a glimpse of the world through eyes that are not my own. I don’t wish I had written Amytis Leaves Her Garden, I am instead in awe of how Karen Kelsay has been able to catch a wisp of time or place, and transport me there, with clarity and imagination.
Clearly this is a collection of poetry that bears the hallmarks of Mormon life and the ideals of Mormonism’s gender ideas. “A Proper Man” (pg 23) is one of the poems that at first left my feminist self bristling, as did several other poems that seemed to be focused on only the sunny side of life. Then “Summer in Italy” (pg 46) is the reminder that searching for beauty, comfort, the sublime, in the midst of each sorrow, trial and the unexpected *is* what and who Mormons are.
As with the review of any poetry books, there are few poems that didn’t connect, and yet even in those, as a reader I felt there was still a beauty in trying to see how all the other poems inform that disconnect. In the end, personally not having a place to walk into a poem, does not take away from the majority who made me laugh, weep or smile,
While the subject varies from poem to poem, each sheds beauty on sweet moments that are here, and would be gone, if not for Kelsay’s brilliant poetic snapshots.
Award in Adaptation
To Michael Hicks
For The Street-Legal Version of Mormon’s Book
We could have titled this award “the best translation of ancient scripture to a modern language,” but surely admirers of William Tyndale and Joseph Smith would be scandalized that a lowly music professor from Brigham Young University won it instead of these older luminaries. We therefore give the first ever award for adaptation from a modern language into a more modern language to Michael Hicks for his book The Street-Legal Version of Mormon’s Book.
Whether translating or adapting, anyone working with literature must honor the original poetry and the essential meaning of the text. Popular Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko requested that only poets translate his works, so that his poetic sensibility be maintained—even at the sacrifice of a direct translation. The essence of the poem cannot omit the beauty of the poetry itself.
Hicks’s book is summarized thus: “Not a ‘simplified’ version of the Book of Mormon, but a completely rewritten paraphrase, with a contemporary voice hovering somewhere in the realm of J. D. Salinger, Hunter Thompson, and some generic humanist academic/poet, i.e., me (Hicks). An affectionate, meditational dramatization and commentary.”
Poetry and music—those intersecting webs of explanation and exultation; the pastoral and the volatile—comprise much of Hicks’s own life. His own heart is described in this verse from 3 Nephi, as he has adapted it: “Blessed are the few whose hearts throb with purity, because God cannot remain invisible to you.”
We are told to acknowledge God in all our ways. Michael Hicks has given us yet another way to let God appear.
Redemption, directed by Thomas Russell
This film tells the story of Henry Heath’s efforts to protect Jean Baptiste, a noted grave robber, from the vigilante attacks of locals. Based on actual events, the film seeks to give spiritual life to an arcane slice of Utah Mormon history generally left overlooked. The plot develops in a slow, plodding way—the film could have been shaved by 15 minutes or so—but the pace reveals the state of life for most mid-nineteenth-century Utah Mormons.
The story reveals how Heath juggles personal feelings of vengeance—Baptiste had robbed his own daughter’s grave—with a commitment to preserving the rule of law for social outcasts. His personal journey is a subtle one, revealed in simple acts such as purchasing some goods for Baptiste or in a conversation with Porter Rockwell. Stevens also portrays the French Baptiste with a quiet creepiness that reveals how Otherized he would have been within the Mormon community.
The beautiful scenery of AntelopeIsland and the meticulously fashioned costumes accent the film well, though they do not compare to the majesty of Austria in Silent Night.
Mormonism is woven into the plotline without taking center stage. Famous Mormons such as Orrin Porter Rockwell pass through the scenery, even as they retain a low profile. Popular depictions of nineteenth-century Utah life portray it as an irredeemable sink of frontier justice. And the film doesn’t necessary rebut that image. However, it does reveal the kinds of questions that ordinary Saints faced when reconciling their faith with the rhetoric of blood vengeance that had circulated throughout Mormon Utah. It highlights the best of Mormon introspection, taking care to acknowledge both the violent streak within Utah Mormonism while celebrating its compassionate core.
Roof Overhead, by Mahonri Stewart, exemplifies what I like most about Mormon theatre: real Mormons, in real situations, who do their best to overcome their weaknesses, who don’t always succeed in the time-frame of the play, yet leave the audience with hope that a resolution will be forthcoming.
The Fielding Family is the center of this story, but they are not THE story. The people who come into their lives, who interact with them through the course of the play, are the story. The play is more of an ensemble piece than a play about any single person.
Again, like life.
And the people who interact with the Fieldings? You couldn’t find a more diverse (and interesting) set of characters. SamForest (a “woman of presence” to quote from the stage directions) is a self-proclaimed atheist seeking to rent a basement apartment from the active Latter-day Saint family, the Fieldings. Her friend, Ashera, is a Wiccan. Tyrell Howard, a young LDS African-American, the boyfriend to Naomi Fielding, in her twenties and contemplating a mission. How each of these interesting characters interacts with the Fieldings, and with each other, makes for a compelling evening of theatre.
As to be expected with a Mahonri Stewart play, the title A Roof Overheard is thematically telling. What happens under the roof of this home full of loving but flawed people is what draws us into their lives. Most, but not all, of the interaction between family members and friends is pleasant and happy, but even when the characters steer us into uncomfortable areas that still challenge many members of the Church today (like, for instance, Blacks and the Priesthood), we are presented with multiple sides of those issues in a fair and balanced manner. No one seeing this play would consider it unbalanced. The father Maxwell Fielding is fond of saying throughout the play, “It’s about being fair.” A Roof Overheard is nothing if not fair.
Stewart’s skill at dialogue and characterization, mingled with just the right amount of humor, drama, and pathos, anchors us to the play–we become more than mere observers. We become members of the diverse set of characters and we, characters and audience alike, share this roof overheard.
What this play says to Mormons is, “We are not alone in the world. We need to learn to get along with others of different, or sometimes, no faith.”
Nancy Fulda “Godshift.” Daily Science Fiction.
Nancy Fulda gives a realistic depiction of what might happen if God, the unchangeable and infinitely merciful, changed. It’s so difficult to write a believable story wherein characters reach a mind shattering conclusion, but Fulda pulls it off brilliantly.
While at first glance, this story seems to be a classic cautionary tale of how science can overstep its bounds, there are a few crucial differences that make this short story different from the archetype. First, the overwhelming fact that, in this story, science is actually changing God’s reactions rather than having God’s reactions change science. Second, the younger generation argues for a more conservative approach to science, while the older generation plunges rashly forward.
Young Adult Novel:
Bryce Moore- Vodnik
If you’ve ever wondered what the rules are for death, or whether a water sprite and a fire spirit have a chance together, and especially if you are fascinated by Slovakian myths and legends, then Bryce Moore’s VODNIK is the book for you. A combination of coming of age story with a mythical heroic quest, Vodnik is a unique examination of life for an American teen of Roma (gypsy) descent in contemporary Slovakia. Together we learn that death has a sense of humor, that water sprites are not to be trusted and that a good training regimen can turn a victim into a victor! I thoroughly enjoyed Moore’s debut novel.
Memoir/Creative Non Fiction:
The Book of Mormon Girl, by Joanna Brooks, is a clear winner for the 2013 AML award.
Brooks could have won by writing virtually the same chapters, without doing half as much work. So much power comes through her honest re-telling of the circumstances of her remarkably Mormon upbringing, that the reader is enthralled just by observing the facts. Recognizing her uniqueness, Brooks crochets an afghan-like masterpiece. Her yarn is of several colors, most of which were given to her by others whose views were not her own. Her story would have interested many, had it been only these several hues, simply chained together. The result would have been a lovely rainbow crochet chain. But Brooks did not let that chain remain just that, perhaps because she knew that people like her, would cherish the reassuring warmth that her richly dynamic and textured story-afghan would wrap them in. Like the afghan Brooks describes in her memoir, her work is her personal offering, given in the hope that her contribution will benefit the members of her community. Like the afghan in her book, Brooks’ writing was not instantly recognized as valuable. But thankfully, Joanna Brooks continued to crochet her unique and vibrant yarn. Her community is recognizing this work of art as both artistic and practical.
Middle Grade Fiction Award
Jennifer A. Nielsen
Nielsen rummages through the tropes of fantasy novels set in medieval times to create a remarkably fresh character in Sage, an orphan compelled to compete with others to pass as the kingdom’s missing prince. Sage is willful, sarcastic, unpolished, and unskilled. Nevertheless, he has wit, charm, and an unquenchable drive to survive. The novel depicts a complex power dynamic: four orphans are pitted against each other while also trying to cooperate enough to outsmart their kidnapper and mentor, the machinating court official, Conner. Chapter by chapter, the dynamics shift among these characters and others, keeping the reader guessing, “Who will have the upper hand?” False Prince is a compelling read with cross-generational appeal.
Larry Day. “Pat and Pete.” Day Dreaming: Tales from the Fourth Dementia.
“Pat and Pete” is unapologetically ridiculous without being overdone. There’s exaggeration but not too much hyperbole. The story is simple but not dumbed down. Most of all, Mr. Day’s tone is delightful. The story feels like it is being told from one gossip to another—perfect for his small town setting.
Lifetime AML memberships
The Association for Mormon Letters honors Mahonri Stewart with a life-time membership. Mahonri Stewart’s contributions to Mormon theatre and drama are many faceted.
First, he spearheaded the publication of and served as editor for Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, which will soon be published by Zarahemla Books. This volume should join Angela Hallstrom’s Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, Tyler Chadwick’s Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, and two Eugene England volumes, Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems and Bright Angels and Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories, as the most significant anthologies of Mormon literature in our history. A collection of Mormon plays has long been needed; Stewart took upon himself the task of making it happen.
Second, drama is meant for performance, and Mahonri Stewart has taken the production lead as well. Zion Theatre Company, which he founded, has featured his own plays, but also plays by a number of other authors, all plays of high moral character, plays that resonate with humankind’s better nature. Still actively producing, Zion Theatre Company has become a premiere venue for the production of Mormon drama.
And third, Mahonri Stewart is a fine playwright in his own right. Such plays as The Fading Flower, Farewell to Eden, The Death of Eurydice, The Rings of the Tree, and The Opposing Wheel demonstrate his strengths as a writer. His plays show an indefatigable love of historical research, a deep curiosity about the world, profound spirituality and a strong dramatic sense.
In short, Mahonri Stewart gets good things done. For his energy, his enthusiasm, his commitment to the dream of Mormon drama, and the balance he achieves between spiritual integrity and dramatic power, the Association for Mormon Letters is pleased to honor Mahonri Stewart.
Over the past fifteen years, few individuals have done more to get quality Mormon literature in readers’ hands than Christopher Bigelow. In the late 1990s, Chris became the founding editor of the AML’s literary magazine Irreantum and broadened Mormon literature’s reach. Not only did the magazine provide publishing opportunities for both new and established LDS writers, but it introduced Mormon literature to a whole new audience and helped preserve the very best writing our culture has to offer.
After leaving Irreantum, in 2006 Chris took on the even greater task of starting his own publishing company, Zarahemla Books. Zarahemla has published many of the most important and acclaimed novels and collections of LDS literature in the last decade. Without Chris and Zarahemla, many of these books would have never found their way onto our shelves. Although Zarahemla’s customer base is relatively small, it is loyal and discerning. Readers of Zarahemla’s books understand that many of its titles are those that will stand the test of time.
Chris has taken on the role of editor and publisher while simultaneously juggling full-time work and his own writing career. He is the author of the novel Kindred Spirits, as well as a number of books about Mormon culture, history, and theology. Christopher Bigelow’s influence as a writer, editor, and publisher of Mormon literature will certainly continue into the future, but for the thousands of pages that he has already helped shepherd into the world, the Association for Mormon Letters is proud to bestow this honorary lifetime membership.