Neukom Institute hosts inaugural award ceremony

by Hannah Jinks | 10/4/18 2:45am

On Monday, the College’s Neukom Institute for Computational Science hosted an inaugural award ceremony and panel discussion for the recipients of the 2018 Neukom Literary Arts Award in Speculative Fiction. The event was attended by nearly sixty students, faculty and community members.

Announced in May, Juan Martinez won in the debut speculative fiction category for his short story collection, “Best Worst American.” Co-winners in the open category included “Central Station,” by Lavie Tidhar, and “On the Edge of Gone,” by Corrine Duyvis. The winners also received a $5,000 honorarium. These writers are the inaugural winners of the award, which will now be given annually.

Each award-winning work differs in style and content. An eclectic collection of surrealist short stories, “Best Worst American” tells niche and often bizarre tales to expound universal themes such as identity and displacement; “Central Station” explores a futuristic Tel Aviv, following the emergence of the singularity; and “On the Edge of Gone” offers an apocalyptic Amsterdam, discussing the relative value of humans, especially in the context of disability.

“It was a major surprise because the book came out two years ago, so it’s past the point you would think you would be receiving any good things,” Duyvis said.

Tidhar added, “Just getting a book published is mostly all the recognition [authors] ever get, so winning an award is tremendously exciting.”

Professor Dan Rockmore, the event’s organizer and director of the Neukom Institute, said he hopes that the award highlights the interconnectedness of the arts and sciences, especially computational science.

“I’m a firm believer that fiction explores more of the possible landscape than science does,” Rockmore said. “It’s really important to get the artistic perspective on what’s possible for the future and the artistic perspective on what’s happening now, and how that intersects with science is a really fascinating nexus for creative thought.”

The panel was chaired by Maria Dahvana Headley, New York Times best-selling author and principal judge of the award. According to Headley, these works emphasize love and connection amidst chaos unlike many techno-thrillers, which focus on the destruction of society.

In her opening remarks, she said, “All of these books had deeply human grounding — in emotion, in longing, in love, in relationships with each other — which is a really interesting place to begin in thinking about this as a speculative fiction prize.”

During the panel, the authors discussed the inspiration behind their pieces and the messages they hoped to convey. Martinez said his collection of short stories in “Best Worst American” all had different “pulses.” The work drew on his experiences of being a Colombian expatriate in the U.S. and of living in Orlando and Las Vegas, he said. He added that his experiences as a lower-class international student informed his work and inspired him to highlight the potential side effects of rampant economic inequality.

Duyvis was inspired by her personal experiences with autism as well as her hometown, Amsterdam. When speaking about the absence or devaluation of disabled characters in works of fiction, she added “[it] has always bothered me, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to challenge.”

“I knew I wanted to write about disability in the apocalypse, and I knew I wanted my city to get horrifically destroyed,” she said. “It’s a rite of passage for any writer.”

At the reception, Tidhar spoke about his past residence in Tel Aviv and how his encounters with the city’s distinctive Central Station inspired his novel. He also discussed technologists in Silicon Valley, who see constructed realities in fantasy books as blueprints for the future — a thought that he said deeply troubles him.

“Part of me wanted to start writing these [dystopian stories] to warn people,” he said.

Alexander Chee, English professor and member of the award’s advisory committee, said he teaches English 87.04, “Imaginary Countries,” which exposes students to reading and writing speculative fiction.

“For me, [this event] is a tremendous resource, and I like that it brings together all these different types of writers,” he said. “It opens up possibilities to students to see how they might become a writer themselves.”

Jenna Gallagher ’21, who attended the event with her creative writing class, said she enjoyed engaging with the speculative fiction genre and believes more students should do the same.

“There are so many issues, especially in today’s world, that are so difficult to digest and comprehend —even the events that happened just this past week,” she said. “I think speculative fiction is a really important way to distill these really complex issues in a way that is beautiful and digestible.”

Rockmore expressed the importance of this event to Dartmouth and its educational mission.

“At the end of the day, an event like this shows us that an artistic sensibility and an imagination are crucial to bear on challenging problems of the day,” Rockmore said. “The goal of a liberal arts education is to create multidimensional students, and so I’d hope that an event like this shows by example that the college and faculty believe in that multidimensional view.”

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