Okay, here’s a coincidence that bears telling you all about. Long years ago when I still reviewed books (lots of books), I worked freelance for Larry Kart, then books editor at the Chicago Tribune. In 1995, Larry asked me to be one of the judges for the annual Nelson Algren Short Story Award, which was a very prestigious prize in those days. The other judges were Nicholas Delbanco and Sandra Scofield. The writer we picked for first prize was a 22-year-old Vietnamese immigrant named Dao Strom, who was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
As I say, I had forgotten when I was a judge for the prize and I had forgotten who won (lost in memory — look, a lot happens in life, right?). I do remember the awards ceremony at a very large hotel banquet room in Chicago (I was thinking: What the fuck am I doing here?). I do remember meeting Nicholas because we became friendly acquaintances after that. And at the reception I met Wayne Booth, the eminent author of that great book The Rhetoric of Fiction.
In any case, our new contributing editor Fernando Sdrigotti (in London) put me in touch with Dao Strom (in Portland) a couple of months ago and I invited some work from her. The result is the lovely hybrid memoir we just published today. But it wasn’t till I was noodling around, looking for more biographical details that I noticed she had won the Nelson Algren Award. And then I did remember that the person we gave the prize to was Vietnamese. And then the tumblers began to click, and finally I found an old piece in the Tribune about that particular award, which confirmed what my brain couldn’t.
So after almost 20 years Dao Strom and I meet again through the angelic intervention of Fernando.
Dao Strom managed not only to make the finals the first year she entered the competition, but also to finish in first place. Of three stories she submitted, “Up Over Boulder Hill” was singled out by the judges, Sandra Scofield, Nicholas Delbanco and Douglas Glover, themselves novelists and short-story writers.