On Saturday afternoon, more than 100 literary buffs descended on the Rockridge Library and squeezed their way into a crowded upstairs meeting room to celebrate the winners of PEN Oakland’s 2010 Josephine Miles Literary Awards.
PEN International, a Nobel Prize-winning organization devoted to defending freedom of expression, was founded in 1921. PEN Oakland (dubbed the “Blue Collar PEN” by The New York Times) was founded in 1989 by Ishmael Reed and co-founders Floyd Salas, Claire Ortalda and Reginald Lockett. The Oakland chapter was created as a “multicultural” conclave to “promote works of excellence by writers of all cultural and racial backgrounds and to educate both the public and the media as to the nature of multicultural work.”
The year after its first meeting (which was convened at Oakland’s Asmara Restaurant) the chapter launched the Josephine Miles Literary Award — named in honor of a UC professor who was instrumental in advancing the work of many young poets. PEN Oakland added a Literary Censorship Award in 1997 “to challenge censorship within the literary culture of the US, by the media, by the government and by special interest groups.”
This year’s winners were: Andrena Zawinski for “Something About,” Etel Adnan for “Master of the Eclipse,” Mitch Horowitz for “Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation,” Clifton Ross for “Translations From Silence: New and Selected Poems,” Ivan J. Houston for “Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II: Memories of the Only Negro Infantry Division to fight in Europe,” Manuel Ruben Delgado for “The Last Chicano,” and Maria Espinosa for “Dying Unfinished.”
Delgado laughed as he recalled how “I used to be famous for a year-and-a-half — about 50 years ago” and then proceeded to note how the world has changed. “What happened to the word ‘Chicano’?” he asked. “I grew up as a Chicano. Now the only words you hear these days are Latino and Hispanic.”
Maria Espinoza explained the surprising impetus behind her novel. “I had a complicated relationship with my mother,” Espinoza began. “She had an affair with my husband.” After a shocked gasp from the audience, Espinosa confessed: “Dealing with this has taken two novels. And it will probably take a third.”
After award plaques had been handed out, it was time for the Reginald Lockett Lifetime Achievement Award, which was shared by author and professor Vance Bourjaily and “Investigative Satirist” Paul Krassner.
Vance Bourjaily, has been described as one of the “Three Musketeers” of America’s Post-war literary renaissance — a trio composed of Bourjaily, Norman “The Quick and the Dead” Mailer and Jim “From Here to Eternity” Jones. Sadly, Bourjaily died in September, following a fall at his Greenbrae home. He was 87. Bourjaily’s wife, Yasmin Mogul, accepted the PEN honor and offered a wealth of stories about her colorful mate. She recalled a fleeting moment they shared many years ago watching children play in the filtered light of an empty building. “The image stayed with me but Vance, he turned it into a 600-page novel.”
PEN Oakland director and poet Gerald Nicosia introduced Paul Krassner as founder of The Realist, cofounder of the Yippies, confederate and editor for Lenny Bruce, and the author of a half-dozen books. Nicosia added a little-known note from Krassner’s long counter-cultural resume (which includes the accolade, “Court Jester to the Revolution”). During a stint as a radio DJ in New York, Krassner got into trouble for broadcasting advice on safe and professional abortion services. Krassner’s advocacy drew the attention of the authorities and resulted in a New York court trial. This trial, Nicosia noted, eventual lead to the historic Supreme Court ruling, Roe versus Wade, which legalized the choice option for America’s women.
Krassner was the crowd’s favorite. The applause that erupted as he hobbled toward the podium quickly gave way to a standing ovation (and what better way to salute a stand-up comic?). Despite turning 78 in April, Krassner still radiates the same boyish exuberance that has endeared him to readers and cabaret crowds for more than five decades. Krassner’s only concession to age would appear to be the sturdy cane he leans on, but his bum leg is not a sign of aging — it’s the legacy of a police beating he sustained in the Sixties.
As the author of “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut” and other counter-culture classics, Krassner admitted some embarrassment at receiving the honor. “After spending most of my life as an iconoclast,” he said, he found it strange that he has come to be “treated as an icon.” But he expressed his deep appreciation for one aspect of the award. “I’m thankful that his plaque is not being awarded posthumously.” Krassner spoke about his current project: “Writing my first, long-awaited (at least by me) novel.” He related how he had complained to a friend that writing a novel is such an intense, creative process. “Why is it so hard?” his friend asked. “You’ve spent your whole life making thing up.” “Yes,” Krassner replied, “but that was journalism!”
Finally, the PEN Censorship Award was presented to Oakland journalist and media watchdog Richard Prince, whose unique and indispensible thrice-weekly column on underreported media news (“Journal-isms”), appears on the website of the Maynard Institute (created to honor the legacy of Oakland Tribune Editor Robert C. Maynard).
Once again, Oakland’s PEN has done itself proud. For more information on the winners, you can go online to: www.penoakland.com
(L to R) Yasmin Mogul, Elizabeth Nunez, Aldrena Zawinski, Maria Espinosa, Clifton Ross, Mitch Horowitz, Paul Krassner and Manuel Ruben Delgado.