Hernán Díaz Wins the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

August 27, 2018

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 on November 6th 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 seventeenth year. The other finalists were SJ Sindu for Marriage of a Thousand Lies and Anelise Chen for So Many Olympic Exertions.

In the Distance is a twist on a quintessentially American story: the western. Westerns, as Díaz told The New York Times, glamorize “the worst aspects of the imperial drive of the United States”-- brutality against nature, genocidal racism, machismo, traditional gender roles, and “frivolous violence.” Håkan’s journey begins as a traditional western tale: a quest to locate his brother, Linus, after becoming separated in Portsmouth, England, where the brothers were to board a ship bound for New York City. Håkan instead finds himself on the wrong ship, heading for the wrong side of America: San Francisco. From the start, In the Distance rejects and reverses the established conventions of the genre, as Håkan travels, penniless and alone, eastward across the United States in search of his brother. Along his journey, Håkan meets-- as the Pulitzer Prize Committee describes-- “naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen.” Throughout the novel, Díaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and the western genre, offering an antidote to the stereotypes that populate the nation’s past through his portrayal of the grief and loneliness of a luckless immigrant.

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, In the Distance received great critical acclaim. The New York Times describes In the Distance’s “affecting oddness” as its greatest virtue, alongside “its ability to create lustrous mindscapes from wide-open spaces, from voids that are never empty.” Novelist Lauren Groff calls it “exquisite: assured, moving, and masterful, as profound and precise an evocation of loneliness as any book I’ve ever read.” Through Håkan, the Paris Review Daily says, Díaz writes “what it is to encounter the foreign or forgotten, such that the reader has a similarly enlightening experience, encountering it anew.” Publisher’s Weekly writes that, more than any 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.”

Hernán 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. His writing 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 year-long 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, her agent and her editor, who will attend an evening of events that focus on the creation, publication and promotion of this year’s winning novel.

The Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of VCU’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Over one hundred novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A university-wide panel of readers in addition to members of the Richmond community reduced the list to 10 semifinalists and ultimately 3 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, previous winners of the award have included Angela Flournoy for The Turner House, Boris Fishman for A Replacement Life, Helene Wecker for The Golem and the Jinni, Ramona Ausubel for No One Is Here Except All of Us, Justin Torres for We the Animals, David Gordon for The Serialist, Victor Lodato for Mathilda Savitch, Deb Olin Unferth for Vacation, Travis Holland for The Archivist’s Story, Peter Orner for The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Karen Fisher for A Sudden Country, Lorraine Adams for Harbor, Michael Byers for Long for This World, Isabel Zuber for Salt, and Maribeth Fischer for The Language of Good-bye. The deadline for the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is August 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.