The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories represent the English-language acme of this format. Founded in 1918 by friends of the late, iconic storyteller, William Sydney Porter (known by his famous pen name of O. Henry), the O. Henry Prize was formed with the intent to “strengthen the art of the short story and to stimulate younger authors.” Twenty prize stories are selected by the series editor from literary journal submissions throughout the United States and Canada. Journals submit issues in their entirety, and the only criteria are that the stories must be originally written in English and must be published in the U.S. or Canada within the last calendar year. The 20 stories are read by jurors who are blinded to authorship and author nationality. Each juror selects a favorite story and writes an essay about that selection. In 2009, the collection became the PEN/O. Henry Prize stories. The PEN American Center is, according to the press release, “the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization.” Past PEN presidents have included such literary luminaries as Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie.
The global influence of the PEN centers is felt in the 2010 prize stories. Edited by Laura Furman, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010 was judged by Junot Diaz, Paula Fox, and Yiun Li. The stories range in geographic flavor from the hardscrabble American West in “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx to Pakistan in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “A Spoiled Man.” We also visit Malaysia with Preeta Samarasan in “Birch Memorial,” Greece in “Fresco, Byzantine” by Natalie Bakopoulos, several African countries in Damon Galgut’s semi-autobiographical “The Lover,” colonial Nigeria with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “The Headstrong Historian.” We see South America through the eyes of the blind, the sighted, and the emotionally blind in Daniel Alarcon’s “The Bridge.” Ireland haunts us in William Trevor’s “The Woman of the House.”
Americans will view their own country in a different light, too, after looking at San Diego through the lost eyes of Brad Watson’s divorced father in “Visitation” or experiencing Appalachia with Ron Rash in “Into the Gorge.” New York appears, as one might expect, in the awkwardly redemptive meeting between Holocaust survivors living in that city and native Viennese shown by Lore Segal in “Making Good.” We also experience New York through the detached life of a Russian-immigrant nanny in “Clothed, Female Figure” by Kirstin Allio. The closing of a relationship and the disintegration of all that is known unfold in the same city for the protagonist of Peter Cameron’s “The End of My Life in New York.” The excruciating detachment of the Washington D.C. bureaucrat is dissected by Jess Row in “Sheep May Safely Graze.”