I am affirmed and grateful and humbled and excited - and did I mention grateful? - to have been chosen by this year's esteemed and hardworking literature panel. When Amy Stolls called me, she found herself needing to spend a bit of time talking me down from a state of joyous near-hyperventilation. For a writer like me at the beginning of her career, an NEA fellowship is, as we like to say, huge. Here's a point of interest Amy insisted I include in this statement: for my application manuscript I submitted two short stories, one of which (excerpted above) was - and remains - unpublished: it's been rejected by twenty-one literary magazines. I share this information not just because I'll now do anything Amy says (she was so nice to me as I sobbed into the phone!) but also as a way to bolster writerly spirits and to confirm what we all know: that the appraisal of literature is a horrendously subjective business. So yes, I am grateful, but given the tremendous work submitted by so many others, I am acutely aware of the ordinary luck responsible for this year's panel having turned out to be the right audience for my fiction.
The fellowship will allow me the luxury of spending a good chunk of 2006 holed up in my writer's studio, a makeshift room constructed in the rafters of a leaky brick warehouse abutting the railroad tracks in downtown Tucson. In the studio I'll read a whole lot, take naps now and then, and write a novel.
From the short story "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors"
To escape from the hot city and the people in it, Lisa goes on an ecotourism trek in the mountains of a foreign country. To get there she endures a very long airplane ride. There is the usual business of camping equipment and protein bars and local guides in odd headgear carrying packs containing tea and dried meat. One day she becomes separated from her group of Americans, and after trudging half a day on a narrow path that doesn't look all that well-traveled, she comes to a village.
Lisa is thirsty, and relieved to have stumbled across civilization. She spent the last hour considering the possibility that when night fell the mountain goats could become aggressive. She'd read a novel set in Wyoming in which a wild goat attacks a tourist on a motorcycle. She is teary and grateful when a woman comes out of a hut and gives her a bowl with water in it. The woman watches her drink with a great deal of kindness, and then takes her by the hand. She brings Lisa into the hut and feeds her a stew of beans and a starchy root vegetable, flavored with spices.
They sit on stools six inches off the dirt floor. Lisa smiles and points at the food. She flashes a thumbs-up to the woman, who clearly doesn't understand. The woman is young, about Lisa's age, with muscular arms. She has a straight long nose and black eyes and moves with economy around her little hut. When Lisa is finished eating, the woman points to a mat on the floor and Lisa removes her two-hundred-dollar hiking boots and falls asleep.
When she wakes up it is still dark, and the woman is at the other side of the hut. She is washing herself, sitting cross-legged on a downy rug with a bowl of water in front of her. A single candle burns, illuminating her brown body. It occurs to Lisa that the woman might know she's being watched.
In the city where she's from she knew a man named Bennett who had full Greek eyelids and a cynical urban grin. Some mornings while she showered they'd pretend she wasn't aware he was watching her through the vinyl curtain, which was clear but tinted a flattering pink. Her selection of the curtain was deliberate. In the city where she is from, people who don't want to end up alone understand the necessity of certain behaviors.
Shannon Cain's short stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Florida Review and Other Voices. She earned her MFA in 2005 from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has taught fiction writing at the University of Arizona. She recently completed a collection of short stories entitled The Necessity of Certain Behaviors. Contact her through www.shannoncain.com.
Photo courtesy of the author