Portland author Jerry McGill’s debut novel has received an elite honor: it has been longlisted for the 2022 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel.
McGill’s recently published Bed Stuy, an interracial love story set in New York City, is one of 10 books being considered for the award recognizing a debut novel of exceptional merit by an American author who has not previously written a novel has published the full-length book of fiction. The $10,000 award is one of several overseen by PEN America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting free speech.
“As a writer, you always dream of awards like this, but deep in your heart you often think, ‘I’m really not good enough to fit into the category of some of these people,'” McGill said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Writers aren’t allowed to nominate themselves for PEN awards, so McGill found out that “Bed Stuy” was longlisted when his publisher, Little A, sent him a congratulatory email.
“It blew my mind to see who has won it in the past and who is on the committee that decides it,” McGill said. Past PEN/Hemingway Prize recipients include Pulitzer Prize winners Jhumpa Lahiri and Marilynne Robinson; Ha Jin National Book Prize Winner; MacArthur Fellowship winner Yiyun Li; and Edward P. Jones, winner of both a MacArthur and a Pulitzer.
While Bed Stuy is McGill’s first published novel, it is his second book following his memoir Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me. McGill, now in his 50s, was a 13-year-old boy who was walking home from a New Year’s Eve sleepover when a stranger shot him in the back, permanently paralyzing him.
Related: Portland’s Jerry McGill writes a book to his unknown assailant
“Bed Stuy” follows Rashid, a young black man who, to his great surprise, falls into a passionate affair with Rachel, a middle-aged Jew. Rashid and Rachel meet through their mother Muriel, a sculptress who dines regularly at the Italian restaurant where Rashid works and hires him to pose for her – a modeling experience drawn from McGill’s own life.
The stark differences between the characters make the novel: Rashid, a waiter, lives with his mother in Brooklyn’s traditionally African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Rachel is a classical flautist married to a professor in Boston. Muriel is a widowed Holocaust survivor whose default mood is bitterness.
“I’ve had a few experiences in my life that made me think, hey, I’m really fascinated by the differences between cultures, what happens when people from different cultures try to come together to make a relationship work and what happens when their cultures are so diverse and so different,” McGill said. “And that’s how this story came about.”
McGill does not limit his exploration of such relationships to romance. “Bed Stuy” begins with a scene from Rashid’s childhood, in which he reacts differently than his brother to a momentous event and anticipates the challenges ahead.
“I’ve been trying to understand the fact that you can have someone who looks like you and is from your background and they can still hurt you and maybe someone who can damage your life and cause you a lot more pain than anyone from another part of the world,” McGill said.
McGill also takes time to develop relationships not often portrayed in literature or pop culture: Rashid’s close platonic friendships with Marlon, a young black man he went to school with, and with his foster cousin, Stacy.
“Whenever we see filmed depictions of black people, it often seems to be this combative thing or this competitive thing,” McGill said. “I don’t see any black men who are supportive of one another, particularly young black men who are very supportive of one another and portrayed as articulate and vulnerable in their dealings with one another. And I just thought, I have to show that, I want to show that in this work.”
As for Stacy, she represents McGill’s desire to “write a very powerful black female voice who has very strong ideas about who she is, and at the same time can be someone who is a wonderful support and friend to Rashid”. But she’s so vocal about her opinions that Rashid keeps her in the dark about Rachel.
“I like the fact that he’s in this loving relationship and he can’t tell her about it because he’s afraid of her opinion of it,” McGill said.
He has heard that readers have different opinions about Rashid and Rachel’s relationship. “Some found it inspirational, some found it disappointing, some were pissed at the end.” But if readers were emotionally affected, that was his goal.
“I wanted readers to be touched by Rashid and Rachel’s relationship,” he said. “I wanted them to see them as three-dimensional characters and I want them to understand the complexity involved.
“I’m not trying to preach to anyone about the differences growing up in different cultures and the need to accept one another. But I want people to understand why relationships are sometimes harder than we think.”