No Longer Among the Missing
“Yeah, I guess it’s okay,” said Creative Writing Professor Dan Chaon, modestly waving aside his recent award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “I was never a person that expected to be part of the establishment...I’m a little dazzled and puzzled by the whole thing.”
The Academy Award in Literature is a highly prestigious honor awarded annually to eight writers by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The 250 members of the Academy, drawn from all corners of the arts, include those who Chaon called, “enormously well-known people that you wouldn’t expect to be in the same room with,” a distinction which includes Edward Albee, William Kennedy, Romulus Linney and Wallace Shawn.
Chaon was not dismissive of the Academy, but only of his own relationship with it.
“I kind of always thought of myself as an outsider. Now I’m going to have to rethink that — it’s going to be hard on my identity, but I’ll adjust.”
Chaon briefly described the awards ceremony, which took place in the Academy’s headquarters in New York.
“It’s one of those secret societies. Lots of candles...skulls...blood,” he said jokingly.
More seriously, he continued, “I just worry about not seeming grateful enough — I really am — I don’t know how to sound gracious — in a formal way.”
The award honors Chaon’s entire body of work, not a specific volume. His most well-known works include the novel You Remind Me of Me and the short story collection Among the Missing, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award.
Chaon’s work shares a lot of surface qualities with much of current American literature — introspective family stories centering around domestic tragedy — but he surpasses many of his contemporaries with exquisite detail and quiet, sustained intensity. The title story of Among the Missing has Faulknerian echoes of small town folk trying to explain strange happenings through invention, yet it is also an intriguing story about a man trying to figure out the mother who is an utter mystery to him.
The language Chaon uses is generally conversational and unassuming with real flashes of poeticism, as in Among the Missing:
“I wanted to know what she really thought of me; what had really happened between her and my father; what she was going to do with her life now. But it was as if we were deep underwater — those conversations drifted over the surface, far above us, like the rippling shadows of rafts and swimmers that fish might notice, and startle at.”
The Academy Award in Literature is a great honor not only for Chaon, but for the entire creative writing department. As Chaon said, “[It’s] important for our program to have working writers, and writers recognized in the larger world.”
For Oberlin College, having professors who are also highly respected writers strengthens the quality of the programs offered. Most importantly, talented writers in the department can help foster the sense that students will be properly mentored and truly encouraged to become writers themselves.
Chaon spoke about his own writing and teaching as being not entirely separate:
“[Writing is about] becoming part of this larger conversation...that’s what teaching is about, too — that you’re communicating this inner connection and you’re trying to find a place where you and your students are communicating.”
The award comes with a monetary prize, but there is little danger of Chaon seeing the world through rose-colored glasses with his new wealth and fame.
“Being famous and making money...gets in the way of what you really
want to do, which is to be alone in the room with your story,” he said.