Last week, PEN America announced the finalists for the 2018 Literary Awards, revealing a diverse roster of authors and works to recognize today’s best literature and translation spanning genres and continents.
For the first time, the finalist pool for the prestigious PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction is comprised entirely of women, including Prairie Schooner Book Prize-winner Venita Blackburn. Her book, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes: Stories, is a collection of the jaded and the hopeful, in which men and women burdened with unwieldy and undesirable superhuman abilities are nonetheless resilient in subtle and startling ways.
“Venita Blackburn makes an indelible impression with her first collection of short stories,” wrote Peter Dabbene in his starred-review of the book for Foreword. “Whether she embarks on writing novels or sticks with more short work along the line of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, Blackburn is a writer to watch, but more importantly, to read.”
The following is an excerpt from Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.
He comes out fast, rights his body for the big reveal, gives a kick off like launching a bobsled, upside down to the world, hoping his mother would appreciate the help, hoping she might not miss him too much. He lies on his back supine to the soft nursery light while his legs grow thicker then longer, and his torso matches the mad dash into adolescence, the crib aching and crumpling beneath before he spills off completely like a pumpkin from the bed of toy truck. He has to urinate, so he goes, on purpose in that spot, for them to think on. Soon he can walk, has big bones, and the memories of yesterdays come back to him: the words, all the words for meat and milk and sex plus the need for them all. He staggers to the mental ward because they understand how to clothe a man who is wet and naked and ask few questions as possible. He is four hours old and no one cares. He meets his first friend and tells him the story of how he lives a life in a single day and night. The friend is blind and a fellow patient and believes him. The friend suggests he spend his day eating a bunch of cookies, meaning cocaine or hookers or somebody you really love. He tells him he does not know anyone to love yet and certainly would not eat them, but it was almost sunrise and therefore getting late, so he left the hospital. Without food or love, he was left with anger and began to knock over parts of the world, a branch, a café table, a teenager, and as he struggled to pull down a yield sign, swing it out of its concrete and mud socket, shouts of a protest crept up. Before he could leave to rage in quiet, he notices her, mouth wide and chanting with a paper banner across her chest. It is almost noon, and there is gray in his beard and less hair on his head. The sun is high, and he is too old for her, but picks up the loose end of her banner and chants along. There are others who rage nearby and want to do more than scream, and then they do. There is fire and gas grenades and police batons and handcuffs, but he pulls her away to hide and wait it out. She tells him she hoped for peace. He tells her that he’d never seen that and only hoped for a sandwich and a wife. She tells him about her car. They spend the afternoon in the car where he finds his love and his meat, and together they watch the smoke rise from burning stores and listen for the chatter of every other person about invisible myths that govern them. She falls asleep, and he feels the arthritic impulse to rest with her but knows he cannot. He remembers vaguely a friend he knew and wanders back during visiting hours at the hospital. The friend is having pudding and offers some and asks about the day he’s had. He doesn’t remember much but tells his friend one thing that is so clear, being born the first time a very long time ago, a hard birth like wringing oil from a peach pit because he was afraid to leave and sorry for his mother. Tomorrow he will try something different, tuck in deep and roll out smooth, cannonball-style.