April 1, 2019 at 11:00 pm

Spring Literary Festival | Claire Vaye Watkins, April 3-5

Claire Vaye Watkins, portrait

Claire Vaye Watkins (Photo credit: Heike Steinweg)

Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival will take place April 3 through April 5. One of this year’s featured authors is Claire Vaye Watkins was born in Bishop, California in 1984. She was raised in the Mojave Desert, in Tecopa, California and Pahrump, Nevada.

A graduate of the University of Nevada Reno, Watkins earned her MFA from the Ohio State University, where she was a Presidential Fellow. She is the author of the novel Gold Fame Citrus and the short story collection Battleborn, which won the Story Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, Tin House, Freeman’s, The Paris Review, Story Quarterly, New American Stories, Best of the West, The New Republic, The New York Times, Pushcart Prize XLIII and many others.

A Guggenheim Fellow, one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” and Granta‘s “Best Young American Novelists,” Watkins is the director and co-founder, with Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a festival of art and literature in the Mojave Desert.

Tatiana Radujkovic‘s essay, “Gold Fame Citrus and the Welcome Oasis of Claire Vaye Watkins’ Fiction,” provides an analysis of Watkins’s work:

Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus creates a world that arrives at the reader’s doorstep with unexpected speed and unapologetic grace, uncanny and wild, but real, and scarier than any other story I’ve read in years. The novel follows two adrift 20-somethings, Luz and Ray, contentedly squatting in an abandoned Hollywood mansion and living on rations of graham crackers and warm soda, as they navigate their own survival in a drought-plagued wasteland once known as California. When a mysterious and malnourished child named Ig appears in their lives, the trio starts their journey East toward the idea of a better future—a better future promised by a visionary rainmaker and his followers in a small colony at the edge of a mysterious sea of dunes.

Though the novel is dystopian, it isn’t hard to make connections between Watkins’s world and our own: since its publication four years ago, America has become enraptured by a remarkably influential, almost cult-like leader; California continues to reel from deadly and destructive wildfires; and my budding generation must navigate what has been left at our doorstep by our predecessors. As prescient as it may seem, the novel does not stand on a soapbox. Rather, it’s a performance that could be found on stage at Second City in Chicago. The first sentence of the novel is “Punting the prairie dog into the library was a mistake,” and from there, the novels get funnier, more gonzo. In her debut, Watkins tackles pressing issues with the intelligence and color of a seasoned novelist, and with a humorous voice all her own.

Watkins has been recognized for her incredible work on Battleborn, a collection of short stories which was the winner of the 2012 Story Prize and a Recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2013 Rosenthal Family Foundation Award. She has also received praise for her debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which was named Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, NPR, and the LA Times, to name a few. In addition, Watkins was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” fiction writer, listed as one of Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists,” and received the Guggenheim Fellowship before she hit her mid-thirties. She is also the director and co-founder of the Mojave School, a festival of art and literature in the Mojave Desert. Yet it is Gold Fame Citrus’s extravagant but everyday characters that deserves the most praise.

What stands out in Watkins’s work is her fearlessness and unapologetic attitude about addressing the current state of the world, and our lives as Americans. Luz and Ray, like any other “Mojav” trying to find sanctuary from the omnipresent sun, struggle to make their way across the growing desert in constant fear that their arrival to the lusher East will prove futile. After all, the threat of armed guards and an apathetic government is what waits for them at the border, and those forces are ready detain them in Mojav internment camps. But even so, the pair knows that no matter how dangerous their journey, the future waiting for them on the other side is all they can hope for in order to protect Ig.

Futuristic and hyperbolic, Watkins’s story, in its simplicity, imprints itself deeply into the minds of its readers: our world is closer to this reality—a desert wasteland, strict borders for all Americans, an unimaginable water crisis—than we think, and Watkins acknowledges in GCF that restless feeling which encompasses most of her generation. That all might be lost. But just as eloquently, Gold Fame Citrus identifies the somewhat bittersweet spark within my generation. Watkins writes, “…maybe it’s easier to be lost than found. At least there’s energy in lostness. Something to be done.” Because, as Watkins makes clear, though the world of GCF might be fiction or myth, its characters and their emotions are as true as ourselves.

Alongside its spectacular relevance, stark and devastating imagery, and captivating voice, Gold Fame Citrus shines most in its characters: Luz, Ray, and baby Ig. They are relatable, complex, and neither inherently good nor inherently evil . . . just inherently trying to live another day with the people they love and care for. The novel not only forces us to consider the world around us, but invites us to explore the stories of ourselves and how they change to help us adapt to who we are and who we need to be. It is humorous and warm, finding moments of light in an otherwise dark political and environmental future, and it enlightens us about the shape of our present by introducing to us a new and desolate future. Informs us of the extreme outcomes that could very well befall our country if we do not start to take care of it. Reminds us that family—past, present, or future—blood-related, hand-made, colony-formed, or desert-born—is always there with us. Explores the strength in our most cherished relationships and friendships. Illuminates the delicacy of our own humanity with copious empathy and wit and refreshing candor.

All in all, Watkins’s narrative is terrifying. Unrelenting. Smart. Beautiful and dark. It entertains and it exhilarates. But, if anything at all, Gold Fame Citrus inspires: inspires a certain kind of personal revolution, inspires activism, and, most of all, inspires love. As we move through our somewhat unfamiliar, sometimes hilarious dystopia, we are lucky to be joined in the journey by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *