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Meet Marjorie Celona, 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. For the first time, Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2021 OLF applications will be posted in May 2020, and the deadline to apply will be in August 2020. All of the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients will be honored at the 2020 Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.

2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Marjorie Celona (they/them/theirs)


Marjorie Celona is the author of two novels: Y, published in 2012, and How a Woman Becomes a Lake, forthcoming in 2020. Y was published in eight countries, won France’s Grand Prix Littéraire de l’Héroïne for Best Foreign Novel, and was longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. Born and raised on Vancouver Island, they teach in the MFA program at the University of Oregon.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
Years ago, my partner lost his wedding ring on an airplane.  He took off his shoes and searched them, then he searched them again.  He searched his shoes as though a secret cavity or porthole to another world would open up if he just looked hard enough.  I was like, look, the ring isn’t in there.  Neither is Jimmy Hoffa.  I mean, it was funny but it was also sad.  We wanted to find the ring so terribly.  (Another passenger found it for us, eventually, in his own backpack.)  After my daughter was born, I turned that episode into the beginning of a short story.  About marriage, obviously, but other things, too, like new parenthood.  The story won an O. Henry award and my daughter turned three, four, five.  I read Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and fell in love with first person again, after a long seven years of writing a novel in third.  The voice of that woman on the plane came back to me.  Her husband was still looking in his shoe.  The woman divorced her husband and her child became a teenager. The woman started researching top surgery.  She wasn’t sure if she was nonbinary or a trans man.  I saw her, bent over her kitchen sink, shaving her head as her daughter hovered behind her, horrified, in a pink prom dress.  And just like that, I had my next novel on my hands.

How would you describe your creative process?
Scattershot.  I write in intensely focused short bursts, then long stretches of not-at-all.  But I’m always thinking, and I’m always watching, and I’m always wondering what it’s like to be “x.”  I approach my writing how I imagine an actor approaches a role: every story and every novel seems to demand that I become a different kind of writer.  I’ll quote Donald Barthelme here because it’s how I feel every time I start a project: “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
I wanted to apply with the thing that I feel fired up about right now, which is this new project.  There’s a long stage, at least for me, of wondering whether the thing I’m writing is going to work out—whether it’s worth the five-or-more years it’s going to take to turn it into a cohesive novel.  The fellowship feels like someone whispering in my ear, keep going.  I can’t stress how meaningful that is.

What are you currently working on?
This new novel, which will be my third.  And a short story about two writers who spend a year in Glasgow and betray each other in weird, writerly ways.

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Write the application with confidence, as though the project were already completed, and all you need is the generosity of others to help bring it into the world. 

Excerpt from novel in-progress
I woke to Lou jumping on the bed, singing “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, and I yelled at her about the sanctity of sleep but she’d heard the lecture too many times for it to have any impact.  My half-eaten hot dog was on the floor, out of its bun.  Lou was dressed in pink bicycle shorts and one of my chest binders, which fit her little frame like a loose tank top.  Her belly protruded in the way that toddlers’ bellies do.  I worried this was the last year of the belly.  I hadn’t seen any seven year olds with potbellies at Lou’s school.   

            Once on the road again, Lou was quiet. We took route 66 through the Alleghany National Forest and drove through the woods for hours.  

            Lou turned to me and tapped my arm.  “Time to turn back?” she said.

            I thought about that possibility—giving up, turning around, letting Barry’s arms engulf me as though Lou and I had only been on some one-night mother/daughter trip.  

            What had I even told Lou?  I had not said the word “divorce.”  I had not told her I didn’t identify as a woman anymore, although I’d had several talks with her already about how a person could be born a boy but not feel like it, and vice versa.  

            “What are you talking about?” she said when I began my gender lectures. 

So instead I told her I’d gotten a new job, a better job, which was true, at a private liberal arts college in upstate New York and that we’d be leaving Wisconsin.  Then I qualified the “we”: you and me, I said, but not Daddy.  She nodded her head vigorously.  Lou had always preferred me.  She had suckled on my breasts until she was four.  She still slept with me, wrapped around my body like a little monkey.  She regarded her father as someone who got in the way.  When she saw us kissing, she’d burst into tears.

            “It’s like you guys are having an affair,” Barry used to say.

            “We are,” I told him. 

Judge’s Comments
“Setting, conflict, and voice are all telegraphed masterfully in the opening line of Marjorie Celona’s novel excerpt, The Year of X: ‘My marriage ended at a Spirit gas station in Madison, Wisconsin, one quiet afternoon in July of 2009.’ What follows is a deft and difficult exploration of a non-binary character—who self-describes as ‘in-between’—navigating and negotiating parenthood.” – Patricia Park

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