Tuesday, June 3, 2008

So, Did I Win This Thing or What?

Literary awards are a good thing. If you are not me (or not me during the Bush regime) it’s extra income; it’s feedback of a most welcome kind (‘cause what else does a serious writer rely on to gauge his worth? Sales? Ha! Excuse me while I go Ha!); it’s also extra publicity and a chance for, say, the lonely writer who lives abroad and has very little contact with his peeps to perhaps feel a tad bit connected and get his mug in the media and all that other stuff that makes an audience just a little bit more aware of your Glorious Fantastic Hot-Damn Seriously Slammin’ Brick of a Novel that They Should Rush Out Now For and Presto Read.

Unfortunately, for me, awards always come with two particular headaches.

First, I got to get the money donated to charity if I want to avoid paying taxes on it. (Google me, if that sounds strange to you.) Invariably, someone in the awarding organization tells me that this is no problem – it’s my money and it goes where I want it to go. Then, invariably, they reconsider and tell me they need to ask someone higher up on the financial food chain. Invariably, that either leads to a very long hike up said chain or to some serious naptime – it always takes a week or two or three before word gets back to me. Invariably, word has been positive – so, thank you, Gouden Uil, city of Den Haag, Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Arts Council England and one for now anonymous donor: Good job and you made the world a better place!

Second headache: I need to get there. Perhaps because awards typically come with a Stash-o-Cash, the expectation is generally that you pay your way. In my case, there is no stash, so if I, say, want to fly to London to pick up the Indie award and stay a few nights in a non-flea-ridden hotel, well, I have to cough up some pretty penny of my own. (I would think that if you hand out a Foreign Fiction award, you might realize that the Fictitioneer who gets it is likely to be, uh, Foreign and that Foreigners tend to live in, well, Foreign lands, and that getting said Prize-Winning Novelist from said Foreign land into the Realm of your Splendid Isolation might, come on, be rather expensive for said Letterperson, and I would think you would set up some travel grant or sum’thin’, but it turns out that, no, you don’t.) So, you apply for subsidy and you twist a few arms and you throw a hissy fit and you play the diva until you find someone who takes your plea to heart. The costs of my London trip might get partially recouped, I hear, (shout-out to Greet at the VFL!) but it took a lot of effort and pain (including a shouting match with my American publisher from which neither of us is likely to ever fully recover – long sad story).

So, about a year ago, I get word from some officialista from the (Belgian/Flemish) province of Antwerp that hiphiphurray Omega Minor won the Prijs voor Letterkunde van de Vlaamse Provincies. This is a prize awarded by the Joint Flemish Provinces, given, in rotation, to a poetry collection/play, a novel, a work of nonfiction, or a children’s book. So, this one is in effect an award for the best novel of the last 4 years. That is, may I say so, devilishly sweet. I am always happy and grateful when my home country does something for me. Honestly. I am not sure if my writings in return honor them, but I do hope so, at least a little bit -– some Londoners have now heard of Flemish lit, right?

But, also, of course: the two headaches.

I shoot an email back asking if I can have the money (4,950 euros, or about $7,500) donated to Human Rights Watch. Usual pattern: Let me ask, says the lady. It takes a few months, including a vote, apparently, in some local parliament, for this to clear. But it does. I’m happy. In the meantime, I am waiting for the press release – again, I live abroad, so I don’t get my face on TV, I have no weekly column in De Standaard, I do not do fashion photo shoots for Dag Allemaal or semi-nude lay-outs for Flair, I am, in other words, not really part of the daily fabric of life of most Flemings -- let’s just say I imagine I could use the publicity. Nothing happens, so I reckon there must be a reason for this. Then, in November 2007, and did I mention we are talking the 2006 Prijs voor Letterkunde van de Vlaamse Provincies, not the 2007 one?, some dude from the province of Oost-Vlaanderen where I am allegedly born, contacts me about having an actual ceremony. That must be the reason! It’s a secret! There’s an envelope to be opened while a drumroll rolls and a fat opera singer belts from the top of her mighty lungs! Sweet, I say, and can I assume you do pay for an airplane ticket? Merry laughter bounces off the return email. No, no, no travel money, what am I thinking?, but, know what?, they’ll hand “it” to me ‘next time I’m back home’. I try to quietly explain that I go back only rarely, and that shelling out $1,500 dollars for a ticket for me and sultry S. just to pick up a mysterious “it” isn’t something I can easily afford, but then Dude says don’t worry just keep me posted. Which I do. Then it turns out that the weekend when I did go back – because I was in London anyway – didn’t work and was too short notice and so sayonara and catch you perhaps next time, compadre? Which, I quietly explain to aforementioned Dude, is not likely to be anytime this year? This pisses Dude off, alas; he never bothers to answer that email.

So. Wow. Here I am, living with this big secret: I won this award, but it’s unofficial, right? No press release, my publisher didn’t know, I have nothing to show for it but an email and a letter from the Most Glorious Province of Antwerp on the kind of cheap recycled stationary that will likely return to pulp before the year 2010 has even begun? Is there a stature of limitations on this kinda thing? Can they legally hand you the 2006 award in 2009? Or 2010? Plus, hey, what is this mysterious “it” that they so desperately want to give me? The suspense is killing me.

Then, by accident, yesterday, I find this line on the official website of yet another province, Vlaams Brabant

Prijs voor Letterkunde van de Vlaamse Provincies:
2006: prozawerk voor Paul Verhaegen voor 'Omega Minor'

So not a secret at all!

Okay, I can live with the misspelling of my name. But, I guess, Flemish fellas: where’s the love? And what happened to that puzzling “it”? (If you still have "it", don’t tell me what “it” is, just ship “it” to me already. Unless "it" is a ball of Limburg cheese, or a live goat – I’ll pass on those.) But more importantly: Where is my press release, my likely to be last fifteen solid minutes of Fucking Fabulous Flemish limelight? Ey?

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