Fiction writer Alison Penning, a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Program, says she has been wondering for a while, “What exactly is a ‘bro’?” She finds herself often writing about male characters, she says, because she’s trying to figure them out in real life.
Penning won this year’s Henfield Prize – awarded to a U.Va. graduate writing student for the best unpublished work of fiction – for her short story, “Sun’s Out, Guns Out,” which centers on Boyd Poynter, a Marine who’s just returned from Afghanistan.
The annual prize carries a $10,000 cash award. An outside judge reads unpublished submissions from students in U.Va.’s Master of Fine Arts degree program, housed in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ English department. The Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation endowed U.Va.’s writing program and four other universities’ programs with prize funding in 2011.
Penning answered questions about writing and what led her to write this particular short story via email from a remote cottage in Ontario, where she’s spending the summer “writing and reading and swimming in the lake and protecting myself from the Internet.”
“I know a lot of ‘bros,’” she wrote, “even love some of them. ... But I’m still not entirely clear on the precise self-identification going on with that phrase. There’s some posturing and swagger involved, with some guys, and a certain dress code, a certain code of behavior,” she observed.
The title of the story, “Sun’s Out, Guns Out” is classic “bro-speak,” Penning wrote. The “guns” in the phrase refer to biceps. “You’d say ‘sun’s out, guns out,’ maybe on the first day warm enough to wear a sleeveless shirt, maybe on a Friday in spring. Maybe as you roll up your sleeves at the beer pong table.”
Penning said she wrote this particular story for several reasons.
“I didn’t know all of the reasons when I started writing it. Some of them were clarified when the story took its trip through the U.Va. workshop machine,” she said.
Penning hopes the story conveys respect for military service.
“I have nothing but respect for the men and women who serve. ... It’s important that their stories are told.”
Penning had several questions in mind from the very beginning of the writing process. “What if one of the ‘bros’ – one of the ones I love dearly – were to enlist? How would I feel about that? How would he feel about it? Why would he do it, and how would he feel, coming home?”
Despite the serious subject, the story was a lot of fun for her to write – in a style “a lot looser than I usually write, because Poynter’s thoughts are all over the place, sometimes sort of free-associative,” she said. “Some of those thoughts are grim, and some of them – I hope – are funny.”
As the story opens, Poynter is alone, driving a boat around Lake Norman on the outskirts of Charlotte, avoiding the lake house where his mother is throwing him a party to celebrate his homecoming:
The stacks of the power plant fall away on his right. Is it nuclear or nucular? Poynter’s heard it both ways. Once it became a joke, Poynter couldn’t remember, ever, which word of the two was the punch line. The war’s here, too – but mostly over there, for now. Poynter’s home from Afghanistan. He wears his plush NASA helmet. He’d had to grab the edges and tear a bit, but the head-hole’s big enough now. Boyd Poynter went to Space Camp, back in fifth grade. His favorite dehydrated food was strawberry ice cream. His favorite astronaut was – and still is – Michael Collins.
Not a Marine who’s returned from deployment herself, Penning had to do a lot of research for those parts, she said.
“But the complicated family party on the lake, that part came easy. The bro parts, the sibling relationships, those parts came pretty easy, too,” she said.
Two recent novels, “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers, and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain, also gave her the push she needed to finish her story, begun in 2009, she said. Penning described the novels, which she read over the winter break, as “two really great, very different books about these new-millennium wars.”
Heading into her final year of the M.F.A. program, Penning will take on a new topic this fall when she teaches a first-year writing course on “The Politics of Food.” She said she wanted to call the class “Peaches, Pepsi, Pigs, Pork, Politics and Prose: Writing About Food,” but was told the title was too long for the Student Information System.
Robert Cohen, professor of English and American literatures at Middlebury College in Vermont, judged this year’s story submissions.
Along with choosing Penning’s story as the winner, he named Amanda Korman runner-up for her story, “This I Do For Countless People,” and gave Alexis Schaitkin honorable mention for her story, “Swimming.”
Cohen’s own books include the novels “Amateur Barbarians” and “Inspired Sleep” and a collection of short stories, “The Varieties of Romantic Experience.”
He was impressed with U.Va.’s writing students, said English professor and author Christopher Tilghman, who directs the Creative Writing Program.
Cohen wrote to Tilghman: “Are these all Virginia M.F.A. students, or are they from the five different programs?” (They were all from U.Va.)
“If they’re yours, then kudos are in order: you guys are doing something very, very right.”