Local author finalist for PEN American AwardApr 15, 2021 10h44 ● By Daniel Smith
Local author and professor Natasha Sajé has been nominated for the PEN American Award for her memoir, “Terroir: Love, Out of Place.” The book chronicles watershed moments in Sajé’s life and provides commentary on identity, nationality, guilt and love.
By Daniel Smith | [email protected]
“I believe that every human being has an artistic talent, and indeed that is what makes us human.” Coming from poet, essayist, food writer, and professor Natasha Sajé, such a proclamation is heartening. The author of three books of poetry, a book of criticism, and a memoir, “Terroir: Love, Out of Place,” Sajé is no stranger to her own artistic talent. “Terroir,” her latest work, has been nominated for the PEN American Award.
Sajé is a German-born American who grew up in New York City and, as her memoir attests, has called many places her home. Her long and varied journey to Salt Lake City could be said to have begun when she discovered her love of poetry as a child. “I knew I was a poet. I knew I wanted to play with language when I was around 4 or 5.” However, there was no poetry in her household. Although her Slovenian father, whose own culture valued poetry, would often write short, informal poems for Sajé’s mother, it wasn’t until Sajé was in the sixth grade that she was introduced to poetry through the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Subsequently, a friend of hers who was living abroad in England sent her a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” Sajé’s devotion to poetry was solidified. In Plath’s work, she found something that had “all the good stuff Poe had, but it’s contemporary, and it’s a woman. She was speaking to me,” Sajé said.
Yet, after earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and a two-year stint working and traveling in Europe, Sajé found herself pursuing a master’s degree in law. This lasted only a semester. Upon returning to school, she attended Johns Hopkins one-year master’s program in writing. It was only then that her family took any notice of her interest in poetry and literature. Their opinions of her pursuits were less than favorable. “I got a lot of
grief. . .they asked me, ‘How are you going to make a living with that?’” Despite her family’s somewhat dismissive response to her career choice, Sajé completed her master’s degree and went on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She now teaches at both Westminster and Vermont College, living in Salt Lake City with her wife, Laura.
Some of the watershed episodes of Sajé’s life are documented with admirable honesty in “Terroir: Love, Out of Place.” For this project, Sajé undertook the task of “self-scouring,” employing her aptitude for recalling events from her past—she has what is called “superior autobiographical memory,” a knack for remembering events from her life in vivid detail, which she half-jokingly refers to as a “brain condition”—to weave memories together with reflection, observation, and analysis, sculpting each of the eight essays from material provided to her by her own life.
But she was not content to simply retell events from her past. Each essay presents an argument on a certain topic. “When I write prose,” Sajé said, “I always have an argument. . .I made a discovery in each chapter. When you make an argument, you don’t know what it is in the beginning. You start with a question.” For instance, the book’s first essay, an account of her time waitressing in Switzerland, raises questions about “self-love,” “identity” and “nationality.” And the essay concerning her late husband Tyrone’s struggle with and eventual death from lymphoma and the budding of her relationship with Laura formulates a kaleidoscopic definition of guilt.
The book initially started out as a “foodoir,” a retelling of Sajé’s life through food. She is, by her own admission, a “good cook.” It was by shifting the focus of the text that Sajé decided upon the book’s unifying theme: “As soon as I knew it wasn’t going to be a foodoir anymore, I knew it was going to be about identity.”
The book grew into an investigation into the formation of who Sajé is today, one which does not spare the author any pains. Whether it be her strained relationship with Tyrone’s son Adrian as the three of them struggled to find peace in their Baltimore house, the ways in which she coped with Tyrone’s slow death, or how quickly she fell in love with Laura upon her beloved husband’s death, there are plenty of moments in this text where Sajé places her own psyche on the examination table and displays for the reader her findings.
“It had to cost me something. . .You have to risk something, you have to feel like you paid. It has to psychically cost you something to write it.” Regarding the picture of Sajé with which the reader is presented, she says: “It’s a version of myself that I wanted to put out there. A lot of friends have read it and they think it’s pretty accurate. It’s hard for me to say what aspect of myself is not in it, not visible. But it is a construction. The battle. . .was to admit when I was wrong. The human tendency is to always make ourselves look better than we are.”
It seems that Sajé has emerged from this battle victorious, for her memoir has been nominated for the prestigious 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She is among the 55 finalists whose works have been selected as representatives of excellency in the art essay writing. A panel of judges will select 11 winners from among the finalists, each winner representing a different category. The panel’s decision will be announced on April 8 at the PEN American Literary Awards Ceremony, which will be held virtually.
For more information, and to view Sajé’s food blog, biography and work, visit https:// natashasaje.com/. For more information on the PEN American Award, visit pen.org. There are signed copies of “Terroir” available at King’s English Bookshop. Visit kingsenglish.com or call 801-484-9100.