Phil Klay said people often tell him they could “never imagine” what he’s been through as a veteran of the Iraq War.
He said he isn’t quite sure what he’s been through either, but with his short story collection Redeployment, this year’s winner of The Chautauqua Prize, he attempts to convey the many perspectives of servicemen and women.
Klay read from Redeployment and talked about his experience both as a marine and a veteran Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy after he was presented with The Chautauqua Prize.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, introduced Klay.
“Through 12 different perspectives, Redeployment intimately and emotionally depicts the war in Iraq,” Babcock said. “We hear the voices of Marines and soldiers, officers and enlisted, mortuary services and a chaplain, to gain insight into the war experience and what happens when troops return from war and face the task of reintegrating into society.”
Klay thanked the audience and the readers for The Chautauqua Prize and said he was excited to visit Chautauqua for the first time. He grew up going to Lakeside, Ohio, a daughter Chautaqua. He said he asked at the prize dinner the night before if unborn children count as visitors and was told that they do.
“So thanks to my wife, we have seven generations of Klays who have visited Chautauqua now,” Klay said. “And we hope to return.”
The prize dinner was held on Friday night. Previously held in the Athenaeum Hotel, it is now in its second year of being held in the ballroom of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall. The dinner and the physical prize are both designed to reflect and commemorate the winning book.
For Klay’s Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award, this meant something that honored his time in Iraq as well as what Babcock called the “Bounty of America.” The menu was inspired by the story “OIF” in the book, which uses numerous military acronyms. Each item on the menu had its own acronym, such as “LGFO” — Louisiana Gumbo with Fried Oyster — and “BBQET” — BBQ Smoked Petit Elk Tenderloin.
The dinner is also the first time that the recipient of the prize sees the physical award. This year’s prize was designed by local artist Audrey Kay Dowling of Portage Hill Gallery. Babcock said Dowling was inspired by the book’s different short stories to create a “quilted” piece of pottery. The quilt features motifs from the American flag as well as greens, tans and blues. Babcock said the green represents the grasses of home, the tan the sands of Iraq and the blue the sky humans share.
Klay and his wife, Jessica Alvarez, were thrilled with the prize. Klay delivered a few short remarks at the dinner, noting that reflecting on his time in the military often makes him consider how we operate as a country — both for better and for worse.
“Places like this are very clearly in the camp of making us a more thoughtful, well-informed, humane and wise nation,” Klay said. “So I’m very thrilled to have this prize. Thank you so much.”
The prize was officially presented to the public on Saturday at Klay’s reading. Klay began by talking about his experience as a Marine, which he said is much different than how the media and popular culture portray it.
“When I was a kid, the Marines had a commercial where a Marine officer candidate runs across a metal pipe over a pit of lava, grabs a sword, and then this giant fire monster emerges out of the pit of lava,” Klay said. “And he kills it. It’s an awesome commercial; you should YouTube it.”
Klay said his time as a Marine was nothing of the sort, and said that military training is “less about doing cool things than it is about enduring really unpleasant ones.”
A lot of that unpleasantness is enduring boredom, Klay said. He said the “cool stuff,” like firing guns and crawling under barbed wire, loses its appeal rather quickly.
“It’s exciting for like, 40 seconds,” Klay said. “And then it’s boring.”
Klay said he found refuge from his boredom by memorizing poetry, learning poems one line at a time. He started with shorter poems, and then moved on to something much bigger: T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” He said he doesn’t know if memorizing Eliot’s famous poem made him a better officer, but he does know that reading literature is essential to understanding others.
“The act of reading literature is an attempt to empathetically engage with other experiences and to deeply think about what that means,” Klay said.
Klay said that literature can also be key when it comes to understanding the questions of what veterans go through.
“No work of literature will give you those answers,” Klay said. “But it can prepare you to start answering those questions.”
Klay read from two of his stories, “Ten Kliks South” and “Bodies,” saying a few profanities in the process and even letting out a guttural howl during “Bodies.”
“They asked me to add more profanity to make it more ‘Chautauquan,’ but I didn’t, so I apologize for that,” Klay joked.
Klay mentioned meeting a fellow Marine who said he wasn’t sure if he was proud of his service now, despite being immensely proud a few years ago.
“I do understand where he’s coming from,” Klay said. “I think any veteran from Iraq must be asking themselves some tough questions.”
Klay said he often questions what he’s accomplished since returning from the war, especially when he sees what other veterans are doing. But he does feel like what he’s doing has some importance.
“I feel that storytelling is one of the most vital responsibilities that we have,” Klay said.
Klay said that telling stories — and others reading those stories — is necessary for people to understand why we go to war and what veterans go through.
“I think we need better stories,” Klay said. “We need better stories and we need to have smart, critical conversations about those stories.”
Klay said when civilians say they can’t imagine what he’s gone through, he thinks they don’t feel like they can understand the war, which is something that soldiers and veterans struggle with just as much. To find understanding, Klay said, people must engage with each other.
“So please, help us out,” Klay said. “Join the conversation. It’s a vital one, I promise you. And that, I guess, is why I write stories.”