Speaking to Maged Zaher just before the Stranger Genius Award Ceremony commenced at the Moore Theatre, I asked whether he felt nervous. Not exactly nervous, he said. He already knew Neal Stephenson was a genius. Paul Constant, book editor for the Stranger, explained that the two writers had hit it off after the Literature showcase in August. Zaher conceded there had been “a bit of bromance.” He openly admired Stephenson and said he thought the staff of APRIL (the book festival) would do worthwhile things with the unrestricted $5,000 prize money. Zaher seemed unwilling to declare that he might win. A few hours later, though, results of the popular vote tallied from the Stranger staff and past Genius award recipients showed that Zaher had won.
Following presentations for Genius awards in Film, Visual Art, and Performance, Paul Constant took the microphone to deliver the Literature award. “I’ve said it on this stage before, and I’ll say it on any stage anyone is willing to put me on,” he began, “Seattle is Book City, USA.” He cited the city’s great bookstores, libraries, and the comic scene (nodding to Ellen Forney, Literature Genius 2012, who held the envelope with the winner’s name). Constant had refused to predict a winner for me earlier in the evening and reiterated on stage that given the diversity and breadth of Seattle’s literary community, it was difficult to pare down to even three nominees, much less a single winner.
Of Maged Zaher, Constant said, “[He] can take any moment, from the drama and heartbreak of the Egyptian revolution to a deflating night at a Seattle dance club, and tap in to the bubbling layer of humanity just beneath the surface and share it equally with everyone. He is the best kind of correspondent because he makes everything feel domestic and foreign at the exact same time.”
Zaher, once bestowed his Genius sash, proclaimed thanks to his Arabic teacher, who inspired him to become a poet. He thanked also his family, friends, publishers, the Stranger staff, and Seattle itself, which made him, a foreigner, feel at home. He acknowledged Neal Stephenson, “a true genius,” and lauded APRIL for their energy and good work, but, he said, “I think I needed this recognition a lot this year.”
Zaher closed by reciting his poem, “Blood economic” from the collection “Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer” (Pressed Wafer):
Pass the light twice
& hit your head
Against the city map
Your mouth shall bleed
While going down
On a strange woman
Calm her. Tell her it is the magnetic fields of her dreams.
bring a vector calculus book and draw her smile. She
will think you are romantic and drink your Christian
blood while erasing all the messages from your answering
Kristianne Huntsberger is a writer, performer and educator who, when not roaming the world, makes her home in Seattle. She has worked with the Elliott Bay Book Company in various capacities over the past ten years.