Port Townsend author JoAnne Tompkins’s novel What Comes After was the winner of the 2022 Dayton Literary Peace Prize runner up in fiction award last November. The Dayton Peace Prize is an international prize; past award winners and runners up have included Margaret Atwood, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Anthony Doerr, Gloria Steinem and Barbara Kingsolver. Nominations are judged on their focus on peace: increasing understanding between and among people as individuals or within and between families, communities, nations, ethnic groups, cultures, and religions.
Three other authors were honored that night. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers was the winner in fiction for The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Clint Smith was winner of non-fiction with his book How the Word Is Passed and Andrea Elliott was runner up winner for Invisible Child:Poverty,Survival and Hope in an American City. All their speeches can be watched on YouTube.
What Comes After was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. It was shortlisted for the Prix Libre Nous, the Best Foreign Book in French Translation.
This is the acceptance speech JoAnne gave at the awards ceremony in Dayton.
I am incredibly humbled and honored to be here tonight with all of you and with these brilliant writers. This is beyond anything I ever imagined. I am so grateful to everyone involved with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for doing this work and for this extraordinary weekend. As a debut novelist, I must thank my amazing agent, Susan Golomb, who took me on when I had such little to show for myself and the entire team at the Riverhead Books, in particular my remarkable editor Sarah McGrath.
I turned to writing late in life. My legal career before then involved many cases of great trauma, but one case in particular stayed with me. Nineteen years ago, two high school football players in Seattle brutally murdered another football player. They had spent much of the summer planning this murder all the while pretending to be the victim’s best friends, sleeping over at his house, calling his mother “Mom.” Before the murder, the victim’s mother thought of these young men as her children. When the killers were convicted of first-degree aggravated murder, she hugged their parents and expressed her intense sorrow at the loss of all three of her children. She still loved these young men.
There is unspeakable suffering in this world and, thankfully, astounding grace. In WHAT COMES AFTER, I wanted to examine how we, as individuals, move from great loss and betrayal to reconnection with life and love and community, how we moved toward grace.
When I look at the world today, I suspect our troubles boil down to one thing: We are profoundly confused about reality. In an epigraph that opens WHAT COMES AFTER, Thomas Merton succinctly encapsulates our confusion: “We are already one. But we imagine that we are not.” And it is this false belief—that we are not already one, that we aren’t part of each other, that what happens to one of us doesn’t happen to all of us—that causes all the problems.
Which is why, tonight, I want to discuss the insights of Tralfamadorians and Quakers.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, Billy Pilgrim believes he is placed in a zoo on the planet Tralfamador. A guide at the zoo explains to his fellow Tramafadorians that being human is like being bolted to a flatcar on rails over which you have no control while your head is encased in a steel sphere with only one eyehole. Affixed to this eyehole is a six-foot-long pipe. Humans, the guide explains, see only the tiny dot of vision at the end of their particular pipe yet believe that they understand all of life.
I suspect every one here tonight is driven by a desire to expand their own and others’ vision. We are working diligently to create more openings in those steel spheres, loosen the bolts that affix us to rails. We are all trying to create more angles of view.
In doing this, we increase our understandings of each other, but as importantly, we begin to understand how little we actually know, how profoundly wrong the most treasured of our beliefs can be. Hopefully, we gain a much-needed humility and a profound curiosity. We might even begin to treat those who see the world from a different angle not as a threat to our very identity but as our guides to parts of this vast life that we have no way of knowing without them.
Ultimately though, external facts are not likely to save us, as we are finding out. And this is where the Quakers may have some guidance.
Isaac, the protagonist in WHAT COMES AFTER, is a Quaker. And I should clarify—since there are different types —that he is an unprogrammed Quaker, one who participates in largely silent meetings. I am not a Quaker, but I have been lucky enough to spend time with them over the years and they have taught me that words are often a distraction from the truth, more likely to cause conflict than to create peace.
But we don’t need to despair, because we can meet at a place of understanding that exists inside each of us, an inner landscape more connected and expansive than anything we can ever possibly see out there with our limited vision. It is a felt place where we don’t need to agree on what we see from our narrow angles of view in order to love one another. We don’t need words at all. We do need to move out of our minds and into our hearts, to go still and work are quietly seeing each other, and if we do this with enough patience, we will meet each other, and all these surface differences that have created such suffering and violence in this world will disappear. We will wonder why we have been fighting ourselves.
While this Quaker concept is far deeper and more profound than any understanding I managed on my own, it did match up perfectly with what I had discovered from many years mediating high-trauma cases, from sitting with pedophiles and with the parents whose children had been abused or tortured or even murdered, with quadriplegic sixteen-year-olds and the drunk drivers who injured them, with employees who had been grossly discriminated against and employers who felt not only innocent but often virtuous. Peace between the parties was rarely, if ever, reached through forming a consensus on external objective facts.
When I started mediating, I thought I would settle cases with clever arguments and my persuasive skills, but I quickly learned that the outcome would invariably come down not to my words but to my state of being, how I was holding each individual before me at the level of my heart. Whenever I found myself wondering why a party was being so irritating, so—in my view—completely unreasonable, I almost always discovered that it was my state of being that was flawed. I was processing them not as a human, but as a problem, something to be manipulated into place to achieve my objective, which was to reach a settlement. No wonder they were resisting.
Yet, when I somehow managed to open my heart fully to them—which means to love them, appreciate them in some deep quiet way—the shift in them was often immediate and startling. Even without saying a word, there would be this tremendous softening.
We know when we are seen, we know when we have met someone at the level of our hearts.
I opened this talk with the mother of the murdered football player. After I mediated a case involving that murder, I spent time getting to know her. I thought she might be some kind of saint. It turns out, she was, overall, a very normal person. While she often found her way to grace, she often did not. But that never stopped her from trying again. She told me she did this for the simple reason that she felt better when she freed her heart from the pain of bitterness.
She taught me that no matter what horrors or traumas or losses the universe throws at us, there is one way in which life is endlessly generous: it always gives us one more moment to reach with love toward whatever and whoever is before us in this moment.
This is what I hope readers take away from WHAT COMES AFTER: That peace starts in our own hearts. It starts with our willingness to face our own ignorance and our own constrictions of love, not in judgment or blame, but as a doorway to a new way of being. Peace starts by forgiving others and ourselves for past failings and thanking life for giving us yet one more chance to try again, one more chance to remember that we know each other at the level of our deepest hearts.
We are already one.
Astro-photography ” Prelude to Supernova“ courtesy of NASA