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Thomas' memoir, "Reality Marble," incorporates themes such as masculinity, race, loneliness, and the relationship between reality and fantasy. (Photo from Joseph Earl Thomas)

Penn second-year English Ph.D. student Joseph Earl Thomas won the 2020 Chautauqua Janus Prize for “Reality Marble,” a memoir blended with fantasy and science fiction based on his childhood in Philadelphia. 

The Chautauqua Institution — an educational center in southwestern New York for art, music, dance, theater, and writing — awards the Chautauqua Janus Prize is awarded annually to an emerging writer whose writing demonstrates “daring formal and aesthetic innovations” in fiction or nonfiction. The winner is awarded $5,000 and the opportunity to deliver a public lecture and reading of the piece to the Chautauqua Institution. 

“Reality Marble” incorporates themes such as masculinity, race, loneliness, and the relationship between reality and fantasy, Thomas said. Although his focus is on the experience of childhood, Thomas said his work is not a typical coming of age story.

“I didn't want to have a kind of coming of age thing whereby you start at point A and you inevitably get to point B and C or whatever, and you do this heroic triumphant thing. I wasn't really interested in that,” Thomas said.

Rather than a traditional childhood “path” to adulthood, he said he focused on childhood itself as a state of being and feeling.

“I tried to make something that is able to use the particularities of childhood experience as a way of thinking and belonging and being," Thomas said. "A feeling in and of itself that didn't rely on this thing coming to fruition whereby like you individuate into an everyday adult."

He said he hopes his work spurs readers to think about how the experience of childhood is more than just a stepping stone to adulthood. According to the Chautauqua Institution, a central question in Thomas's book is "what happens if you’re just another nerdy Black kid in a bad situation" without an inspirational older figure to save you. 

Thomas said he originally heard about the Chautauqua Janus Prize from friends, adding that he had read the work of a past winner and felt his work would be a competitive entry. As an emerging writer, he said he is in a constant process of submitting his work to places and getting rejected, so he was surprised when he was announced as the winner.

Award-winning writer and competition judge Hilary Plum, who selected Thomas from a pool of 16 finalists, said “Reality Marble” is “terrific writing, writing that steps right into the thick, too bold to need genre’s old guardrails,” according to the Chautauqua Institution. Chautauqua Institution Director of Literary Arts Sony Ton-Aime added Thomas’s submission is “written in an inventive and audacious prose.”

Winning, Thomas said, has felt surreal.

“I guess it's still kind of strange,” Thomas said. “I’m never really going to let it sit with me. I feel like I'm in the same reality whereby that happened, and did not happen.”

Thomas added that he is grateful to the Chautauqua Institute for their support and consideration. 

“It's always nice to have all these people who are really excited about your work,” he said.

Although Thomas is grateful for the prize, he said that he does not feel as if it has shaped his future but rather given him the opportunity to think about his goals.

“It gives you a little bit more space and time to think about how you would have wanted it all to work, or how you know what kind of conversations you want to be a part of,” he said. 

“Reality Marble” has not yet been published, but Thomas said he looks forward to submitting his work to more contests.

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