Since in 1969 the University of Iowa Press has awarded the Iowa Short Fiction Award to a writer who has yet to publish a full-length book of fiction. The prize is not cash or a plaque but a standard book contract, thus elevating an early-stage writer to the next level.
Previous winners, like Douglas Trevor, have gone on to publish novels and collections with large national presses, and it would be safe to assume this year’s winner, Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer, will soon find herself on a similar upward trajectory.
Her prizewinning collection, “The Water Diviner and Other Stories,” includes 15 short stories centered on the lives of Sri Lankan immigrants. These marvelous characters of various ages and backgrounds are each faced with a perspective-altering situation which cleverly unfolds throughout the story. A college student on a family visit to Sri Lanka is shocked to discover the life of a famous old friend is not as perfect as it seems; a half-listening psychologist is drawn back into her patient’s diatribe when details about the patient’s boyfriend are eerily similar to her own; a volunteer with Meals on Wheels is forced to reconsider her wartime memories after an encounter with a cantankerous old woman.
One of the most striking stories in the collection is the title story, “The Water Diviner,” which centers around Kusuma, a widow who left Colombo for the United States, thanks to her daughters’ insistence. But life in the States is lonely, and Kusuma soon finds herself enraptured with an afternoon television preacher, who insists the world will end in a matter of weeks. While Kusuma puts her life on hold and counts down the days, she can’t help but wonder if there’s something she’s missing — if there’s still reason to keep up hope.
A thoughtful collection filled with poignant moments and just the right touch of humor, it is a strong collection from a writer on the rise.