NEA Literature Fellowships

Nat Akin

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Paul Akin

Photo by Nan Akin

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from Reno

She likes to think of what she gives as the best souvenir they’ll take back home. Boys from all over the Southeast any given summer season: Memphis, Mobile, Birmingham, Jackson—and then all the small towns she has trouble remembering the names of. Her name is Reno, because, her mom told her, she was the one thing worth remembering from the life her mom tried to make at first, out west, in Nevada.

The most recent, a lanky tenth-grader from Tupelo, had tousled brown hair and toes pointed slightly inward as they walked together on the slight incline of the beach. Last night he held her hands and faced her when they finally said goodbye in front of his parents’ huge vacation house, as the surf hushed up from the sea. The boy, Tim Andrews, brushed Reno’s hair away from her face and promised he’d write her a letter as soon as he made it home. He wanted to make this work he said. He rubbed her back as he spoke. The moon was bright and high, lacing the breakers out past them in silver ropes replacing themselves by the next set of waves.

It was a Friday night, his last in Florida for the summer. He thumbed Reno’s small knuckles and asked when was the next time he could try to see her? Distance didn’t matter, he said. But she knew the way she had just chosen to move her mouth on him, like the pull of the tide, was what made him say that, after she’d firmly pressed his stomach with an open palm and eased gently up and down to cause him to lean back in the sand on his elbows, thrilled and unguarded for maybe the only time this far in his young life. He was sweet. Reno believed he believed what he was telling her. But Tim couldn’t grasp as she did that he’d really be gone tomorrow and another summer Saturday would replace him with another set of vacationers, for another week in her part of Florida, until the season was over for good. Tim needed her to help him understand this night was the best it would ever be, and that the dream of what happened between them was the most valuable keepsake for him to hold when he made it back to where he was really from.

Reno likes to sit on the low cinderblock wall where the name of the motel, Gulf View, is written in lazy cursive metal script beneath her crossed, brown legs. Reno’s mom, Daphne, had bought the place on the north side of 30-A, the not-the-beachfront side, which, Reno imagines, must have offered clear sight of ocean back in the day. Now the horizon is blistered by gargantuan, narrow houses fronting the beach. It’s Saturday again, eleven a.m., checkout time for everyone. She can’t believe the number of swollen, shining SUVs lined nose to tail on the thin ribbon of 30-A, a highway never intended to carry this many people in and out of town. Not fair to call it a town, really, she thinks, as she watches a fat white Infiniti with a black Thule pod atop it slam its brakes to keep from butting the Yukon that halted abruptly in front of it. Where she lives is just a strip of land that had other places added to it as people not from here became convinced it was one of the places to go. She unfolds her legs to get to cleaning the rooms before the next set of vacationers rolls in from the opposite direction by this afternoon.

It’s hot now. A lizard has spidered up the vertical face next to her tanned calf before it understands from her careful movement that she’s a living, breathing thing, she’d been holding herself so still. When she puts her hands beneath herself and lifts from the low wall, it doesn’t dare dart into the pine duff right there at her feet. It grips the wall tighter, makes itself flat, as if by doing so, it won’t be seen.

(First published by The Florida Review Publications, 2016)

Nat Akin’s novella Reno was published as the winner of the Florida Review’s Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, and his short stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, Tampa Review, Ecotone, Ascent, Litro, Waxwing, and Storyscape. Other stories have been finalists for the Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Contest and the Mid-American Review's Sherwood Anderson Prize. A previous recipient of one of two annual Tennessee Arts Commission Fellowships in Literary Arts, he lives in Memphis with his wife and two children. He’s currently at work on the revision of a novel and a collection of short stories.

On the first morning of November 2017, I’d just clicked submit at, in the hopes of finding a family health plan for 2018. Not three minutes later, my cellphone lit up with a Washington, DC number I didn’t know. “Who says the government doesn’t work?” I said aloud to myself. And then I turned to the dog and said, “Now that’s what I call service.” I answered, expecting to hear all the unintelligible details about co-pays and deductibles and prescription benefits and other things I don’t understand. When Mohamed said he was calling from the NEA, it took a little while for me to comprehend his actual words telling me I had received a fellowship, and then it took another call back to him, and another call a day later to Director of Literature Amy Stolls for me to finally believe it was real.

Having taught high school English for a decade, and then having created and developed a nonprofit urban creative writing program and literary space for the five years after that, I had grown pretty accustomed to my own writing being “my thing,” pursued in the early mornings before work, or wherever other small windows of time offered themselves. So, leaving the program I’d founded in the hopes of being able to seek work that might allow more time for my own writing—the news of the NEA Fellowship came to my ears as a timely, unbelievable godsend.

The funds have been immediately helpful as permission to write as my daily work for the first time, even if only for a season long enough to finish revision of a novel. More so than the money, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the news of the fellowship felt as if my writing had magically transformed from “my thing” to become part of a wide, vast, varied landscape of writers through nothing I could have ever done for it on my own. I was almost as excited the day I was able to know who the other recipients were as I was to first hear the news of receiving the fellowship. As a writer, to be able to see yourself connected to others all across this country, from such varied backgrounds, put me in mind of what my mentor, the late Barry Hannah, once told me about what he hoped to hear about his own work: “Nat, I just wanted someone to tell me I made the team.” That’s what this feels like, in an immense, humbling way. That you continue in the work with the knowledge others are with you in it, and you’re pulling for them to make it, and they’re pulling for you, and the NEA is there cheering you on. What I said to myself and the dog proved true. Our government does work, and the staff and panelists for the NEA are providing an invaluable service to the writers of this country, far, far beyond what the money can give.