University of Rochester

Author's First Novel Wins Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize

December 20, 1999

A first-time novelist, whose book about an American interpreter in China has already been translated into several languages, has been named the recipient of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman.

Author Nicole Mones will come to the University of Rochester next April to read from her work and accept the prize, which is awarded annually by the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women's Studies and the Department of English.

Her winning novel, Lost in Translation, has received kudos for succeeding on many levels: as a character study, as a look at a changing society, as an examination of cultural differences, as an adventure story, and as a romance.

The main character, Alice Mannegan, is an American woman living and working as a freelance interpreter in Beijing. Thwarted in romance by a domineering father, she often picks up Chinese men for one-night stands, as if to defy her father's racist beliefs.

Alice's life begins to change when she is tapped for an expedition to try to locate the remains of the Peking Man, first discovered in the 1920s but missing since World War II. In Lin Shiyang, one of the Chinese researchers, Alice begins to find strength, redemption, and true love.

Mones links her fictional plot with actual events and places in China as well as historical figures, including Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and paleontologist who discovered Peking Man, and his friend, American artist Lucile Swan, with whom he corresponded.

"The author skillfully wove together a compelling story about a scientific expedition in a foreign land and a story of a woman's quest for love and self-knowledge," said Janet Catherine Berlo, the Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women's Studies, and chair of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize award committee. "The gaps between people of different cultures, different historical eras, and, of course, the gaps between male and female, were all beautifully articulated in this engrossing novel."

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, noting it "reveals as much about character and cultural differences as it does about a search for priceless, long-lost fossils. Mones succeeds in integrating archeological history, spiritual philosophy and cultural dislocation into a tale of identity on many levels."

Lost in Translation has been published in Australia and translated and published in Norway, Germany, and France, where it was a Book-of-the-Month club selection.

Mones started a textile business after college and made regular trips to China beginning in 1977. She studied Chinese culture, history and civilization, and went back to school to learn Mandarin Chinese. Curtailing her trips after the birth of her second child, Mones tapped her knowledge of China and skills honed as a grant writer to produce her first novel.

The Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize is awarded yearly for an outstanding book-length work of prose fiction by an American woman. It was established in 1976 in memory of Janet Kafka, a young editor killed in an automobile accident that ended a career many believed would have furthered the causes of women and literature. Previous winners have included Toni Morrison for Song of Solomon and Gail Godwin for A Southern Family.