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Trendsetter at the 2017 One Story Debutante Ball

The One Story Debutante Ball is one of the most eagerly-anticipated literary parties in New York. This year’s edition was held on the evening of May 12 at Brooklyn’s Roulette Intermedium, a space friendly to cultural events like this one – though there really isn’t anything else quite like this one.

True to its name, the literary journal One Story publishes one piece at a time, sent out to subscribers every few weeks in small, handsomely-printed booklets. A given writer can only ever appear once. The journal recently celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, and there are now over 225 One Story issues – and, therefore, over 225 One Story authors. Some were already well-known when they joined the roster, but quite a few were just beginning their lives as published writers. Thus the ball, which celebrates the year’s cohort of those who’ve published their first book. Tickets started at $100, though larger donations and corporate sponsorships were welcome: this is the journal’s largest fundraiser of the year.  The guests dressed up accordingly, wearing a striking array of dresses and suits.

I was attending as a volunteer on the rope brigade – more on that later – and arrived early, as the stage lights were being adjusted. The space at Roulette consisted of an open check-in area attached, via double doors, to a dance floor and stage. The dance floor’s decorations were designed and executed by One Story HQ: there were large posters of each book hung from the balconies, as well as banners strung with past issues. From the ceiling hung fairy lights done up to look like clouds and lightning, and along the walls were small tables piled high with the honorees’ books, free for the taking.

(“This is way better than prom,” a fellow volunteer said as we watched the attendees check in at the front table.)

As the evening got underway, it was occasionally difficult to tell who was being celebrated and who was simply celebrating. Trays of hors d’oeuvres circulated as a folk-style four-piece played covers of popular songs. At the bar just outside the dance floor, attendees could pick up a cocktail designed especially for the occasion: it was called “All Is Forgotten” in tribute to Mentor of the Year Lan Samantha Chang’s 2010 novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. A few attendees agreed that this was a good name for an alcoholic beverage, period, and it went quickly. The honored guests of the evening mingled with the crowd but were easy to spot, having been given knitted corsages at the door.

Streamers made of One Story issues hung over the dance floor.

Of course, a debutante ball wouldn’t be right without a presentation of the debutantes. About halfway through the party, the honorees were taken to the back of the hall and two lengths of rope were unfurled down the dance floor by volunteers (the aforementioned “rope brigade”), creating an impromptu aisle. The room hushed, though not all at once: “Quiet, debutantes in the back!” One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti ordered.

Once the room was settled, the journal’s other co-founder, Maribeth Batcha, took the microphone to give a few remarks. The ball, held now for eight years in a row, was originally meant to be a playful, bookish spin on an American tradition. However, Batcha said, “each year it becomes a little less cheeky and a little more sacred.”

Then it was time to introduce the debutantes: Sam Allingham, Angelica Baker, Clare Beams, Julie Buntin, Anne Corbitt, Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes, Lisa Ko, Emily Ruskovich, and Melissa Yancy. Each was accompanied down the aisle by a beloved mentor, beaming, while co-founder Hannah Tinti and editor-in-chief Patrick Ryan took turns reading the first sentences from their books. Once onstage, the nine writers and their “dates” were corralled together so the photographer could take a few shots – and most of the room seized the opportunity, too.

Next, presenter Angela Flournoy took the microphone to introduce the Mentor of the Year, Lan Samantha Chang, Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Flournoy spoke passionately about working with Chang during the MFA program, describing a professor invested in nurturing those who’ve passed, however briefly, through her classroom. In the future, Flournoy said, (“and I still think there’s gonna be a future, guys,” she added, to cheers from the audience), “I’m already looking forward to bragging I was part of the Sam Chang era.”

The decorations included special lighting effects.

Chang, looking delighted, gave her thanks for the honor, then produced a small sheaf of paper and announced that she was going to give a talk. The topic, she said, was “the importance of holding on to your inner life.” The crowd, raucous just a few minutes earlier, listened intently; a few people took notes. “The sincere reaction to making meaningful art is often speechlessness,” Chang said in closing. “We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method.”

There was only thing left now, though it was just as important as what had come before: the dancing. The temporary aisle vanished, a DJ appeared on the same stage where Sam Chang had so recently stood, and all attending – authors and publishers alike – got down to business. 

Towards eleven, once the last notes of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” had faded away, the house lights came up: it was time to leave. The afterparty was already assembling at the Hollow Nickel across the street. Outside Roulette a few clumps of attendees exchanged hugs around armloads of complimentary books. One deb was spotted holding eight books – the work of all of her fellow honorees.

These nine debutantes have just embarked on this new stage of their careers, but they’ve already got much to be proud of. And so, too, does One Story – the journal that, before the party, before any of the book deals, was already there.

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