In an Istanbul antique store, Oakland writer Michael David Lukas stumbled upon a 19th-century sepia-toned photograph of a little girl. That girl inspired Eleonora, the clairvoyant protagonist of his 2011 historical novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul.”
Lukas, 36, who has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, has a new honor on his resume. He is the 2015 winner of the Anne and Robert Cowan Writers Award, presented by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
The award, announced Dec. 4, carries a $5,000 prize. Runner-up Jason K. Friedman of San Francisco, author of the 2013 short story collection “Fire Year,” received $1,000. Other finalists were Stuart Rojstaczer, Palo Alto geophysicist and author of “The Mathematician’s Shiva” (a 2014 National Jewish Book Award winner for debut fiction), and retired S.F. attorney Peter L. Levy, a playwright, poet and fiction writer who escaped Nazi Germany as a child.
San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library will host a reading and awards ceremony on Feb. 23.
The Cowan award is based on a writer’s entire body of work, including work in progress, rather than on a specific book.
In a press release, Sari Swig, chair of the award committee, cited Lukas’ “profound ability to weave Jewish history, philosophy and tradition into his epic and beautifully told stories.”
Discussing this year’s entries, David Katznelson, the JCF’s director of strategy, said he and the committee were “stunned by the quality of the nominations” for the prize, created in 2004 by Robert and the late Anne Cowan. He finds the award’s revival after some years particularly timely.
He called the award a “celebration of the Jewish voice in local writing during a time where books and poetry are not necessarily the things that are celebrated in our community.”
Lukas’ debut novel, previously a finalist for the California Book Award and other prizes, has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has become a favorite of Jewish and non-Jewish book clubs.
“The Oracle of Stamboul” tells the story of Eleonora Cohen, a phenomenally gifted 8-year-old whose 1877 birth in a small Black Sea town is attended by signs and wonders, including a guardian flock of purple-and-white hoopoes that follow her everywhere.
Eleonora stows away on a ship to Stamboul (a mythical-sounding name for Istanbul) to avoid separation from her beloved father, a dealer in carpets. The wisdom she gains from the range and depth of her precocious reading — she also becomes fluent in a half-dozen languages — leads Sultan Abdul Hamid II to consult her on matters of policy during the crumbling of his Ottoman Empire.
Eleonora’s role as a trusted “oracle” to a Muslim ruler brings up issues of “multiculturalism and coexistence and religious conflict,” said Lukas. “My next book is a lot more about those things.” To be titled “The 43rd Name of God,” that novel is set among the Jews of Cairo.
Lukas grew up in Berkeley, spending summers at Camp Tawonga. After high school, he spent the year 1997-98 in Israel living and working on kibbutzim with the Zionist socialist youth group Habonim Dror.
After college, he spent a semester in Cairo and a semester in Tel Aviv where, in 2001 at the start of the second intifada, he found a quite different world from the one he’d experienced just a few years earlier. He worked for Haaretz as a night proofreader, finding his work “really depressing — all this violence, the beginning of the rightward turn of the Israeli electorate and of the Labor Party.”
Later, as a Rotary scholar studying Arabic in Tunisia from 2003 to 2004, and as a Fulbright scholar in Turkey from 2006 to 2007, he began to find the Middle East more complicated and “interlocking.”
Living in so many Mideast countries, he said, “gives me a sense of everyone’s humanity. So much of all these conflicts revolved around dehumanizing people on either side. … I know from my grandparents about the Holocaust, and I’m very closely attuned to the Armenian genocide. … Radicalized people in all parts of this world have a vested interest in increasing conflict.”
Lukas spent several years teaching creative writing to elementary school students, and now teaches writing at San Francisco State University. He and his partner are the parents of a 4-month-old daughter, which gives him less time to write than he had previously. His first novel took him eight years and eight separate drafts to complete.
“Oracle” is a tactile treasury, with rich descriptive passages describing the quivering breath of a deer, the feel of a blue velvet dress whispering over the shoulders, the soft pile of a Shushan carpet, and a first glimpse of Stamboul rising out of the haze of the sea.
Not surprisingly, it is also filled with tastes: Eleonora, stowed away in the hold of the ship, ripping open tins of salty caviar to quiet her hunger pangs; her typically Turkish breakfasts of honeyed flatbread, olives and cheese; a dinner of charred roast lamb, served on a silver tray along with carrots and bulgur tinged with orange blossom water.
Lucas drew on his life experience for those passages. As a grad student at the University of Maryland, he worked from 2004 to 2006 as an assistant to cookbook writer Joan Nathan in Washington, D.C. This immersed him “in that world of food and food writing,” and he also drew inspiration from his time in Turkey, “smelling the smells and being surrounded by the landscape and hearing the fruit vendors calling out.”
“When we write,” Lukas said, “we’re writing our obsessions.”
The Cowan Writers Award ceremony takes place Feb. 23 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. The deadline for nominations for the 2016 award is March 11. www.tinyurl.com/cowan-award