The 10 winners of the 34th annual Whiting Awards were named last night in a ceremony featuring a keynote by author Adam Johnson, winner of the 2009 Whiting Award, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction. Based on “early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come,” the annual prize gives $50,000 each to 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.
“Every year, our corps of expert anonymous nominators point us to some of the most exciting and vital work happening today,” Courtney Hodell, the Whiting Foundation’s director of literary programs, said in a statement. “These names may be new to us, but they’re writing the future of literature in this country.”
The fiction recipients are:
Hernan Diaz, author of In the Distance (And a Year in Reading alum)Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People (Featured in various 2018 Year in Reading entries)Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back
The drama recipients are:
Michael R. Jackson, playwright of the forthcoming musical A Strange LoopLauren Yee, playwright of Ching Chong Chinaman.
In his keynote, Johnson spoke on the dying tradition of observation of the world around us in the era of earbuds and ubiquitous screens. “The literary arts have always excavated memory, topographized terrain, resurrected voices,” he said. “But the times are changing. I believe we now need writers not only to show us the realm behind the curtain, but the one before our very eyes.” He added, “Is the world too much? Too much to gaze directly upon?…Perhaps the delamination of life is too much to bear…All the more reason why we need writers to take our hands and say, ‘Look! See what I see.'”
Previous winners of the award, which was first bestowed in 1985, prove the point. That list includes Colson Whitehead, Denis Johnson, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, August Wilson, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Cunningham, Z.Z. Packer, Mary Karr, Jonathan Franzen, Tony Kushner, Alice McDermott, Terrance Hayes, Jorie Graham, Deborah Eisenberg, Anthony Marra, Ben Fountain, Yiyun Lee, Tyehimba Jess, Justin Cronin, Alexander Chee, Jericho Brown, Adam Johnson, Elif Batuman, John Jeremiah Sullivan.
More recent winners include Tommy Pico, Catherine Lacey, Tony Tulathimutte, Lucas Hnath, Esmé Weijun Wang, Lisa Halliday, Layli Long Soldier, Ocean Vuong, Francisco Cantú, Weike Wang, and Antoinette Nwandu.
The honorees are chosen by an anonymous panel of six judges.
1933 Was a Bad Year by John Fante. My favorite of all his books, maybe my favorite book ever. (And a book that reminds me in good and bad ways about my father.)
Creature by Amina Cain. I still don’t know how to describe what this book does to me. Not only does it place me in the world she creates, but also at the same time in the places she leaves out. If that makes any sense. (So excited that her next book is on its way from FSG!)
The Collected Poetry by Aimé Césaire. The greatest there ever was for me. (Although this year I didn’t have my copy of the book so I just ended up reading Notebook of a Return to the Native Land online.)
Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan was a collection that I was most excited to read and when I finally did, it killed me in all the good ways.
blud by Rachel McKibbens. Speaking of killing me, I had already stopped breathing by page 10.
Bone Confetti by Muriel Leung. She’s amazing. This book is amazing. (And new work she’s been working on is goddamn amazing.)
In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson. Met her and heard her read for the first time in Iowa City. So lyrical I forgot how hard it was punching me. (And she lives literally a block from us!)
What’s Hanging on the Hush by Lauren Russell. So happy I got to meet her (at Jenny Johnson’s birthday party!) just a couple of weeks before her book release. A unique and beautiful book and the pieces about the cat had me sobbing.
Swallow the Fish by Gabrielle Civil. I feel fortunate to have had my book come out at the same time as this book, both of them from CCM. Read it and if you ever have the chance to see Gabrielle perform, do so. Then read it again. There is nobody like her.
Silk Flowers by Meghan Lamb. When I open the pages, my brain says “stories.” Afterward, my memory tells me “poetry.” I guess it doesn’t matter because I don’t even know what that means. All this to say that her writing finds its way into that layer beneath your skin.
My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn. I am not done with it yet because she just gave me an uncorrected proof of it a couple of weeks ago but I am loving it.
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins. Halfway through. Damn.
Attendance by Rachel McLeod Kaminer & Rocío Carlos. Just announced by The OS, I’ve been fortunate not only to have read the manuscript, but to have published excerpts from it over at Cultural Weekly.
Mass by Jo Scott-Coe. A powerful book that explores patriarchy, the church, and gun violence by a writer who has examined these topics for years. It was a book that we (Writ Large Press) were supposed to have published but I ended up dropping the ball badly for various reasons. Glad that it has found a home that it deserves and will be out in the world soon.
There are also all the manuscripts of books still searching for the right publisher or that have just most recently found homes that I have been fortunate enough to read.
I can’t tell whether reading amazing books has made the historically shitty year less shitty or if reading these books has made me realize how shitty 2017 really has been. Either way, it was a shitty year and there were amazing books and ultimately, reading them has always helped me remember I am alive.
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