On Thursday night, the Rona Jaffe Foundation celebrated the 18th annual Writers’ Awards at which six emergent women writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction possessing “exceptional talent,” were recognized and granted $30,000 each. This year’s lucky winners are Julia Elliott, Christina Nichol, Lauren Goodwin Slaughter, Rachel Swearingen, Kim Tingley and Inara Verzemnieks.
Kate Walbert gave the opening remarks at the ceremony, a cozy gathering of writers, editors, agents and publishers held at a private club on the Upper East Side, ushering in a new set of writers. They join a distinguished list of past recipients including Eula Biss, Lan Samantha Chang, Rivka Galchen, Elif Batuman and ZZ Packer.
The award was founded in 1995 by the late popular novelist Rona Jaffe who wrote 16 novels and even penned a culture column for Cosmopolitan. It is the only award of its kind that supports women writers exclusively.
To help you get to know these writers a little better (you may be hearing more from them in the coming years), here are the 2012 winners and their biographies:
Julia Elliott’s (Fiction) story “Regeneration at Mukti” received a Pushcart Prize and will appear in the 2013 anthology later this year. Her stories have been published in Tin House, Conjunctions, The Georgia Review, and other journals. She describes her recent work as “examining emerging technologies and the production of scientific knowledge through the lens of experimental fiction.” Ms. Elliott plans to use her Writer’s Award to take time off and pay for child care so she can work on two novel projects. The first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, is about a South Carolina taxidermist who, after serving as a research subject and receiving brain downloads of “complex humanities disciplines,” returns to his hometown to confront his failed marriage. Her second novel project is narrated from the perspective of a female primatologist who is observing a troop of baboons and residing at a decadent research institute in the desert, where she encounters scientists of diverse gender identification and sexual orientation. Ms. Elliott received her M.F.A. from Pennsylvania State University and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia. She teaches at the University of South Carolina, where she also received her B.A., and lives in Cayce, South Carolina.
Christina Nichol (Fiction) has just completed her first novel, Waiting for the Electricity, set in the Republic of Georgia. Her nominator writes, “The story involves a young Georgian, Slims Achmed, determined to modernize his eccentric, dysfunctional, absurdly romantic culture. This novel is big-hearted, intelligent, highly comedic, bravely ambitious, and brilliantly written.” Ms. Nichol received her B.A. from the University of Oregon and just completed her M.F.A. from the University of Florida. With the help of her Writer’s Award, she plans to spend the next year traveling and working on two new book projects: Women Who Love Monks Too Much, a creative nonfiction book based on her experiences teaching English to Buddhist monks in South Korea, and The Best Way to Transport Gods, a novel about a Canadian documentary filmmaker who tries to answer the collaborative, national question of self-identity through Indian mythology. Ms. Nichol has traveled widely, worked for nonprofit film companies, and taught English in India, South Korea, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. She grew up in the Bay Area and currently lives in Sebastopol, California.
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter (Poetry) is working on her first collection of poems, A Lesson in Smallness. She says of this work, “My poems explore the way our identities can be symbolically expressed in seemingly benign objects and experiences—a trip to the salon, a high-tech mixer, a county fair ribbon, an ultrasound. These poems are particularly interested in taking a sometimes-critical, sometimes-celebratory look at how my own relatively new roles in the domestic sphere coincide with the most esoteric human experiences.” She will also begin a new series of poems responding to the tornadoes that struck her home state of Alabama last year. Ms. Slaughter received her B.A. from Kenyon College, her M.A. from the University of Montana, and her M.F.A from the University of Alabama. Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Chariton Review, Hunger Mountain, among others, and she has received fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Vermont Studio Center. Ms. Slaughter teaches at The University of Alabama at Birmingham. She hopes to take a leave of absence next year, use her Writer’s Award for childcare and living expenses, and focus on these two poetry collections and a novel-in-progress. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.
Rachel Swearingen (Fiction) (rachelswearingen.com) received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and her Ph.D. in creative writing from Western Michigan University. Her stories have appeared in Agni, The Missouri Review, and the Mississippi Review, where she also received a 2011 Fiction Prize for her story, “Felina.” Her story, “Mitz’s Theory of Everything Series” will appear in the anthology New Stories from the Midwest (2013). Her nominator writes, “To actually be surprised by a piece of short fiction and get caught up in a world and in a character’s path is a rare and wonderful delight.” Ms. Swearingen will be a visiting assistant professor in English at Kalamazoo College this fall, but hopes to use her Writer’s Award to reduce her teaching load and then take the next year off to write full time. She is working on a novel about St. Paul, Minnesota, and the particular working class and new immigrant neighborhood of Frogtown. She says, “Last Fourth of July, my neighbor bought a trunk full of fireworks and spent the next several days shooting them off in his backyard. Amid the sound of Roman candles and bottle rockets, I started a story about a man who discovers that his teenaged neighbor is building a bomb in her bedroom. The story grew long and unwieldy. I knew I no longer had a short story on my hands, but that I was writing a novel about an entire community of characters set in Frogtown.” She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Kim Tingley (Nonfiction) (www.ktingley.com) is a freelance writer who is interested in science and the environment. Her work has appeared in OnEarth magazine and, most recently, The New York Times Magazine, where she has published pieces about the construction and history of the Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan and the science of soundscape ecology, including one researcher’s quest to record natural sound in the wilderness of Denali National Park. She received her B.A. from James Madison University and her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her nominator writes, “Kim’s writing combines the best of personal essay, naturalism, and science writing. Her careful observation and crackling renderings work to both follow the deep tradition of first person nature writing while pushing the boundaries by wielding the slants and truths of creative nonfiction.” Ms. Tingley is working on a creative nonfiction book about the early history of Florida and the work of a young 19th century archaeologist. She plans to use her Writer’s Award to take time off to focus on this book, which she imagines as “part biography, part wilderness adventure, part meditation on place.” She will take several research trips to Florida and retrace the archaeologist’s coastal routes by kayak. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Inara Verzemnieks (Nonfiction) is completing her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at The University of Iowa. Prior to that she worked as a reporter for thirteen years at The Oregonian, where she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the James Beard Award in feature writing. Her creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic and Creative Nonfiction, and she has recently completed a piece entitled “The Last Days of the Baldock” about a group of homeless people who lived at a rest stop off the interstate near Portland, Oregon. Ms. Verzemnieks grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and was raised in part by her grandparents who were Latvian refugees. She is working on a book, part lyrical memoir/part history, about the experiences of Latvian exiles in the aftermath of WWII. She writes, “Tentatively titled, Eternal Exile, it is a work of creative nonfiction that uses the history of my family to reveal the larger history of a country and a people shaped by centuries of war, occupation, and dislocation.” After she completes her degree, she will use her Writer’s Award to devote herself to this project and spend more time in Latvia researching state archival material and visiting (and interviewing) her grandmother’s 84-year-old sister, the last living link to this story. She currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
Congratulations to the 2012 winners.
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