The Whiting Awards, presented annually to 10 emerging writers, have become reliable predictors of future literary greatness.
Past laureates have won the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes in Literature: Jericho Brown in Poetry (“The Tradition”), Anne Boyer in Non-Fiction (“The Undying”), Colson Whitehead in Fiction “(The Nickel Boys”) and Michael R Jackson in drama (“A Strange Loop”).
Two Westchester-related artists received awards in 2021: Joshua Bennett, from Yonkers, for poetry and non-fiction, and Sylvia Khoury, from Pleasantville, for theater.
Bennett, assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, has published three books of poetry and literary criticism.
Khoury, whose plays were developed at the Playwrights Horizons, the Williamstown Theater Festival and the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference, has just graduated from medical school.
The awards are unique in that the nominees do not know they are being considered until the winners are actually announced.
“It’s absolutely surreal,” said Bennett, a new father, upon learning he had won. “I was delighted that we could finally fix the roof.”
The Bennett Prize went to a body of work, including “Being Property Once Myself,” and for his poetry – “The Sobbing School” and “Owed” – which the judges noted “radically expands ideas for what it is to be alive in the world, reshaping the hierarchies of knowledge and power and alluding to a new way of being.
“I was deeply moved,” Bennett said, “because mine are for poetry and non-fiction and the judges saw me as part of a tradition moving across multiple genres articulating the kinship and black culture and life. “
Khoury was honored for all of her work – “Selling Kabul”, “The Place Women Go” and “Against the Hillside” – which focuses on the US presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The judges congratulated her for “having evoked a great geopolitical drama by a simple human gesture …[ing] breaking down barriers between human beings, revealing the powerful lines of connection that exist and persist.
For Khoury, it was also “a surreal moment”.
“I was writing in the morning and saw an issue that I didn’t recognize, and I picked it up for some reason, only to hear someone say, ‘We have read your work for a year and have discussed and it was remarkable. “It’s such an honor to know that incredible writers and literary people have been discussing my work for a year,” she said.
The Whiting Awards, established in 1985, are presented to recognize early career achievement and enable recipients to keep the promise of outstanding literary work to come.
“In a year of singular difficulty, these writers have risen to joy, honoring voices from the past in their own family history and in culture,” said Courtney Hodell, director of literary programs. “To a striking degree, they smoothly cross restrictive genre boundaries to create a vibrant image of new writing in this country. ”
Khoury grew up in a close-knit Franco-Lebanese extended family.
“All of my aunts were all a few miles away and we would walk freely to each other. I spoke French growing up, but my father’s family spoke Arabic around us,” Khoury said. “I kind of grew up in an island community of Westchester.”
Spending summers in France with her grandparents touched her. “I am a French citizen so I had a dual perspective, insider and outsider,” she said. “When I started to write, I was interested in political situations; America’s reach is not obvious to citizens, but it deeply affects those abroad ”.
“Selling Kabul,” which tells the story of a US Army interpreter in Afghanistan hiding from the Taliban after US security promises failed to materialize, is set to premiere in 2021 at Playwright’s Horizon.
Bennett also grew up in a close-knit family, where performance was a priority. With the word written, Bennett is a performance poet.
“My father was a deacon, my mother ran a Bible school during the holidays, and when I came home from church I gave sermons. Performance has always been very important in my family,” he said.
Bennett grew up in Yonkers.
“My mom was born in the Bronx, and my dad is from Alabama and went to high school during Jim Crow; it was complicated for me. My neighborhood felt like the whole world in miniature, many languages were spoken… it taught me something about how to understand myself. “
For Khoury, the price means she can keep writing. She delayed her medical residency by a few years.
“An award that comes with this kind of financial support is quite remarkable: an institution that says we believe in you and that we would like to empower you to survive while generating more work,” she said.
“It comes at the right time in my life.”
Bennett, a new dad, was serious about the prize helping with day-to-day concerns such as a new home, but he can also save money for his child’s education, take care of student loans and “have a good trip”.
But he does not intend to stop teaching or writing. His next creative non-fiction book, “Spoken Word: A Cultural History”, will be out soon.
“What brings students to my classes is that they want to get a feel for how literature can help them become better human beings,” he said. “They realize that there is a gap in my education, I was not taught these poets, these musicians, these artists, when I went to school, and I want to understand myself and my history.”
Karen Croke is the feature editor for lohud.com and poughkeepsiejournal.com. Find my stories here. Contact me at [email protected]