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2021 Whiting Awards Honor 10 Soon-To-Be-Big Writers

The Whiting Foundation

The winners of this year's Whiting Awards have been announced; the $50,000 prize is aimed at allowing emerging writers to focus full-time on their work — or to branch off in new directions.

"Each of these winners has a rare literary gift," Whiting Director of Literary Programs Courtney Hodell says via email. "Our hope is that the Whiting Award will offer encouragement and support as they continue to dig deep into their art to nurture the work that sings it."

While the awards — given since 1985 — go to writers just beginning to break out, past winners have gone on to snag major prizes and become familiar names on the bookshelf; just this past year, Whiting alumnae Jericho Brown, Anne Boyer, Colson Whitehead and Michael R. Jackson won Pulitzer Prizes, while Don Mee Choi won the National Book Award for poetry. Other recipients include Mary Karr, Ocean Vuong, Sigrid Nunez, Alice McDermott, Jia Tolentino and Ling Ma.

This year's group of winners is "really a wide-ranging cohort of talent, and that itself is a kind of common thread," Hodell says. "So many of these winners follow their muses over, under, and across genre boundaries in a fertile and exciting way. Speaking to the writers after they were selected, we were also struck by the strong sense of community they share. These are brilliant individuals who are attuned to the multitudinous connections that feed their writing and their selves — connections to family, to place, to other artists past and present — and who think fruitfully about how to honor those ties in their work."

Here are this year's winners, with commentary from the Whiting judges (who remain anonymous).

Joshua Bennett (Poetry and nonfiction) Author of The Sobbing School, Being Property Once Myself, and Owed, whose criticism "radically expands ideas of what it is to be alive in the world, reshuffling hierarchies of knowledge and power and hinting at a new way of being."

Jordan E. Cooper (Drama) Author of Black Boy Fly, Ain't No Mo', and Alice Wonder, whose "hilarious, bombastic, electric . . . plays celebrate spectacle and explode conventions, mixing the taboo with the silly, the profound with the profane."

Steven Dunn (Fiction) Author of Potted Meat and water & power, "whose narratives about life in the military draw on his experience as a veteran to explore powerlessness, the discomforts of the body, the need to hide one's sexuality, the desire to assert control — but finds strength in softness."

Tope Folarin (Fiction) Author of A Particular Kind of Black Man, "an engrossing storyteller, [who] crafts marvelous sentences that act as a clear pane of glass through which one glimpses an upside-down world."

Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Drama) Author of Where We Stand, Warriors Don't Cry, and Last Night and the Night Before, whose "portrayal of family — its complicated manifestations of love, its convoluted sense of responsibility — feels revelatory; we come to know her characters as deeply as anyone in our lives."

Marwa Helal (Poetry) Author of Invasive species, whose poems are "not only marvelously various in form, but emotionally epiphanic ... layer[ing] natural, cultural, and even typographic landscapes."

Sarah Stewart Johnson (Nonfiction) Author of The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World, which is "full of joy and existential curiosity ... connecting scientific inquiry with deep questions about human existence."

Sylvia Khoury (Drama) Author of Selling Kabul, The Place Women Go, and Against the Hillside, whose plays "focus on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan; evoking grand geopolitical drama through simple human gesture ... break[ing] down barriers between human beings, revealing the powerful lines of connection that exist and persist."

Ladan Osman (Poetry) Author of Exiles of Eden, whose "dazzling and incisive poetry creates vibrant connections between generations of women, between the self and history, and between our bodies and the natural world."

Xandria Phillips (Poetry) Author of Hull, whose poems "revel in brevity and lushness ... [and] feel revolutionary: formally superb, but with a constant tilting of expectation in image and phrase."

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Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.