Since 1985, the Whiting Foundation has supported creative writing through the Whiting Awards, which are given annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Tonight, the 2021 winners were announced at a virtual ceremony featuring a keynote by former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a 2005 Whiting Award, and brief readings from each winner, introduced by 2015 Whiting Award winner Elena Passarello.
The awards, of $50,000 each, are based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come. The prizes are designed to recognize excellence and promise in a spectrum of emerging talent, giving most winners their first chance to devote themselves full-time to their own writing, or to take bold new risks in their work.
Without further ado, the 2021 Whiting Award Winners are…
Fiction writer Steven Dunn, 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.”
Fiction writer Tope Folarin, 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.”
Nonfiction writer Joshua Bennett, author of Being Property Once Myself, also awarded for his poetry (The Sobbing School 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.
Nonfiction writer Sarah Stewart Johnson, whose debut work in the genre, The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World, is “full of joy and existential curiosity… connecting scientific inquiry with deep questions about human existence.”
Poet Ladan Osman, 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.”
Playwright Jordan E. Cooper (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.”
Playwright Donnetta Lavinia Grays (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.”
Playwright Sylvia Khoury (Selling Kabul, The Place Women Go, Against the Hillside) whose plays “focus on the US 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.”
Congratulations to all of the 2021 Whiting Award winners!
Above quotes are from the 2021 Whiting Awards judges.
All author photographs by Beowulf Sheehan (via remote collaboration with each writer) unless otherwise noted. Top row: Joshua Bennett; Jordan E. Cooper; Steven Dunn; Tope Folarin; Donnetta Lavinia Grays; Marwa Helal. Bottom row: Sarah Stewart Johnson; Sylvia Khoury (by Yael Nov); Ladan Osman; Xandria Phillips.