Natan Fund Launches Nonfiction Book Award

The Natan Fund, a New York City-based foundation that supports Jewish nonprofit organizations and creative projects, has introduced a new award for nonfiction writers. The Natan Book Award will annually give a Jewish writer a prize of $50,000 for a work-in-progress.

The prize money will be given in two stages: an initial award of $15,000 will be given to an individual writer to support the writing process; the remaining amount will finance the book’s marketing and publicity. Nonfiction books on Jewish themes, written in English, which have an existing publishing contract with a recognized commercial or academic publisher, are eligible.

The Natan Book Awards are currently open for submissions. Authors or publishers may nominate books by December 3. Author and Atlantic Monthly staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg and New Republic journalist and editor Franklin Foer will co-chair the award committee, which will announce the winner in April 2013. 

At a recent celebration for the Natan Fund’s ten-year anniversary, New York Times columnist David Brooks announced the launch of the new award. “The Natan Book Award provides Natan a vehicle for bringing its support for creative and meaningful new initiatives into the intellectual arena,” Brooks said. “In ten years of grantmaking, Natan has helped to galvanize innovation across the Jewish and Israeli social sectors. The Book Award will leverage that experience on behalf of a gifted author with groundbreaking ideas.”

The Natan Fund seeks books that focus on issues of Jewish life, history, community, and identity for the twenty-first century, and which reflect “the changing notions of individual and collective Jewish identity” throughout the world.

According to the Natan website, the publisher of the selected book must agree to work with Natan on marketing and publicity strategies—however, the guidelines state, “the award is intended to complement, not replace, the publisher’s marketing efforts.” 

Since it was founded in 2002, the Natan Fund has awarded over 7.7 million dollars to 128 social entrepreneurs and emerging nonprofit organizations. Visit the website for complete submission guidelines and more information on the inaugural Natan Book Awards.

Sehba Sarwar on Houston's Voices Breaking Boundaries

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarThis month, as Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) launches our thirteenth season, I’m reminiscing about Fall 1999, when my friend Marcela Descalzi asked if I wanted to do anything before the start of the next millennium. At that time, Houston offered few options for new writers, performance artists, and grassroots activists.

“I want to create a space for artists to share work about issues that matter to us,” I said. “I also want to perform a poem about political events unfolding in Pakistan, my home.”

We formed a collective, inviting three other women writers and artists—Christine Choi, Donna Perkins, and Jacsun Shah—to join us. Dedicating hours in coffee shops, we finally agreed on Voices Breaking Boundaries as our group’s name. Our logo was the globe viewed from the southern Hemisphere. We wanted to offer a new lens through which to experience the world and to create space for artists and audience members from different backgrounds to gather, share art, and learn from one another.

Without thinking of the outcome, I submitted a grant application to the Houston Arts Alliance and was awarded $4,500. We decided to use the funds to print postcards and pay honoraria to artists. Each of us was teaching at that time, so we didn’t pay ourselves even though we performed at the shows. During our first year, we created monthly lineups in a local bookstore, featuring performance poets, academics, high school students, capoeira dancers, and drummers. In February 2001, after our collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Himal South Asia (Nepal) to offer a South Asian film festival, we knew we had to respond to our audience and incorporate VBB into a nonprofit arts organization.

VBB Living Room ArtFast forward to Fall 2012. I’m still writing and now draw a salary as VBB’s salaried artistic director. Over the years, VBB has received free performance and exhibition space and has collaborated with many other organizations, including Arté Publico Press, Project Row Houses, DiverseWorks, and Inprint, Inc., and has featured artists such as Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Patti Smith—all while continuing to tackle some of the most controversial issues of our times. We have carved a niche for our unique productions, living room art, through which we convert residential homes into art spaces and use the experience to create connections between Karachi, my home city, and Houston, where I’ve lived for some time. The productions, elaborate one night flares, meld spoken word, music, performance and videos with installations.

And around us, more communities of color and artist initiatives have sprung up. Any given weekend, one can cull from an array of choices to experience art. The city is “minority-majority,” serving as a prediction of demographic shifts across the United States. There’s still much work to be done and sometimes I feel challenged by how often we circle back to the same issues: immigrant rights, women’s reproductive rights, education awareness, racial stereotyping, and the United States' role in global conflicts. But at the same time, I’m grateful for the support VBB continues to receive from arts organizations like Poets & Writers. Looking back at 1999, I couldn’t have predicted where our collective would land. I do know, however, that in the wide expanse of Houston, the United States, and the world, there’s room for many more artist initiatives—and that our story speaks to the urgent need for more alternative voices to converge.

Photos: (Top) Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza. (Bottom) Fall 2011 living room art production Third Worlds: Third Ward/Karachi. Credit: Eric Hester.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Rona Jaffe Foundation Announces Writers' Awards Recipients

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the winners of its 2012 Writers’ Awards. The annual awards honor six emerging women writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Each winner receives $30,000.

This year’s recipients include poet Lauren Goodwin Slaughter of Birmingham, Alabama; fiction writers Julia Elliott of Cayce, South Carolina, Christina Nichol of Sebastopol, California, and Rachel Swearingen of Kalamazoo, Michigan; and creative nonfiction writers Kim Tingley of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Inara Verzemnieks of Iowa City.

The late novelist Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, in order to support women writers in the early stages of their careers. Since then, the program has given more than one million dollars in prize money to over a hundred women.

“This is an extraordinary and ambitious group of women writers,” Beth McCabe, the director of the awards program, said in a press release of the 2012 winners. “They are original, inventive, provocative, and daring. They are taking risks, challenging conventions, and tackling their material with a sense of humor, brio, and confidence beyond their years.” 

Recipients of the awards are nominated by writers, editors, teachers, critics, and other literary professionals. A selection committee is appointed by the foundation annually, and all nominators and committee members remain anonymous. 

“All of our winners are working to complete their first books and for many this will be the first opportunity in their careers to free themselves temporarily from financial worries to focus on their writing,” McCabe added. “This is what Rona had always hoped to achieve with her program and it’s wonderful to see the impact it has had on these writers’ lives.” 

Rona Jaffe was the author of sixteen books. Her most recent novel is The Room-Mating Season (Dutton, 2003). Her first novel, The Best of Everything, originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1958, was reissued by Penguin in 2005, the year that Jaffe passed away.

Past winners of the awards have included writers such as Eula Biss, Rivka Galchen, ZZ Packer, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Tracy K. Smith. The 2012 winners will give a reading at New York University in New York City on September 21. For more information about the winners, and about the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, visit the website

Dream Interpretation

9.26.12

Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.

David Mills’ Poetic Arithmetic, Kooky Koans, and Redemptive Communion

David Mills has taught several P&W–supported workshops at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago. He is author of the poetry collection The Dream Detective (Straw Gate Books) and has poems in the anthology Jubilation! (Peepal Tree Press) and magazines, including Ploughshares and jubilat. Mills is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
Most of the workshops I conduct are with kids, so I always write on the board “2+2=57,” which means for the hour that I am with them, I don’t want them to worry about spelling or grammar because obsessing over “crossed Ts” could mean losing a moment of genius.

How do you get shy writers to open up?
I try to present a model poem that will spark both conversation and creativity. I remind the students that poetry is not on Mount Parnassus. It’s right t/here, wherever we happen to be geographically and psychically. I make self-deprecating jokes to put them at ease and let them know everything is poetic fair game.

I sweat, so I’ll say: “I sweat while I swim. Use that. ‘How can this guy sweat while he swims?’”

I have abstract expressionist penmanship, so I’ll say: “I write like a blind man with five broken fingers. How’s that possible for a poet?”

I don’t want them to write about my idiosyncrasies, but I hope that by framing them as kooky koans the kids will access their own creative centers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
Workshops like the ones P&W sponsored at the Cook County Juvenile Detention come to mind. In one visit, I used Randall Horton’s poignant and ironic poem “Poetry Reading at Mount McGregor (Saratoga, NY).” During his own incarceration, he could never have imagined voluntarily returning to a prison, yet in the poem that’s exactly where he finds himself.

I discuss redemption.

What happens for Randall in his poem is what I hope will happen for these kids. Writing gave him a raison d’etre. Horton writes: “tonight poetry is a sinner’s prayer,” and reflects on how when he was incarcerated he “searched for the… alphabets to help me escape.” He concludes the poem: “How do I say welcome me, I am your brother?”

I got misty-eyed as I read those lines. I think the boys felt what the poem was meant to evoke: union, communion.

There were gangbangers in the class from opposing gangs—African-American and Chicano-American. The teachers had warned that certain guys had to sit on opposite sides of the room. As we discussed the poem, guys started talking across “colors,” opening up. Teachers who weren’t part of the workshop stepped in and stayed.

I asked the guys to write about returning to a place—physically or psychically--that might be filled with pain, fear, anger, or an unresolved question. I asked them to describe it physically, but to then address the wound or fear to a person who had something to do with whatever unresolved feeling was back there.

One Chicano student described a town center in Mexico where an incident had occurred that caused his family to flee to the U.S. What happened to his family is less important than what happened to his peers as a result of his avowal. His poem gave his classmates both insight into and greater empathy for him.

What do you consider to be the benefits of writing workshops for special groups (i.e. teens, elders, the disabled, veterans, prisoners)?
I have only worked with male populations where posturing and bravura run deep. But given an opportunity to see that their vulnerability will not be used against them, these boys will open up. I think some of these young men feel—and sometimes rightfully so—like the words in Patricia Smith’s poem, “CRIPtic Comment”:

If we are not shooting
at someone
then no one
can see us.

There is the sense that these boys feel both seen and heard during our time together. In one of the P&W–supported Cook County Juvenile Detention workshops, I used Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

Hughes’s piece has an epic reach—bodies of water of mythic, cultural, and historic proportion. I talked about Hughes’s “knowing.” I got the boys to write about things they knew intimately, using Hughes’ structure to organize their “knowing.” One participant wrote about the various sneakers he has “rocked”:

I’ve known Nikes, shell-top Adidas...

You get the idea.

Another student had lived in Illinois and Indiana, so he wrote about “knowing” distinct parts of these two states, both in terms of geography but also the “temperature” of different communities.

What's the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am pretty zany so no question strikes me as strange. I do get a lot of “Why do you sweat so much?”

Photo: David Mills. Credit: Luig Cazzaniga.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

My Hometown

9.20.12

Some of the best stories and essays revolve around the author's hometown. Spend fifteen minutes freewriting about the town or city in which you grew up. Focus on the people, the places, the landscape, and the memories surrounding them. Where was your favorite place to eat? Who were the most interesting characters? What did you do with your family and friends? What did the school look like? Where did you go when you wanted to run away?

Near-Death Experience

9.12.12

Extreme experiences can significantly alter our perspective on life. Write an essay about a time when you faced a near-death experience, or believed you were in serious danger. Consider the following questions: How did you react immediately? How did you respond later? In retrospect, do you wish you'd reacted differently when it happened? What from the experience do you still carry with you?

A Summer Scene

Now that fall has almost arrived, ruminate about all that happened over the summer. Choose a moment or a scene that you distinctly remember and freewrite about it. What took place? Who was involved? Is it important? If not, why did you remember it? How did it make you feel? Review your freewriting and transform what you discover into an essay that transcends the subject at hand, so that it has universal appeal to readers.

PEN American Center Announces Winners of 2012 Literary Awards

The New York City-based PEN American Center recently announced the winners of the 2012 PEN Literary Awards. For over fifty years, PEN has given awards to the most promising and distinguished voices in the literary community. This year, eighteen grants, awards, and fellowships have been given to emerging and established writers from all over the country. The following are just a few of this year's winners.

Susan Nussbaum received the inaugural PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her manuscript, Good Kings Bad Kings. Founded by author Barbara Kingsolver, the $25,000 prize is given biennially to an author for an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice. The prize also includes a publishing contract with Algonquin Books. Rosellen Brown, Margot Livesey, and Kathy Pories judged.

Vanessa Veselka won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for her novel, Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011). The $25,000 award is given to a fiction writer whose debut work, published in the previous year, “represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.” Lauren Groff, Dinaw Mengestu, and Nami Mun judged.

Fiction writer E. L. Doctorow won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The $25,000 prize is given to a writer “whose body of work places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.” Don DeLillo, Jennifer Egan, and George Saunders judged.

James Gleick won the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon Books, 2011). The $10,000 prize is given for a book of literary nonfiction on the subject of physical or biological sciences published in the previous year. Elizabeth Kolbert, Charles Mann, and Dava Sobel judged.

The late Christopher Hitchens received the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his essay collection Arguably (Twelve, 2011). The $5,000 award is given for a book of essays published in the previous year that “exemplifies the dignity and esteem of the essay form.” Robert Boyers, Janet Malcolm, and Ruth Reichl judged.

Robert K. Massie won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House, 2011). The $5,000 award is given for a biography published in the previous year. Blake Bailey, Daphne Merkin, and Honor Moore judged.

Fiction and nonfiction writer Siddhartha Deb won the PEN Open Book Award for his memoir, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Faber & Faber, 2011). The $5,000 prize is given for a book by an author of color published in 2011. Alexander Chee, Mat Johnson, and Natasha Trethewey judged.

Poet Toi Derricotte won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. The $5,000 prize is given to a poet whose “distinguished and growing body of work represents a notable presence in American literature.” Dan Chiasson, Aracelis Girmay, and A. Van Jordan judged.

Jen Hofer won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for her translation of Negro Marfil/Ivory Black by Myriam Moscona (Les Figues Press, 2011). The $3,000 award is given for a book-length translation of poetry into English published in the previous year. Christian Hawkey judged.

Bill Johnston won the PEN Translation Prize for his translation of Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski (Archipelago Books, 2011). The $3,000 prize is given for a book-length translation of prose into English published in the previous year. Aron Aji, Donald Breckenridge, and Minna Proctor judged.

Margaret Sayers Peden received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, which is given to a translator “whose career has demonstrated a commitment to excellence through the body of his or her work.”

The winners and finalists of this year's awards will be honored at the 2012 Literary Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, October 23 in New York City. PEN will begin accepting submissions for its 2013 Literary Awards on October 1. For a comprehensive list of this year’s winners and finalists, and for information and guidelines for the 2013 prizes, visit the PEN American Center website.

 

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