The Whiting Awards announced their 2020 winners Wednesday night, and on the list is University of Iowa alum Andrea Lawlor. The awards are given annually to writers of poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction; Lawlor is being honored for their fiction work. Since 1985, the Whiting Awards have sought to recognize writers “based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” their website states
“To be recognized by the Whiting is incredibly encouraging for me as a writer, and to be part of a cohort with the incredible writers they’ve chosen is humbling,” Lawlor said in an email. “The Whiting Foundation makes the world I want to live in, supports the kind of writing I want to read, and that feels particularly sweet right now, when we are living in such a difficult time.”
Also honored this year are Aria Aber (poetry), Diannely Antigua (poetry), Will Arbery (drama), Jaquira Díaz (nonfiction), Ling Ma (fiction), Jake Skeets (poetry), Genevieve Sly Crane (fiction), Jia Tolentino (nonfiction) and Genya Turovskaya (poetry).
Lawlor transferred to the UI in 1992, leaving New York City for, they said, the “exotic midwest.” They were an English major, but didn’t study creative writing — at least not directly.
“I was one of those undergrads in EPB muttering about how MFAs are luxury degrees for bourgeois assholes, and now of course I have two graduate creative writing degrees, so that’s my comeuppance,” they said.
Now, Lawlor is an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, specializing — of course — in writing: creative writing, queer and trans writing and ESOL writing. They’re teaching remotely at the moment, but said they feel lucky to have a job in the current pandemic crisis.
“Mostly we’re worried about our family and friends who are at high risk,” they said, “and everyone at risk from the criminal mishandling of the situation by our heartless illegitimate president, amid the predations of white supremacy and capitalism.”
Looking back at their time at Iowa, they said that it changed them “immeasurably,” largely due to the people met bartending at “the 620.”
“I met many of the workshop writers, and was friends with Reginald Shepherd, Alex Chee, Rebecca Wolff, Emily Barton, and many more,” Lawlor said. “They took me under their wings. And my non-workshop friends, like Cathy Halley and Tayari Jones, were also writers. I guess everyone really has a novel in their drawer. My professors also had a profound influence on my life, especially Kevin Kopelson, Doris Witt, Bernice Hausman, Lauren Rabinowitz, Mary Ann Rassmussen and Claire Sponsler.”
Lawlor’s debut novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, is set, in part, in Iowa City. It’s a fantasy about the wild exploits one can get up to as a shapeshifter. Lawlor is definitely a fan of speculative fiction, as a reader and a writer, and in fact studied under Samuel R. Delany in graduate school — but they also note “literary realist fiction, social realist fiction, poetry and comix” among the influences that come across in all of their work.
“In Paul, to the extent that I was trying to represent anything at all, I was trying to write queer life, queer genders, because that’s what I know life to be. And yes, perhaps because I’ve read a fair amount of science fiction and fabulist fiction, making Paul a literal shapeshifter seemed like a useful way to avoid a neat transition narrative. There’s a long history of writers from marginalized communities using fabulism as a way to express what’s not knowable in the hegemonic paradigm,” they said, citing Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
“[T]he last three books you read come out in your work,” Lawlor said, referencing Delany’s teaching, “so read good books.”
The Whiting Foundation, it seems, is putting in its $50,000 vote of confidence for Lawlor’s novel in that category.
The Whiting Awards are foregoing their annual award ceremony and reading this year in the midst of the novel coronavirus lockdown in New York, and ask that the public make an extra effort to celebrate the honorees independently.