Creative writing professors Yiyun Li and Micheline Marcom received the Whiting award for emerging writers on Oct. 25. The award, consisting of a $40,000 cash prize, was presented to them at a ceremony in New York City.
The overarching theme in her work, Li said, is “how small people live in a bigger world.” Yiyun Li’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, takes place in China and among Chinese-Americans living in America. The book received a number of awards, including a Californian Book Award for first fiction.
Li, raised in Beijing, was conscripted into the Chinese Army before coming to the United States to study medicine in 1996. Within two years of arriving in America, she discovered that she possessed a strong writer’s voice which she could no longer ignore. Having earned a Master’s in immunology , Li attended the Iowa Writers Workshop where she received her MFA. She lives in Faculty Village with her husband and two sons.
“Yiyun is patient and encouraging of young artists,” said Whitney Phaneuf, second-year MFA student. “She is able to see the beautiful points in an otherwise terrible piece.”
Though the $40,000 award, given to only ten writers each year, represents significant recognition of Li’s work, she still considers the award to be “external.”
“These awards are a very good thing, but I go home and I am still a mother and wife, trying to make my family happy,” said Li.
Li believes that a writer’s job is not to get excited about awards and social functions, which do nothing to improve the quality of her work or her chances of being published. Her inspirations include writers Trevor and Babel, and James Macpherson, her mentor at the Iowa Writers workshop, where she received her MFA.
Thanks to the money she has received, she will take sabbatical next fall, during which she will spend her time on Mills’ campus, her home, for the express purpose of writing.
Micheline Aharonian Marcom was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and raised in Los Angeles. Marcom is now an adjunct, creative writing professor at Mills.
“She challenges you,” said Mills alumna Sakura Vesseley.
Three Apples Fell From Heaven, the first novel in a trilogy, the third book of which will soon be released, was named one of the best books of the year by both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and was a New York Times Notable Book. The second novel, The Daydreaming Boy won the 2005 PEN/USA Award in fiction and was named a best book by the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The themes in the trilogy include the investigation of war and its aftereffects, but also, particularly in her recently completed third book Draining of the Sea, loneliness.
“All my books are about love and being alive,” said Marcom.
She was shocked to learn in an e-mail from the Whiting Foundation that she had received the award.
“The thing about awards is you just never know,” Marcom said. “It’s subjective and there’s a lot of good work out there. It’s so unpredictable, and so I feel fortunate and thankful and happy.”
Like Li, Marcom considers her work and its quality to be separate from the award. Still, the award represents a practical form of support, as she will now be able to pay her mortgage.
“It relieves a burden, and when you’re not worried about money, you can work on your stuff more,” said Marcom.
Li and Marcom’s practical view of the award is shared by the Whiting Foundation.
“What the award can do is buy writers some time”, said Bobbie Bristol, director of the Whiting Writers’ Program.
The Whiting Foundation chooses nominees who have written no more than two books, and whom they believe will continue to create exciting work.
“We just hope that the money helps them to further their work,” said Bristol.
The Foundation also hopes that the award helps institutions to realize that they have hired writers who are of great value to the literary world.
“The English Department is extremely proud of our current and recent fiction faculty, which at the moment is easily one of the strongest in the nation,” said Cornelia Nixon, chair of English and professor of creative writing.
Clearly, the Whiting Foundation’s goal has been realized at Mills. According to Bristol, the award also indicates that Mills has a keen eye for interesting and talented creative writing faculty.