The American Academy of Arts and Letters has honored five University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates and a former visiting faculty member with its 2021 awards in literature, while another workshop alumna was elected to membership in the elite group.
The awards, to be presented virtually May 19, recognize both established and emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry. Workshop alumni honored include:
Rita Dove (MFA ’77) is the recipient of the Gold Medal for Poetry, the academy’s highest honor for excellence in the arts. The Gold Medal is given each year in two rotating categories of the arts and awarded to those who have achieved eminence in an entire body of work. Dove has been recognized throughout her career. In 1993, she was named U.S. Poet Laureate, the youngest person and first African American to hold the position, and in 1987 she received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her book Thomas and Beulah. President Clinton awarded her a 1996 National Humanities Medal. She teaches at the University of Virginia.
Joy Harjo (MFA ’78) is one of 29 new members and four honorary members elected to the academy—considered the highest form of recognition of artistic merit in the United States. Harjo is the current U.S. Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold the position, and the author of nine books of poetry, several plays and children’s books, and two memoirs. She has received the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Harjo lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she holds a Tulsa Artist Fellowship.
Salvatore Scibona (MFA ’99) is one of two recipients of the Mildred & Harold Strauss Living Award, which provides $200,000 given as income over two years in recognition of literary excellence and to provide freedom to devote time exclusively to writing. Scibona, a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and a Whiting Award. His first novel, The End, which he researched in Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship following his UI graduation, was a National Book Award finalist in 2008. He is director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.
Yiyun Li (MS ’00, MFA ’05) is one of eight recipients of the Arts and Letters Award in Literature, a $10,000 prize honoring exceptional accomplishment in any genre. The short story writer and novelist also has been honored with MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, and her book A Thousand Years of Good Prayers won a PEN/Hemingway Award and a Guardian First Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University.
Garth Greenwell (MFA ’15) received the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, a $20,000 prize given to a writer whose work merits recognition for the quality of its prose style. His novel What Belongs to You won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year and was nominated for the National Book Award. His latest book, Cleanness, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and is a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Greenwell, a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, lives in Iowa City.
C Pam Zhang (MFA ’19) received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and selected as one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2020. The $10,000 award is given to a young writer of considerable literary talent for a work published in 2020. Zhang received a 2017 Truman Capote Fellowship at Iowa and is a 2020 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree.
Additionally, the academy honored a former UI visiting faculty member:
Layli Long Soldier, who was a visiting faculty member in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2018, is one of eight recipients of the Arts and Letters Award in Literature, a $10,000 prize honoring exceptional accomplishment in any genre. Long Soldier, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 2017 poetry collection Whereas, is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says she is pleased but not surprised to see Iowa so well represented on the academy’s list of winners.
Did you know?
In 1922, the University of Iowa became the first university in the U.S. to accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees, which led in 1936 to the creation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—the nation’s first creative writing graduate program.
“We are proud that seven Iowa writers have received recognition from this venerable and celebrated national literary society,” Chang says. “The graduates being distinguished by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021 came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop over a period of more than four decades, from Rita Dove in 1977 and Joy Harjo in 1978 to C Pam Zhang in 2019. This reflects the strength and longevity of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and creative writing at Iowa.”
For more than 80 years, emerging poets and fiction writers have come to Iowa City to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Among its graduates are winners of virtually every major literary honor, including seventeen winners of the Pulitzer Prize, six recent U.S. Poets Laureate, and numerous winners of the National Book Award, MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, and other major honors.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. The academy’s 300 members, who are elected for life and pay no dues, propose candidates for awards, and a rotating committee of writers selects winners. This year’s award committee members were Amy Hempel (chair), Edwidge Danticat, Louise Glück, John Guare, Edward Hirsch, and Joy Williams.