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Here are the 2020 Whiting Creative Nonfiction grantees.

Rasheeda Saka

December 8, 2020, 8:00am

Today, the Whiting Foundation announced the eight recipients for its Creative Nonfiction Grant, which supports multi-year book projects that require large amounts of focused thinking, research, and writing at a critical point mid-process. Each will receive $40,000 to complete their books in progress. Previous winners include Sarah M. Broom, Sarah Ramey, and Jay Kirk.

This year, the grantees of the award, now in its fifth year, are Rachel Aviv, Chloé Cooper Jones, Carina del Valle Schorske, Ben Goldfarb, Ferris Jabr, Blair LM Kelley, Brandon Shimoda, and Salamishah Tillet.

According to the press release, the recipients of the 2020 grant comprise five women and three men, and significant ethnic, experiential, and geographic diversity.

Courtney Hodell, director of literary programs, said the following of the grantees:

Once completed, this short shelf of books will showcase the glorious richness of creative nonfiction in this country, and the roles it serves: as a mirror to our cultural and social concerns; as made-to-measure tools for self-knowledge; and as level-headed diagnoses of the state of the planet and our future on it.

Below, you’ll find the titles of the grantees’ manuscript, along with a brief synopsis and comments from the judges.

Congrats to all!

Rachel Aviv, Strangers to Ourselves
History of Medicine
Forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Stranger to Ourselves is an immersive journalistic exploration of the way the language of psychiatric diagnosis orients us toward the world and ourselves and changes the way we interact with institutions providing care. It draws on the author’s own experience of being institutionalized for an eating disorder at the age of six, and follows over time the stories of others whose diagnoses shaped their identities profoundly.

Judges’ comment: “This potent and timely exploration of how psychiatry, its diagnostics, and its pharmaceuticals have woven themselves deeply into our personal and cultural lives charts completely new territory. Aviv’s startling connections, such as identifying psychiatry as a force for colonialism and globalism, or the relationship between racism and schizophrenia in America, are vital; her compassion, curiosity, and deep-seated humanism, irreplaceable. Aviv’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful, but even more impressive and moving is her radical empathy.”

Chloé Cooper Jones, Easy Beauty
Memoir/Cultural Criticism
Forthcoming from Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster

Chloé Cooper Jones braids memory, observation, and the history of philosophical aesthetics to consider her life as a woman with a visible congenital disability; after unexpectedly becoming a mother in violation of unspoken social taboos about the disabled body, she sets off on a journey across the globe to reclaim the spaces she’d been denied, and denied herself.

Judges’ comment: “In this ambitious and elegant book about seeing and being seen, Chloé Cooper Jones invokes thorny, theoretical material about identity, the social order, and how we measure human value, but her clarity and compassion invite all readers in. She has created a forceful and fresh point of view from which to anatomize power, access, and perception in her precise, unsparing prose. A necessary, relentlessly honest book that feels both of the moment and timeless.”

Carina del Valle Schorske, The Other Island
Memoir/Cultural Criticism
Forthcoming from Riverhead

The Other Island is an exploration of empire, migration, and the transmission of culture in Puerto Rico—the world’s longest-existing colony—viewed through the author’s shifting relationship to the island as a child of diaspora during a time of historic crisis. These linked essays recognize backup dancers, graffiti artists, indigenous cave painters, state-funded photographers, tenement dwellers, and out-of-print poets as influential political theorists and creative innovators, reshaping the no man’s land between citizenship and independence.

Judges’ comment: “An exceptional investigation of colonization and gentrification, of art and family, The Other Island will be a marvelous and most necessary addition to Puerto Rican literature. Carina del Valle Schorske has a fresh perspective and a bright, authoritative narrative voice; her prose is lyrical and accessible, richly researched and sharply argued. Her intimate story of self-discovery animates this profound work of cultural criticism, revealing what it means to be part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, and how this diaspora has shaped American life in ways many of us still barely understand. Poetic and politically astute, this book reorients our imagination beyond national territory, towards more fluid and capacious forms of belonging.”

Ben Goldfarb, The Ecology of Roads
Science/Environmental Journalism
Forthcoming from W.W. Norton

The Ecology of Roads chronicles the emergent field of road ecology, the science of how infrastructure affects nature. For humans, roads are so ubiquitous they’re invisible; for animals from toads to Tasmanian devils, they’re forces of death and disruption. Today, road ecologists are striving to blunt their impacts: Researchers are designing freeway-spanning bridges for cougars, elephants, and pangolins; planting roadsides with prairie for butterflies; and deconstructing our forests’ labyrinth of logging roads. While road ecology was born in North America, it’s most vital in the developing world, where 15 million road-miles will be built by 2050—an “infrastructure tsunami” that may simultaneously lift countless people out of poverty and, if poorly planned, destroy the world’s last intact habitats.

Judges’ comment: “Ben Goldfarb’s impassioned quest to understand the ecology of roads and its impact on the natural world is a marvel. The reader learns something new on every page, disturbed and amazed in equal measure. Goldfarb moves us briskly along the manipulated ecosystem of the highway, with vivid, evocative pitstops for environmental history, ecology, and the built environment. With 15 million additional miles of road scheduled to be built over the globe in the near future, the time for this book is now. Lives on the Road adds a new perspective to conversations on how humans have reshaped life on earth.”

Ferris Jabr, A Symphony of Earth
Science
Forthcoming from Random House

Combining natural history, mythology, and science, A Symphony of Earth explores the many ways that living creatures have transformed the land, sea, and air throughout the planet’s history, and reexamines the ancient idea that Earth itself is alive, in the context of climate change and recent scientific insights. Transporting readers viscerally into extreme spaces—such as an abandoned gold mine a mile beneath the earth’s surface—to find the signs of life, the book investigates how we might correct or mitigate some of our most severe disruptions to the planet’s longstanding ecological rhythms.

Judges’ comment: “This deep meditation on the dynamic and essential relationship between living beings and our environs demonstrates a sense of possibility and purpose. Ferris Jabr has an uncanny ability to explore and explain some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, and his sentences are both luscious and limpidly clear. He shows us how the rhythm of life on Earth has evolved and where we are in the lifespan of that song. Jabr is an exceptional new science writer, and this urgent book is poised to influence larger conversations about climate change and the environment.”

Blair LM Kelley, Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class
History
Forthcoming from Liveright/W.W. Norton

A thorough understanding of America’s working-class must begin with the history of Black folk, who have historically been the most active, informed, and impassioned working class in America. Tracing the story of the Black working class from first emancipations to the present through family stories and traditional sources, Black Folk describes the connection between the everyday, lived experience of working Black people and their labor and politics.

Judges’ comment: “Timely, necessary, and loving, this is an authoritative and groundbreaking work that serves as a corrective to the longstanding ignorance about the Black working-class. The project of interpreting the rich landscape of their lives and politics is revelatory and long overdue. Few academics can write in such a clear, captivating voice. Kelley’s characters shine and her insights pop; she writes with an urgent sense of time and place, bringing human scale to a major moment in American history. This shows every sign of becoming a seminal work that our children and grandchildren will still be reading.”

Brandon Shimoda, Japanese American Historical Plaza (working title)
Political Reportage/History
Forthcoming from City Lights Publishers

Japanese American Historical Plaza is a book of creative nonfiction inhabiting the afterlife of the mass incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during WWII. It is a memoiristic travelogue that includes the ruins of the incarceration sites; memorials and museums; representations of incarceration in popular culture (art, literature, film); present-day legislation; and the lives and stories of former internees and their descendants.

Judges’ comment: “A powerful new exploration of Japanese-American incarceration that speaks to our current cultural conversations about trauma and silence, reparations and the carceral state. Brandon Shimoda is an elegant, incisive writer, and his book on the afterlife of the concentration camps will help to ensure that this dark stain on American history is never forgotten. As the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 looms, readers will be tremendously moved by the ambition and scope of the question, ‘How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing?’ Shimoda examines the concepts of reparations, displacement, national belonging, and memory, and comes to both brilliant and painful insight regarding the limits of each.”

Salamishah Tillet, All the Rage: “Mississippi Goddam” and the World Nina Simone Made
Biography
Forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins

A mix of criticism, memoir, and biography, All the Rage: “Mississippi Goddam” and the World Nina Simone Made examines Simone’s life and afterlife and why she, more than any other civil rights artist, has come to embody the struggles of contemporary America. Using Simone’s songs as her guide, Tillet tells the story of how Nina shaped her own coming of age as a writer, mother, and survivor of sexual abuse, and why artists and activists continue to invoke this iconic musician as they rebuild themselves and the country in her image of freedom.

Judges’ comment: “An ambitious and incisive mix of cultural criticism, biography, and memoir, this much-needed book frames the necessity and beauty of black women’s rage through the lens of a towering figure in American music. Salamishah Tillet, a critic and academic who produces consistently vital work, is a pleasure to read; through this fresh take on Nina Simone, we will understand not only her legacy but her ongoing vitality in American popular culture and the politics of social change. Tillet is giving us the book that Nina Simone deserves.”

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