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Meet the 2019 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards Winners!

Clockwise from upper left: Selena Anderson, Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, Sarah Passino, Nicolette Polek, Elizabeth Schambelan, Debbie Urbanski

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2019 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards, which are given annually to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. Over the past 25 years, the Rona Jaffe Awards have helped many women build successful writing careers by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time.

Each year, the recipients are chosen through a rigorous selection process conducted by a small committee of established writers, who serve anonymously. In recognition of our quarter century, the Awards have been increased to $40,000 each this year and will be presented to the six recipients at a private reception in New York City on September 12. Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson will be our guest speaker. On Friday, September 13 at 7 p.m. the winners will read in New York University’s Creative Writing Program Reading Series at the Lillian Vernon Writers House (58 West 10th Street).

The 2019 winners are:

  • Selena Anderson (fiction)

  • Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (fiction)

  • Sarah Passino (poetry)

  • Nicolette Polek (fiction)

  • Elizabeth Schambelan (nonfiction)

  • Debbie Urbanski (fiction/nonfiction)

Selena Anderson’s work pushes the boundaries of realism and fantasy as she explores and interrogates the ideas of race, identity, and Black womanhood in the American South. She is working on an inventive collection of stories, Tenderoni, and two novels: Quinella and Cenisa, Samira, Monet. In addition, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, The Georgia Review, Bomb, Callaloo, and Fence, among others. She has received fellowships from the Kimbilio Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She received her B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, her M.F.A. from Columbia University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Houston. Anderson is an assistant professor at San José State University, where she also directs a reading series. She plans to use her Writer’s Award for child care over the next year to finalize her manuscripts and begin a new project about the Texas-to-Mexico underground railroad. She lives in San José, California, with her family.

Magogodi oaMphela Makhene is working on a collection of short stories, Innards, focusing on everyday South Africans, inspired by her Soweto hometown. “I am concerned with literature written from the inside out of the black African experience—beyond the white gaze and colonialism’s long shadow. This writing uses the singular and the particular to connect readers with universal human truths. I hope my writing helps readers more fully grasp the vast, layered, and beautiful complexity that is the human experience on the African continent.” Her stories have been published in Granta, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and Guernica. Makhene has also begun work on a novel about Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, the Wampanoag First Nation translator, and the twin histories of slavery and trade in the U.S. and South Africa. She holds degrees from Neumann University, N.Y.U., and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was a finalist for the 2017 Caine Prize and recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Makhene will use her Writer’s Award to focus on her work for the next year, including research travel to Cape Town and Amsterdam. She lives in New York State.

Sarah Passino’s poems are based in the everyday, most specifically how the everyday is shaped by both the alienating political and economic forces at work in our social lives, and the abundant possibilities within shared and collective desires for change. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Rail, Berkeley Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, and Boston Review. Passino was a Poets House Fellow in 2018 and received the 92nd Street Y Rachel Wetzsteon Poetry Prize in 2017. Her book Versioning Sappho Versioning will be published by Stereoverse this fall. She received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin, her M.A. from Columbia University’s Teachers College, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University. Presently, she’s a freelance writer and editor and an instructor at the Bard Prison Initiative. Her Writer’s Award will allow her to focus on her writing projects full-time. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Nicolette Polek’s inventive, highly compressed prose uses a magnified and surreal lens to examine feelings of displacement, alienation, and transformation inspired by her experience of being an only child of immigrants. Her first book, a collection of short stories entitled Imaginary Museums, will be published by Soft Skull Press in January 2020. Polek received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.F.A. from the University of Maryland in 2019. She is currently working on a first novel, Amargosa, about women artists, imagination, and solitude, an outgrowth of her fascination with the late artist and dancer Marta Becket who created the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction. Polek’s Writer’s Award will allow her to continue her creative momentum following graduate school without financial worries in order to focus on this novel, and perhaps a second project about her family, Slovakia under Socialism, faith, and folklore. She is from Cleveland, Ohio, and currently lives in Maryland.

Elizabeth Schambelan is working on a book of linked essays about masculinity, fraternity culture, and feminism. Her work is provocative, riveting, and necessary. The subject matter is difficult and visceral but never sensationalistic as she unearths the historical underpinnings and the social construction of masculinity and interrogates current fraternity culture. She says, “I’ve been working on this project, an investigation of the violence committed in the name of male privilege, since 2014. I’ve been writing not only about the violence itself, but also about the myths we use to reconcile ourselves to it, and about the denial and erasure that silences those who experience it.” Several essays from this work in progress have been published in n+1. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Bookforum. Schambelan received her B.A. from Oberlin College and is the deputy editor of Artforum. She plans to take a sabbatical from the magazine to focus on completing this book. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Debbie Urbanski writes speculative prose or “fantastical realism” intertwining the supernatural with everyday reality to bring about worlds on the page that evoke both strangeness and otherness as well as the thoroughly recognizable, commonplace, and uncomfortable aspects of domesticity and community. Recently she has also begun experimenting with the potential of the horror genre and how it intersects with autobiography as a reflection of our deeper selves, inner mental states, and sexuality. Urbanski’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Sun, Conjunctions, The Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, among others, and she has been anthologized in Best American Experimental Writing 2020 and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. She received her B.A. from Carleton College and her M.F.A. from Syracuse University. She plans to use her Writer’s Award to pay for child care over the next year in order to focus on completing her collection, The Ravishers and Other Memoirs, and her first novel, The Transitionists. She lives with her family in Syracuse, New York.

Click here to read more about our 2019 winners, including their full bios, Q&A's, and more.

Click here to read the full press release.



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