Local Authors Win $50,000 Whiting Award for Emerging Writers

Esmé Weijun Wang and Brontez Purnell (Kristin Cofer/Matt Hunt)

Bay Area writers Brontez Purnell and Esmé Weijun Wang both won the prestigious Whiting Award for Emerging Authors Wednesday.

This year's 10 recipients learned they won at a ceremony in Manhattan Wednesday night. Each winner receives $50,000 from the Whiting Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that supports the arts.

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was scheduled to speak at the ceremony but a snowstorm kept her from attending. Poet Elizabeth Alexander read Morrison's prepared remarks, in which the 87-year-old author of books like Beloved noted that as a descendant of slaves, she knew well "the struggle to be allowed to learn to read." She also included a line from her novel The Bluest Eye, which Morrison said she used to "attract or repulse or simply shock the reader — anything to get her or his attention."

"My sincere congratulations to the winners of the 2018 Whiting Award come from an intimate knowledge of the power and difficulty of the task," Morrison noted.

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Established in 1985 by Whiting Foundation, the $50,000 prize is awarded to writers to help "fulfill the promise of superior literary work." Previous winners include Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen and Jorie Graham.

Purnell, who won the Whiting Award for his 2017 novel Since I Laid My Burden Down, lives in Oakland, where he is a fixture in the local queer-punk-art scene. Other books of his include The Cruising Diaries and Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger. He's also the singer of the band Younger Lovers and is the founder of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company.

Since I Laid My Burden Down follows DeShawn, a queer black punk in Oakland who goes home to Alabama for a funeral. A transplant from Alabama himself, Purnell has said the book is not real, but that his life and DeShawn's intersect. (Read an excerpt from the book at the Paris Review.)

“It zigs and zags so much that I actually could not give you a percentage," Purnell told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "There’s no way to quantify it because it’s really hard, and I don’t think it would help you understand any more.”

Wang, who won the Whiting Award for her nonfiction work, is the author of The Border of Paradise, one of NPR's favorite books of 2016. A first generation Taiwanese-American who came to San Francisco via the Midwest, Wang wrote her first essay for the Toast while waiting for Border to be published. The essay received "remarkable feedback," which led her to write more.

Since then, she's been published in The Believer, Salon and other publications. Her collection of essays called, The Collected Schizophrenias won the 2016 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, which she completed while battling Lyme disease. (Read an excerpt from her essay collection at the Paris Review.)

"Lyme has taken so much from me, including the ability to sit at a laptop for hours at a time," Wang told the Prarie Schooner, a national literary quarterly published by University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Because the disease has impacted my brain, my cognition is also affected. I've had to go about writing in a very different way because of the limitations of my body."

Other 2018 Whiting Award honorees included poets Tommy Pico and Rickey Laurentiis, dramatist Nathan Alan Davis, poet-nonfiction writer Anne Boyer, novelists Patty Yumi Cottrell and Weike Wang, and playwrights Antoinette Nwandu and Hansol Jung.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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