Youngest Author Ever takes Orange Prize for Fiction

The last couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve done since I graduated from EWU’s MFA program. First there was Jaime’s post, which made me think about how lucky I was to spend two years completely immersed in writing. Part of me misses that environment, but another part of me is happy to be a writer out in the “real world.” I like working on my pieces without my internal editor second guessing what my fellow students will say in workshop. Not that I didn’t like workshop, but when I knew exactly who my audience/critics were, I often had a hard time staying true to what I wanted to put on the page instead of trying to please them.

Then there was the Willow Springs release party last Friday. A year ago, I would have been one of the people triple-celebrating the new issue with being done with the thesis and either about to or just finished defending. This year, instead of having read the issue several times through proofing galleys, I enjoyed the fantastic stories, poems, and essays in their finished form.

So overall, I’ve been thinking I’m okay with where I’m at in my writing career/journey right now. Then, I got a Facebook message from my former thesis advisor.

She’s updating her files and wants to keep track of her students’ publications. I looked mine up, and guess what, there were a few during my year in the program, but none over the last year.

And then, the announcement of Téa Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger’s Wife winning the Orange Prize for Fiction popped up in my inbox. This twenty-five-year old Serbian/American graduated from the Cornell MFA program in 2009. Last June she was featured in The New Yorker’s Top 20 Writers under 40 Fiction Issue–the youngest one on the list.

Talk about spending your post-MFA years productively!

Right now, I’m experiencing conflicting feelings. I feel crappy about my own accomplishments over the last year, slightly envious of this talented writer, but also proud that a young woman has won such a prestigious prize.

According to Bettany Hughes, Chair of Judges:

The Tiger’s Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht’s powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.

The Orange Prize for Fiction was set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote fiction written by women throughout the world to the widest range of readers possible. It is awarded to the best novel of the year written in English by a woman.

I’m still thinking about how little I’ve been writing over the last year compared to my years in the program, but I’m also (back to) pondering women writers’ roles/reputations/expectations in the literary world. These topics pop up in debates routinely, the most current one started by VS Naipul’s weird remarks to The Guardian.

In light of what’s been said lately about women’s writing, what are your thoughts on celebrating female authors separately from male authors? Do we still need prizes specifically for women? What about specifically for African-American writers? Or, special recognition to contributions in the Gay-Lesbian literary field?

What roles do minority-specific recognitions play and when are they needed?

14 Comments

  • Olivia says:

    Wait — the book industry prices things based on gender? How have I missed this?

    • Asa Maria says:

      Doh, thanks!

      Learning British English as a second language and then trying to keep track of when I can use ‘z’ and ‘ou’ and when I can’t always messes me up.

  • Olivia says:

    Also, I think minority-specific attention is still needed to balance out the bias toward white straight cis male authorship. It’s hard to fight an ingrained imbalance.

    • Jenny says:

      Unfortunately, I completely agree with Olivia. Regardless of what Naipaul might think in his own head, that a respected writer felt completely comfortable making his comments says we have a long way to go. I’d rather separate the work from the person, but until everyone reads that way, we do need minority recognition

      • Asa Maria says:

        That’s pretty much how I feel Jenny. The fact that people finally know not to use racist words in public statements because they aren’t politically correct seem to have caught on, but sexist comments are still popping up all over the mainstream media.

  • JaimeRWood says:

    I’d like to check out _The Tiger’s Wife_. It’s motivational to see someone so young winning an award like this. Thanks for sharing, Asa. And don’t worry. Maybe you’ll have more time to write this summer. :)

  • Great post, Asa! You’re doing wonderful…give yourself a break. May you have more time this coming year to write. :)

  • Seth Marlin says:

    See on the one hand, the birth-ratio of females to males traditionally favors females, so as a “minority demographic” women don’t quite qualify. At the same time, however, you have to be stupid to not see patriarchy everywhere, even in developed cultures. So the sad fact is, for every V.S. Naipaul who excludes women from consideration we will need a contest like the Orange Prize, which is unfortunate because all it does is make sure women get their due, rather than going on offense against misogynist chumps. Question is: how do we balance those aims?

    On another note, fantastic post as always. The young woman featured here makes me feel horribly unproductive.

    • Thanks Seth and I so agree with you on “for every V.S. Naipaul who excludes women from consideration we will need a contest like the Orange Prize” and I think in terms of how to balance our goals, this is something affirmative action has been struggling for a long time and I’m not sure there is *one* answer.

  • Shira Richman says:

    I like to think we don’t need to set aside special places and ways to recognize women writers, but boy was it fun to teach a class devoted to all my favorite women writers. If the class had not been designated as Women’s Literature, I would have had to cut some women authors and include the token dude or two.

    • I so relate Shira. I like to think I’m the kind of feminist that am not asking for special treatment because of my gender, just a leveled playing field, not an uphill one. But every now and then, I’m so happy to be able to just spend time with women or just read what women write. Mostly becaue it often requires less effort to relate to another woman.

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