The 2023 Whiting Awards winners.
The 2023 Whiting Awards winners. From left: Tommye Blount, Linda Kinstler, Sidik Fofana, Mia Chung, Emma Wippermann, R. Kikuo Johnson. Top row: Ama Codjoe, Stephania Taladrid, Carribean Fragoza, Marcia Douglas.By Beowulf Sheehan.
On the Scene

The Whiting Awards Bring Together 10 Literary Up-and-Comers for Optimistic Celebration

On Wednesday, the Whiting Foundation honored 10 promising writers, awarding each $50,000 in prize money, in a thoughtful ceremony.

Every year, the Whiting Foundation awards 10 up-and-coming writers with a substantial award, and by the time this year’s winners gathered on Wednesday, most of them were still a little dazed by the honor, which comes with a $50,000 cash prize. This year the foundation honored an already accomplished bunch of poets, journalists, fiction writers, and dramatists at its annual awards ceremony at the New-York Historical Society on Wednesday, which featured a keynote address by Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar.

Reflecting on his relationships with his own mentors, Akhtar, currently the president of PEN America, an organization that works to defend free speech and expression, made a case for the importance of separating one’s artistic conscience from the world at large. “In the matter of making art it is often right to get it wrong, and on careful reconsideration, to get it wrong again,” he said. “Doubt, not certainty, is a surer route to the kind of knowledge most useful to you as an artist.”

The Whiting Awards are best known for their uncanny ability to recognize writers who will eventually become some of the best known people in their fields, including Jonathan Frazen, Sarah Ruhl, Michael R. Jackson, David Foster Wallace, Ocean Vuong, Sigrid Nunez, Mary Karr, Tony Kushner, and Susan-Lori Parks. Recipients have gone on to win Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Guggenheim fellowships, and MacArthur “genius” grants. In 2011, the awards recognized playwright and actor Danai Gurira, who later skyrocketed to fame with her role in Black Panther. 

On Wednesday, Peter Pennoyer, the president of the foundation’s board of trustees, mentioned that possibility during his speech explaining the purpose of the awards. “One or two of the winners may even become a celebrity, but that is not the object of the game, because that’s something other people do to you,” he said. “What these awards are designed to do is to encourage you to go out and produce something that will be wonderful for yourselves.”

The annual award ceremony is a bit like a literary cotillion, and winners travel from near and far to attend two days of events where they get to know one another and are introduced to a collection of literary luminaries. The journey was fairly easy for Sidik Fofana, a fiction writer and high school English teacher, who lives in the Bronx. The judges praised his debut collection of short stories, Stories From the Tenants Downstairs, for representing “voices with a reporter’s careful ear” and recording “them with a fiction writer’s unguarded heart.” 

Novelist Carribean Fragoza had a more difficult trip, taking a red-eye flight from Southern California with her husband and her two children, ages 4 and 11. In an iridescent pink dress, she discussed her work teaching writing at CalArts and the progress she had made on a forthcoming novel, which she hoped would become easier with the assistance of the Whiting award.

Unusually, this year’s winners included two magazine journalists. Stephania Taladrid, wearing an elegant black jumpsuit, was joined by her editor and her fact-checker at The New Yorker. Linda Kinstler was joined by a group of supporters, including her team at PublicAffairs, the imprint that released her book Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends. The judges wrote that her work “bristles with eagerness, moving like the spy thrillers she tips her hat to,” and on Wednesday, she reflected on the challenge of writing a book about the little known Nazi trials in the Soviet Union. “I wanted to make it fun,” she said. “I’m so afraid of boring people because I think that’s the cardinal sin, but it’s such a serious subject.”

R. Kikuo Johnson might have been the night’s most surprised winner, if only because the award has never before gone to a graphic novelist. His recent book, No One Else, is set in his hometown on the island of Maui, in the Hawaiian archipelago, and on Wednesday, he wore a garland of leaves while accepting his award. Johnson said he learned that he had won while recovering from a case of COVID-19. “I think my exact words were, ‘I’m usually not an emotional person, but I’m feeling very overwhelmed.’”

Poet Tommye Blount wore a sheer blue button-up—perhaps an oblique reference to his recent collection Fantasia With a Man in Blue—with a ribbon bow around his neck and a wide-brimmed black hat. In a casual polo at a luncheon the next day, Blount explained that by day he works in the advertising industry. “But my real job is poetry,” he said.

Playwright Mia Chang was honored for drama, and the judges described her work as “a theatrical hall of mirrors that catch and fracture layers of sympathy and trust.” Her inventive play Catch as Catch Can, which features three actors playing six characters, is part of the current season at Playwrights Horizons. 

Emma Wippermann was honored for both poetry and drama, though she explained that Joan of Arkansas, her forthcoming book of performance poetry that the judges said “conveys rapture even as it jokes with angels,” is somewhat uncategorizable. “I just thought of myself as writing poems, and then it turned into this, like, play thing,” she said. “Then I said it was only for the page, and then it really got out of my hands.”

The awards are prestigious, but the foundation uses spy-like tactics to administer them. The nominators and judging panel are kept secret, and their mission, should they choose to accept it, is revealed through an unsolicited phone call. The judges remain anonymous, communicating with the winners only through a special citation summarizing what they loved about the work and the gift of a book from the Library of America collection chosen with each winner in mind.

Courtney Hodell, the Whiting Foundation’s director of literary programs, makes the call to inform the winners, but for the past few years, it has been harder to get winners on the phone. Getting in touch with poet Ama Codjoe required a game of phone tag because the foundation had an old phone number from a former home.

Hodell said that this year, Wipperman was the hardest to reach because she had recently jettisoned her smartphone in favor of a Light Phone, the minimal cell phone without internet capabilities. Hodell said that it looks a bit like a bar of hotel soap. Wearing an embroidered mesh shirt from Bode, Wipperman explained that, ultimately, she never got the phone call, but she’s still happy about the new phone.

The cryptic book choices of the judges became a topic of conversation among the winners. Fiction writer Marcia Douglas was intrigued by the gift of a John Ashbery book. It might have something to do with what the judges called her “big bang literary intelligence.” Codjoe, whose poems the judges praised for their “folkloric eros and lyric precision,” was given a collection of work by the African American writer Ann Petry. Johnson was pleased by the judges’ choice of James Thurber, the humorist who worked in text and images.