Announcing the Winners of the 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards

Six extraordinary emerging writers will receive grants of $30,000 each

A photo grid of the winners of the Rona Jaffe Award
2020 RJFWA Winners (clockwise from top left): Hannah Bae, Mari Christmas, Yalitza Ferreras, Charleen McClure, Elisa Gonzalez, Temim Fruchter
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The Rona Jaffe Foundation has been recognizing outstanding emerging women writers since 1995—past recipients include Elif Batuman, Chelsea Bieker, Eula Biss, Rivka Galchen, Vanessa Hua, Helen Phillips, Namwali Serpell, and Tracy K. Smith. This year, six extraordinary writers will receive grants of $30,000 each to support their work. In the past, Electric Literature has published Rona Jaffe Awards ceremony keynote addresses from Tayari Jones and Jacqueline Woodson. For 2020, since the in-person event has been canceled, we are instead honored to make the exclusive announcement of the winners.

The 2020 winners are Hannah Bae (nonfiction), Mari Christmas (fiction), Yalitza Ferreras (fiction), Temim Fruchter (fiction), Elisa Gonzalez (poetry), and Charleen McClure (poetry). Read on for their bios, a description of their work, and quotes from their anonymous nominators.

In celebration of this year’s awards, the 2020 winners will be giving a virtual reading in New York University’s Creative Writing Program Reading Series on Thursday, September 17, at 7 p.m. Eastern. The event is free and open to the public, and you can register here.

“Our 2020 award winners are reframing and revisioning our world and bringing it into focus in important and inventive ways. Their work is surprising, inspiring, challenging, and deeply personal,” says Beth McCabe, the Foundation’s Executive Director. “The Foundation is honored to support these original literary voices. They remind us that Rona Jaffe’s vision remains vital and necessary as her generous legacy continues to support and inspire women writers in their creative endeavors.” In the 26 years since novelist Rona Jaffe (1931–2005) established the award, the foundation has disbursed over $3 million to 164 uniquely promising women writers, who have gone on to earn such recognitions as the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lambda Literary Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and poet laureate of the United States. We can’t wait to see what the 2020 cohort has in store.


Photo by Gaby Demeike

Hannah Bae (nonfiction) is a Korean American freelance journalist and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her essays have appeared in Catapult, Slice Magazine, Bitch Media, Pigeon Pages, among other publications. She is the recipient of recent fellowships from The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and The Poynter Institute. She received her B.A. from the University of Miami. Her essay, “Survival Mode,” was published in the anthology, Don’t Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health (Algonquin, 2018). Bae is currently working on a memoir entitled Way Enough about family estrangement, mental illness, childhood trauma, and cultural identity. Her nominator writes, “Her chilling, closely rendered depictions of feeling unwanted as a child by both biologic and foster parents are made even more complex by feeling ostracized in school because of her class and race. With heartbreaking vulnerability she recounts her struggles to free herself from her parents’ manipulations, while also empathetically exploring their own history of trauma, growing up in war ravaged Korea with parents whose own mental illness went untreated. Hannah’s life story is as unique as it is inspiring. Already her work has brought comfort to so many.” Bae plans to use her Writer’s Award “to assist with my reporting and research needs; continue my self-guided education in the craft of creative nonfiction and the business of publishing; and most of all, to benefit from the gift of uninterrupted time.” She concludes, “I am writing my memoir because I felt alone in navigating familial estrangement and mental illness, especially as a person of color. By completing this book, I hope to reach readers who will see parts of themselves in my pages and realize that they are not alone, either.”

Mari Christmas (fiction) is an assistant professor at Allegheny College and splits her time between Idaho and Pennsylvania. She received her B.A. from Haverford College, her M.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and she has just completed her Ph.D. from SUNY Albany. Her fierce, darkly humorous, emotionally riveting work explores and embodies today’s world reflecting our deepest anxieties and the complexities of current-day feminism, motherhood, and modern love. Christmas’s fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, New Ohio Review, Juked, Fence, and Black Warrior Review. She has received fellowships from Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Surel’s Place. She has also begun a novel entitled Fugue States that traces the path of the narrator as she navigates her own difficult relationship to new motherhood. Her nominator writes: “Mari Christmas is an independent, thoughtful, and ambitious thinker, and has what I have come to believe is one of the most unique writing voices of her generation. Transgressive and socially engaged, her fiction is informed by her identity as Japanese and American, her existence between languages and cultures. She pushes the boundaries of possibility in order to forge new ground for thinking about not only what it means to be a writer but also human. The questions that she asks are urgent: What are the ethics of aesthetics? And, how can the female body, particularly a body that has experienced loss, be mapped onto the page?” Her Writer’s Award will allow her to reduce her teaching load next year and pay for child care so she can focus on these writing projects. She says, “This award is not just a financial gift. It is an affirmation of the ways in which women continue to reach out to one another, and how we are able to nourish and support each other as artists and thinkers in times of crisis.”

Yalitza Ferreras (fiction) is a Dominican American writer who lives in San Francisco. Her stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Southern Review, Aster(ix) Journal, and The Colorado Review among other publications. Her story “The Letician Age” was selected for inclusion in the 2016 Best American Short Stories. She received her B.A. from Mills College and her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. Ferreras has also received fellowships from Djerassi Residents Artists, Yaddo, Voices of Our Nations, and the Tin House Writing Workshop. She also held the 2014–15 Steinbeck Fellowship from San Jose State University. Her nominator writes, “What I love about Ferreras’s singular voice is the way it catches the reader by surprise. You read her and immediately understand she can write beautifully, with rigor and insight, but then like an undercurrent, she snatches the reader by their feet with the story’s emotional power. The stories are intimate and fueled with her passion for strong women in challenging situations who must and will survive.” In 2011 Ferreras was struck by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury. She has spent the ensuing years working toward recovery and pursuing her writing. She is currently working on a novel, The Four Roses, about the ambitious Altagracia, a poor young woman who emigrates from the Dominican Republic to Spain in the early 1990s and seeks to make art amidst her struggle for survival. Ferreras will use the support from her Writer’s Award to rent a dedicated writing space and take time off from her design work in order to focus her attention on completing her novel. She says, “I am grateful for the progress I have made, for the support of my writing mentors, and the generosity of my writing community. The question I pose at the heart of my novel is one I have struggled to answer for myself—how does someone who is in the act of survival make art?”

Photo by Sindayiganza Photography

Temim Fruchter (fiction) is working on both a short story collection and her first novel, City of Laughter. These projects reflect and celebrate her deeply-rooted Jewish heritage and her queer identity combining a keen intellect with playful inventiveness and deep wisdom. She says, “My novel spans four generations of women in an Eastern European Jewish family and dreams of a queer ancestral line. The story zigzags geographically and temporally, moving from Poland in the 1920s to Brooklyn in the 1950s, to Maryland in the 1980s, and finally, to contemporary Warsaw. Part speculative queer family history and part polyphonic sacred encyclopedia, the novel’s central story is interspersed with a body of invented Jewish folklore that, while heavily remixed, is inspired by the stories that raised me and the superstitions that shaped my imagination.” Fruchter began her career as a musician and in 2013 turned her creative attention to writing. She received her M.F.A. from the University of Maryland in 2019. Her work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Foglifter, NPR, Brevity, and PANK. In 2020 she received fiction awards from New South and American Literary Review as well as a fellowship from Vermont Studio Center. She says, “I feel a kind of urgency—the most excited and hungry kind—to finish this first book and launch it into the universe. My path has been non-linear, and, as such, I take the hard work and spiritual maintenance of building a writing life very seriously.” Fruchter works for an education non-profit and has recently returned to New York City. She will use her Writer’s Award to create time and opportunities outside of her day job to devote more attention to completing her novel.

Elisa Gonzalez’s (poetry) work ranges widely, investigating childhood and family history, social inequalities, estrangement, God and language. Her first collection of poetry, currently in progress, includes wild elegies to lost selves, sharp-edged essays in lyric, and poems of eerie delicacy and strangeness. A queer, half-Puerto Rican writer who was raised in the Midwest, she says, “What binds the poems is travel in diverse forms: I’ve crossed geographies, languages, beliefs, class lines. It’s a story of departure and pursuit. It’s a story of the island my father left; of the island of the family; of Cyprus, the island that enthralled me in part because of my separation from Puerto Rico. And of the island of the self, uneasy and alone wherever she is.” Gonzalez received her B.A. from Yale University and her M.F.A from New York University. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Literary Review, Hyperallergic, and other publications. A Fulbright scholar in Poland from 2016-2018, Gonzalez has also held scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her nominator writes: “Elisa is truly a thinking poet who values both clarity and doubt in her lines. … You feel the work constantly driving at something beyond the safe or easy thing to say, while also avoiding what is emotionally manipulative or overwrought. The poems are never glib or easy. They are brave, wild, precise, and honest.” Gonzalez’s Writer’s Award will allow her to reduce her work as a freelance editor while she finishes the collection, as well as a novel. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo by Raven Jackson

Charleen McClure (poetry), the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, was born in London and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta. She earned her B.A. from Agnes Scott College, her M.A. in TESOL from Hunter College, and is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in poetry at New York University. A Fulbright scholar, she has received fellowships from The Conversation Literary Arts Festival, Cave Canem, Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and VONA. Her work has been published in The Offing, Poetry Project, Mosaic, Muzzle, and elsewhere. Currently, she is at work on her first collection of poems entitled Kiss Your Teeth, which explores black women’s refusal through the lens of desire. “The book,” she says, “elaborates on the ways that black women have come to articulate and assert what they want. The poems sort through the myths and models of black femininity with speakers attempting to reconcile competing desires. Yet, at the same time, they revel in the body’s bad attitudes and wild appetites to reclaim it from the historical and ongoing systems of oppression that have sought to abuse it.” Her nominator writes, “In Charleen McClure’s poems the body—its needs, desires, repulsions, ghostly impulses, also its il/legibility, its immediacy and mediation—is central. She possesses bone-aching patience in the presence of revelation’s slow arrival, working in unpretentious, serious counter-partnership with the word.” To meet the demands of her book project, she plans to use her Writer’s Award to further and deepen her research from materials and archives housed at the Schomburg Center as well as the libraries at Harvard and Spelman College. She lives in New York City. 

For more information about these writers and the Foundation’s program, please see www.ronajaffefoundation.org.

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