English professor receives top award for emerging writers

Lehigh University associate professor of English Stephanie Powell Watts has won a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award – a top honor given annually to up-and-coming writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays.

Watts joins a distinguished list of Whiting Award holders including novelist Jonathan Franzen, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, and National Book Award-winning poets Terrance Hayes and Mark Doty. She was presented the award by author and former Whiting winner Tony Kushner during a ceremony in New York City.

“I was shocked,” Watts says of learning about the award. “It was one of those moments when you think, ‘This can’t be real.’ I had heard about this award for all of my professional life and I never considered it for myself. It’s an introduction to a literary world that you just kind of dream about.”

This is the fourth accolade Watts has received since publishing her short story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need. Last year Watts was awarded the 2012 Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, considered the nation’s most important award for a first work of fiction. She also won The Pushcart Prize for one of the stories in the collection.  We Are Taking Only What We Need also appeared on Oprah Magazine’s summer reading list.

Whiting Award candidates are proposed by nominators from across the country, and winners are chosen by a selection committee comprised of writers, literary scholars and editors. The goal of the awards is to support writers early in their careers so they can focus on their work.

Watts’ collection focuses on questions of post-blackness in the world that hasn’t gotten that memo yet, lost identity when the moorings that anchor the body to the world – faith, family, race – are fractured or broken altogether. The stories feature young, black and poor women living in North Carolina who are smart, but not educated. Their prospects may seem slight, but they want something else. Sometimes they don’t know how to get it. Sometimes they do. They are often visible and invisible at the same time, intrusive but unable to understand how they feel.

While Watts’ stories are fiction, they draw upon her personal experiences growing up in rural Lenoir, N.C., in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and working as a Jehovah’s Witness minister. Watts spent many years preaching door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness.

After its 2011 release, We Are Taking Only What We Need received critical acclaim as well. Publishers Weekly called the collection “a strong debut” that “demands tribute,” and Booklist hailed the book as “striking,” “witty,” and “accomplished,” while praising Watts as a “talent to watch.”