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Substantial Whiting Awards given to 10 up-and-coming writers

October 28, 2009 |  3:58 pm

Each year, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation presents 10 writers with a tremendous boon: the gift of $50,000. The substantial prize is designed to allow these promising authors, all at early stages of  their careers, to focus on their work. And they've got a good record of picking novelists, nonfiction writers, poets and playwrights who go on to produce excellent work, including William T. Vollman, Denis Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace.  

Today the foundation announced the awards at a ceremony in New York. There are two nonfiction writers, three poets, four writers of fiction and one playwright.

Rajiv Joseph, above, is the sole playwright. His "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was staged at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this year; theater critic Charles McNulty wrote, "I'm tempted to call it the most original drama written so far about the Iraq war, but why sell the work short? The imagination behind it is way too thrillingly genre-busting to be confined within such a limiting category." Joseph, then 34, told the L.A. Times, "Any fears about the ambition of this play had more to do with dramaturgy than politics. I've written a surreal story, so that allows me leeway as an artist to explore Iraq in my own way."

Poet Jericho Brownteaches at the University of San Diego; he was a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before getting his PhD in creative writing. Novelist Adam Johnson also teaches in California -- at Stanford -- and won a California Book Award for his 2003 novel, "Parasites Like Us."

Salvatore Scibona's debut, "The End," was nominated for the National Book Award last year. "I think of a writer as a skinny person scraping by on crackers and milk," he told Jacket Copy. "But everybody was served a loin of beef and red wine by waiters in white jackets and black tie."

Today's event may not have included beef, but it did feature Margaret Atwood as the keynote speaker. The other award-winners in attendance were poets Jay Hopler and Joan Kane; Vu Tran and Nami Mun, who write fiction; and nonfiction authors Hugh Raffles and Michael Meyer.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rajiv Joseph, photographed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, May 2009. Credit: Christina House / For The Times