Professor Mari Christmas wins Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award

Professor Mari Christmas, winner of the 2020 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award for Fiction

Photo courtesy of ALLEGHENY.EDU

Professor Mari Christmas, winner of the 2020 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award for Fiction

Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Mari Christmas was awarded the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for her work in fiction writing.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation Award was established in 1995, and aimed to give women with promising careers in writing the financial support and encouragement they needed to be successful. The program brings the difficulties women writers face in finding fulfilling careers to the surface and gives them support to find more time to write. This award, unlike many writing awards, did not have an application; a person has to be nominated by someone on the award committee, which is usually made up of people who are successful in the field and often see new writing happening. Nominees are not told how many other people are nominated for the award, nor who nominated them to begin with. Additionally, the nominator does not have to know the nominee personally; they can nominate any writer whose work they may come across, be it in a well-known journal or a small town newspaper. Winner of the award Mari Christmas explained the secrecy surrounding the award.

“I did not know I was a finalist until the end of the spring semester … there is a lot of secrecy in the process,” Christmas said.

According to Department Chair and Associate Professor of English Matt Ferrence, “(the Rona Jaffe Award) is among the most prestigious fellowships that an early-career fiction writer can win.”

Professor Christmas was hired during the fall 2019 semester and did not start teaching at Allegheny until January 2020. Prior to coming to Allegheny, she was finishing her doctorate at the University of Albany while also working as an adjunct professor at Idaho State University. During this time, she also had another child and learned a lot about the struggles that come with balancing her life as a writer and the family she was building. This is another reason, she said, why the award meant so much to her; the grant has allowed her to lessen her teaching load this fall semester and pay for child care so that she can have more time to dedicate to her current novel.

“It tends to be a career-launching prize,” Christmas said. “It makes the writing a lot more possible. It is not a luxurious field, and it does not pay a lot, so having that extra financial support for (early-career women writers) can allow them to finish their project and be recognized by the larger literary community.”

She was nominated for two of her short stories, titled “Baby” and “A Non-Orientable Surface,” the latter of which was published in the New Ohio Review, and additionally when prompted she submitted a work titled “Beam,” which was published in Cosmonauts Avenue.

“(The English Department) was impressed with the haunting depth of the fiction (Christmas) writes,” Ferrence said. “It is realistic fiction that has not so much a supernatural haunting, but a deep sense of how characters’ pasts and presents are intertwining. It is beautiful, emotionally evocative prose… (the Rona Jaffe award) is a really welcome and appropriate recognition.”

Thanks to the support from this award, Christmas hopes to continue work on a novella that stemmed from her dissertation. She is hoping it will turn into a novel and plans to have a complete manuscript by the end of next summer.

“It’s a story of two sisters and their complicated relationship that sort of circles around reproductive experiences and decisions that these women have to make and their haunting effect on their relationship at large, and how they work through that,” Christmas said.

There are also themes of a woman’s right to make decisions, abortion and birth control. The story, while not a biography or memoir, is actually based on real-life events. The characters are often based on situations Christmas herself has faced, but not always the decision she came to; in fact, she finds a lot of inspiration in thinking about how her life would have been different depending on the decisions she made.

“A lot of times, it isn’t something that I have done, but a situation that is like a shadow of something I have felt … It rhymes with life, rather than being a replication of it,” Christmas said.

She also said that having children and having been through the pregnancy process herself is very beneficial in making her writings realistic and relatable.

Ferrence explained that he believes this award says a lot about the high quality of education students receive at Allegheny, and that students can feel assured that they are working with and learning from dedicated writers.

“At Allegheny we have this long tradition and habit of not celebrating ourselves, and not thinking of ourselves as being something,” Ferrence said. “We are humble to a fault as an institution, and every now and then, we need to be rattled out of that humility and recognize that a lot of our faculty and students are (doing extraordinary things) on a daily basis, and that is what Professor Christmas is doing, and what this is a marker for.”