Latina Wins 2007 Rona Jaffe Award

Alma García says she has always wanted to be writer. “I was one of those peculiar seven-year-olds who, when asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I would frequently answer, Oh, just writing a book.”

Now, as the 37-year-old winner of a national award that will allow her to finish her first novel, she says. “When I’m feeling grandiose, I like to think of myself as the literary love child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Flannery O’Connor. And my admiration of Sandra Cisneros goes without saying.”

As a recipient of the 2007 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards, her longtime dream is one step closer to becoming a reality. “At first, I was astonished when I found out I was selected because there is no application process, selection is by secret nomination. As for how I felt about winning, astonishment applies once again, as well as dumbfounded elation,” says García.

Established in 1995 by author Rona Jaffe, who passed in 2005 and had written 16 books, including the best-selling novel The Best of Everything, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards is the only national literary awards program established exclusively to encourage and support women writers.

Each of the six winners receives an award of $25,000; and having just celebrated its thirteenth year, the program has awarded more than $750,000 to 86 women writers. Past winners who have gone on to complete books and receive wider recognition include Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004); ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books, 2003); poet Tracy K. Smith, Duende (Graywolf Press, 2007); and Asali Solomon, author of the short-story collection Get Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

“Rona Jaffe has left an important and meaningful legacy. She felt that women writers face many obstacles in the pursuit of their creative work…” says Beth McCabe, director of the program. “Many recipients will be able to take significant time off from their work to concentrate exclusively on their writing — in some cases, up to two years.”

Most of the award winners have yet to publish their first book, although they received some early attention for their work. García, a  native of Albuquerque, N.M., is still working on the manuscript of her first novel, which is tentatively titled Shallow Waters. Her story, as she describes it, follows the harrowing year in the lives of the DuPre and Gonzalez families in El Paso after the disappearance of the mother, Rose Marie DuPre. Organizers were not certain whether Garcia is the first Latina to win.

“Although there is nothing strictly autobiographical in this novel, its setting is a world I know well, and whose issues and everyday realities are near and dear to my heart — the border city of El Paso, Texas,” says Garcia. “This was my childhood home, prior to my twenty-year tenure in Albuquerque. My extended family still resides there, and we have roots that go back many generations.”

“Thus, over my lifetime, I’ve developed an enormous interest in what happens at the confluence of different worlds, when the boundaries between realities are blended and blurred — on a political as well as on a personal level,” she adds. “In this day and age, of course, the politics of the border are of more importance than ever. Yet it wasn’t until I moved to the Northwest that I was able to get enough psychological distance to view this world with a fresh eye, and to find the human stories that I hope will bring it to life.”

García received a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1993. She began her career as a journalist right out of college, working for a variety of regional travel and metropolitan magazines, before going on to become a reporter and senior editor for the Weekly Alibi, Albuquerque’s weekly, independent newspaper. She was also a reporter and columnist for the Santa Fe Reporter, another independent publication.

As a journalist, she says she “always had a special love for the arts, literature (naturally), and the offbeat human-interest stories that lie at the underbelly of polite society.”

She pursued a master’s degree at the University of Arizona, and received an MFA in creative writing in 1999. She moved to Seattle in 2001, where she now resides and works part time at Secret Garden Books, an independent bookstore, and teaches writing classes at the Richard Hugo House, a nonprofit community center.

García has published several short stories in literary journals: Boulevard (as a winner of the Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers), Passages North and Narrative Magazine. She is also a past winner of the Dana Award in Short Fiction.

“Originally, this novel was conceived as a series of linked short stories, but not long after I received the award, I reached the conclusion that my completed manuscript was really a novel trapped in a short-story collection. And so, I have set sail again, and I am in the process of transforming the book completely. I hope to have a new, completed draft by fall of this year.”

–Clarence V. Reynolds

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