Excerpts of new work by graduates of UVA’s creative writing program
Since UVA’s MFA in Creative Writing program graduated its first class in 1982, its alumni have won Pushcart Prizes, Stegner Fellowships, the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, the Rome Prize Fellowship and other awards. The program, which each year accepts 10 students—five in fiction, five in poetry—from an average of 600 total applications, is consistently ranked among the top 10 in the nation. Jeb Livingood, the program’s associate director, has kept a record of all alumni books published since he started his job in 2011. Here is a selection of recent and forthcoming works from creative writing alumni, with a sampling from the first page of each.
by Greg Jackson (Grad ’13)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2016
The characters in Jackson’s collection are hyperintelligent and lost—searching for something greater than themselves. In the first story, friends throw a final, debaucherous party.
We ate well: cassoulets, steak frites, squid-ink risotto with porcini, spices from Andhra Pradesh, Kyoto, Antwerp. Of course we drank: pure agaves, rye whiskeys, St-Germain, old Scotch. We spent our hot December afternoons next to the custom saltwater pool or below the parasols of palm fronds, waiting, I suppose, to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity, to return to a place from which we could begin again.
This was a few years ago in Palm Springs, at the end of a very forgettable year.
by Safiya Sinclair (Grad ’14)
University of Nebraska Press, September 2016
The poems in this book, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, concern childhood in Jamaica (where Sinclair was raised) and explore what it means to be a black woman in America. In March, Sinclair received a 2016 Whiting Award.
Have I forgotten it—
wild conch-shell dialect,
black apostrophe curled
tight on my tongue?
Or how the Spanish built walls
of broken glass to keep me out
but the Doctor Bird kept chasing
and raking me in: This place
is your place, wreathed in red
Sargassum, ancient driftwood
nursed on the pensive sea.
by Lee Clay Johnson (Grad ’11)
Knopf, May 2016
Johnson’s novel, set in contemporary Appalachia, follows a cohort of charming, hapless people who, as one character says, “are guilty of the same strange cruelties, hurting ourselves to hurt the other, then crawling back and asking forgiveness.”
We were sitting in my truck in front of the diner she was working at. Greg, her boss, had everybody convinced he was a genius.
“He’s really smart,” Jennifer said. “You know what he told me yesterday while I was in the kitchen?” I rolled down the window and let in the cold air. She took face powder from the glove box, bent the rearview at her face and dusted her nose. Headlights came flickering from way behind us. “You don’t even care,” she said.
“I care,” I said.“I’d like to kick his ass.” The headlights were getting closer.
by Sjohnna McCray (Grad ’97)
Graywolf Press, April 2016
The poems in McCray’s first book, winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, tell the story of McCray’s father, an American soldier, meeting McCray’s mother, a “comfort woman,” during the Vietnam War.
“Father & Son by Window”
You sing, soft winds & blue seat.
Of course you get the lyrics wrong. Dinah sings, soft winds & blue sea.
Dinah will wait near shore for him. Father on his chair
underneath the shower’s spray. Tonight, you flip the night
as if it were a card. You scrub his back,
move briskly through the arms. You match the constellations
each to a different longing. So light you’re hefting nothing.
The Body Distances (A Hundred Blackbirds Rising)
by Mark Wagenaar (Grad ’10)
University of Massachusetts Press, April 2016
With his second book of poems, Juniper Prize for Poetry winner Wagenaar has drawn comparisons to Walt Whitman for his odes to a complicated world.
“The Body Distances (Still-Life with Everything in the World)”
&ellip;to the first page of the Book of Little Miracles as a child awakens
from a coma to an Adele song. Turn the page, & a doctor pores over
a man’s chart, trying to understand how his heart grew an extra vessel.
Then a photo falls from the book: a miner wrapped in a Chilean flag,
half-carried into his first sunlight in sixty-eight days. Another photo:
the heavily bandaged face of the woman who survived the bullet’s tear
through her brain. A perfect channel the exact size of the bullet
had formed twenty-two years ago in the womb, a defect
if anyone had noticed.
by Gina Wohlsdorf (Grad ’13)
Algonquin Books, June 2016
Wohlsdorf’s first book, set in a luxurious and isolated resort, is a thriller in the vein of works by Daphne Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King.
The hotel is straight and monolithic, a stark white block on a flat stretch of Santa Barbara beach. … It’s visible from the Pacific Coast Highway but only just. The driveway is quite long so as to accommodate the hedge maze, which is the size of half a football field, and it is darkening now, in the hotel’s shadow.
Dear Fang, With Love
by Rufi Thorpe (Grad ’09)
Knopf, May 2016
In Thorpe’s second novel, a father takezs his teenage daughter, Vera, to his ancestral home of Lithuania after she suffers a psychotic break. Part of the narrative is told through Vera’s letters to her boyfriend, Fang.
At this moment, we are mental twins. We are each alone, two discrete meat skeletons separated by space, cut off from each other by time, one of us reading a note, the other one writing it, yet we are finally together. Whenever you read this, even if it is years from now, though probably it will be only a few days since I hid this in your underwear drawer, but whenever you do find it: You will be inside my mind because you are reading and I am writing the exact same words. For just a moment, you are not Fang. You are me.
by Emma Rathbone (Grad ’06)
Riverhead, July 2016
Rathbone’s second novel, which takes place over one summer in North Carolina, centers on a former competitive swimmer who is deeply anxious about being a virgin in her mid-20s.
Chelsea Maitland. She was my first friend to lose her virginity. She was fifteen. She told me about it one afternoon on her parents’ remodeled back deck after school. The railings were made of a bright white vinyl that hurt my eyes. … “How did it feel?” I asked. I focused on the laid-back ceramic frog with an outdoor thermometer in it. “I couldn’t say,” said Chelsea, with a little smile, her face folded and smug. … Chelsea Maitland of all people. ... The implication beneath our friendship had always been that I was the special one.
That I would always be the one to get the thing.