USC Dornsife, Kenyon College and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation are launching a new literary prize.
Greek short story writer Christos Ikonomou will be the first recipient of the Chowdhury Prize for Literature, a $20,000 international prize for outstanding mid-career writers.
“His work exists in the space between the public and the private – or more precisely, in a landscape where the public cannot help but intrude into the private, a zone of inside and outside” , USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences said in a written statement. “His language is by turns direct and lyrical, with a tactile and physical sense of setting and character. It’s remarkable, in every sense of the word.
Ikonomou, born in Athens in 1970 and currently based there, is the author of four collections of short stories: “La femme sur les rails” (2003), “Something Will Happen, You’ll See” (2010), ” Good Will Come from the Sea” (2014) and “Girls from the Volcano” (2017).
The idea for the USC Dornsife Prize came in late 2019, just as the college’s English department was designing the online literary journal. Aerial/Light. “They were both expressions, on the part of the English department, to focus on both publishing initiatives and community – being part of the local, national and international community,” said David Ulin, award administrator and associate professor at USC.
Along with Air/Light, the award is part of the university’s ongoing efforts to raise its profile as a literary center, building on an English department with a growing list of faculty, writers and students renowned talent. The Chowdhury Prize, his first international literary prize, is an attempt to make connections beyond LA, starting with a writer who focuses on working-class people affected by austerity and the Greek financial crisis.
The award is not USC Dornsife’s first collaboration with the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation; in 2019, the college launched the Distinguished Speaker Seriesan annual event that has brought acclaimed authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Zadie Smith to campus.
With the award, “we wanted to recognize Southern California and Los Angeles as literary and cultural centers,” Ulin added, “and participate as a region in the global conversation about literature.”
In a meeting that included Ulin, a former Times editor and book reviewer; David H. Lynn, Editor Emeritus of the Kenyon Review; and David St. John, chair of the English department at USC Dornsife, they wondered, as Ulin recalled, “Wouldn’t it be great if a major literary prize were awarded outside of California? from South ?
The inaugural award jury included some of the nation’s most acclaimed writers and scholars, most with ties to USC and all familiar with the awards: Maggie Nelson, National Book Critics Circle Award winner for “The Argonauts”; Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Sympathizer”; Claudia Rankine, whose laurels for “Citizen: An American Lyric” include an NBCC award; Arthur Sze, translator and poet whose collection “Sight Lines” won a National Book Award; and Ulin, whose anthology “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology” won a California Book Award.
At a meeting in the summer of 2020, each judge presented three writers for the group to consider. The initial list of 15 writers was narrowed down in discussions to just one: Ikonomou.
“David [Ulin] and the judges were truly dedicated to selecting a writer both of immediate importance to their country but also to the global dialogue on human affairs at this time in history,” St. John said.
The prize money had to be substantial enough to make a difference in a writer’s life and advance their work. Equally important was the ability to draw the attention of a wider audience to a mid-career author.
“We hope the award will support writers of outstanding achievement who may not yet have had the fame and glory they deserve,” Lynn said.
Last June, Ikonomou was writing to his office when he learned he had won the top Chowdhury award. “I felt very excited, of course, and was quick to share the news with my wife, Julia,” he said in an email. Few days ago, the yale review published one of his stories. “I had two good news from the United States at the same time. It was really amazing.
Ikonomou said he plans to use the prize money to travel to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, and do research; this will be the setting for one of his next books.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for a writer to have their work supported in such a generous and meaningful way,” he added in the email.
In the coming months, the judges – who have signed up for a two-year term – will meet again to discuss the nominees for the 2023 award.
There is no nomination or application process for the award.