Eyes on the prize

Boulder author Marcia Douglas wins major fiction award

CU Boulder professor Marcia Douglas is among 10 emerging writers recently awarded a $50,000 literary prize through the Whiting Foundation. Photo courtesy the author.

It was a run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning in Boulder for author and longtime University of Colorado professor Marcia Douglas — until it wasn’t. After ignoring a string of assumed spam calls from an unknown number, she got an email from Courtney Hodell, director of literary programs for the New York City-based Whiting Foundation, with an urgent message: Please call me. 

“It was early in the morning, Boulder time, so I was trying to be discreet and not wake up the rest of my household,” Douglas recalls. “And she said, ‘Congratulations. We’re honoring you with a Whiting Award.’ It was really great news on a very cold February morning. My husband said it felt a bit supernatural or something.”

The honor bestowed on Douglas places the local fiction writer among elite company. Past winners include then-emerging literary heavyweights like the late David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) alongside rising contemporaries like Esmé Weijun Wang (The Collected Schizophrenias) and Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror). It also comes with a $50,000 cash prize — no small detail for an artist at any point in their career.  

“[The Whiting Awards] recognize exceptional talent and accomplishment, but they’re also a vote of confidence for the future,” says Hodell, whose winter morning phone call sent shock waves throughout the Douglas house. “A lot of awards are a prize for a certain book … [but] this is a little bit more about what’s ahead. It’s intended to give writers the resources to do the next great thing.” 

Instead of soliciting applications for the prize, recipients are selected by a panel of six anonymous judges — they might be editors, writers, teachers or critics — who are experts in their fields. This process has to date netted a total $9.5 million to 370 fiction and nonfiction writers, playwrights and poets since 1985. Other 2023 winners include Mia Chung (drama), Linda Kinstler (nonfiction), Tommye Blount (poetry) and seven other writers working across various genres and disciplines. 

But when it comes to Douglas, whose latest book The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim was reissued in 2018 by New Directions, Hodell says the judges were struck by the Jamaica-raised author’s “polyphonic virtuosity” in unpacking her home country’s proud and painful story.

“There’s a kind of musical power to her writing. She’s able to write so many characters — even in a page, she can make you understand someone’s history and their future,” Hodell says. “It’s like being plunged into a world. You’re completely enveloped by it.”

The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim is available in paperback via New Directions Publishing.

A space for stories 

There weren’t many books lying around Douglas’ childhood home in Kingston, Jamaica — but her experience there was essential to the writer she would become. What the budding wordsmith lacked in bound volumes, those rare objects Douglas cherished like precious gems, she made up for by immersing herself in a rich oral tradition. 

“My father was a preacher, and I think that was a really great early apprenticeship for me,” Douglas says. “He would sometimes preach on country street corners, very dramatic. A lot of that had to do with storytelling.” 

That penchant for stories followed Douglas on her education journey to the United States, even though her first undergrad studies were in biology. Sitting through labs and lectures, she often found herself doodling in the margins of her notebook as the call of creative writing began to ring out like a distant bell. She would follow that sound through an MFA at Ohio State University and a Ph.D. at Binghamton University in New York, before landing on the Front Range as a professor in the English department at CU Boulder in 2001.

“Now I teach creative writing and I understand something of the importance of that space,” Douglas says. “Because I did fall into the right hands, and I realized that I flourished in this space where it wasn’t about necessarily having the right answer, but where my ideas and creativity were valued.” 

That sense of recognized value is a rare one for many working in creative fields, which is part of what the Whiting Awards seek to correct. As the dust settles from the life-changing call Douglas made on that cold February morning, she reflects not only on what the honor means for the material realities of her writing life that began on the rural street corners of Jamaica, but on the spiritual salve of being seen — and what that might mean for future work.

“For us folks in the arts, we don’t always receive that sort of recognition, necessarily, or support. It’s hard to come by. So an award like this is actually huge. For a writer, time and space is invaluable. That’s what we feed off of,” she says. “It’s [also] incredibly important to feel validated and understand that what you’re doing is appreciated. That gives you more energy moving forward, when you know you have readers and a support system who appreciate what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to put out there.”

Previous articleYou can go home again
Next articleAll the small things