Passion for writing uncovers heritage

Jaffe Award to give author time to write dream book

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With a major project written but not published and a book far from finished, former journalist Inara Verzemnieks of Iowa City thought she was unknown in literary circles.

She was wrong.

The University of Iowa graduate student has won a $30,000 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, so now that book inside her head and heart will get written.

“It’s an incredible honor,” says Verzemnieks, 38, on track to receive a master of fine arts degree from the UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program in May.

Each year since 1995, the Jaffe Foundation has bestowed awards on six promising female writers in fiction, non-fiction or poetry, based on recommendations from its scouting network.

Author Rona Jaffe penned 16 books, including the 1958 best-seller “The Best of Everything.” She established the award 10 years before her death in 2005, to help emerging female authors free up time and finances to pursue their projects.

The award came “like a bolt out of the blue,” Verzemnieks says. She traveled to New York in late September to accept the prize.

“It’s just an incredible boost to one’s confidence,” she says. “You’re working away anonymously in front of your computer screen, and then all of a sudden, you realize that not only have you been read, but you’re being believed in.”

Verzemnieks hasn’t always worked anonymously. As a feature writer for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, her writing garnered attention. She was a finalist for a 2007 Pulitzer Prize, based on her work written the previous year.

She thinks two current projects, however, caught the Jaffe network’s eye — a project waiting to be published, about a community of homeless people who had lived at a rest stop outside Portland, and a book waiting to be finished, about Latvian exiles through the years, anchored by her family’s experiences during World War II.

“These were projects that represented an immersion in lives and worlds that perhaps were on the periphery,” she says.

Her 13 years at the Portland newspaper gave her solid footing, but Verzemnieks felt compelled to head back to school to further develop her voice and craft.

“I began to sense that I wanted to broaden the kind of writing I was doing, that I wanted to push myself,” she says. “I did want to grow and change as a writer. I didn’t want to keep coasting on things I felt like I could do. I wanted to push that and stretch.”

Research led her to the UI, where she began her studies in August 2010.

“Discovering the really incredible writers coming out the non-fiction program convinced me this is the place I wanted to go, to be surrounded by people who really inspire me,” she says.

Writing is such a huge umbrella for genres, but her years in journalism flamed her passion for fact over fiction.

“The sweetest moments throughout my career were the moments when I would be sitting on someone’s sofa in someone’s living room, as life was going on all around me. I would think I was so privileged — I get to witness this. It was that sense of being able to go behind the scenes, to be able to be there when sometimes the most intense or even the most mundane things were happening in people’s lives, and that I could be present for that,” she says.

“That’s still something I feel — something that’s incredible about non-fiction,” she says, as well as the way the genre “asks you to engage deeply in the world around you.”

“It asks you to pay attention, to look, to listen and to really try to see past the surface of things,” she says. “That’s a pretty incredible charge.”

She has begun digging deep within her own past, well below the surface, to chronicle the exile of her Latvian family, told through the eyes of two sisters: her grandmother who fled for survival, and her great-aunt who stayed on the family farm until banished to Siberia. From their stories will spring a larger look at Latvians forcibly separated from their homeland, yet desperate to stay connected to their land.

Verzemnieks grew up in a Latvian enclave in Tacoma, Wash. She lived for years with her grandparents, who spoke Latvian in their home. Immersed in her heritage, Verzemnieks attended Latvian school on the weekends

Finally at age 36, she made her first trip to the small republic on Northern Europe’s Baltic Sea, among the first to break away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Verzemnieks worried that she wasn’t “Latvian enough,” since her mother wasn’t of that heritage, but felt immediately at home there.

Her grandparents are deceased, so she has begun capturing the stories of her grandmother’s sister and other relatives, through several summer trips.

“I have returned to end my own exile from that history, from these unspoken stories,” she says, “ ... gathering a deeper sense of what was lost.”

With the Jaffe award money, she’ll be able to return there next summer to “burrow deep down into” the book that has grabbed her soul. Her husband of 18 years, a paraeducator who has joined her there before, will spend a good deal of the summer visiting his relatives in Wales, but will “pop over” to Latvia on occasion while Verzemnieks furthers her research in earnest.

“That’s why this award is such an incredible, incredible thing,” she says, “because it will allow me to take some time and really focus on that, and hopefully be able to spend more time — to be able to write the book I dream of and envision.”

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