Books

Eve Ewing's exploration of race relations earns 2020 Paul Engle Prize

Eve Ewing has been named this year's Paul Engle Prize by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. Ewing is an assistant
Eve Ewing has been named this year’s Paul Engle Prize by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. Ewing is an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and works in a variety of literature forms including poetry, non-fiction, drama and comics. (Nolis Anderson)
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The Iowa City Book Festival, which is put on by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, moved online this year — including the presentation of the Paul Engle Prize to Dr. Eve Ewing. Ewing will be recognized at a special ceremony at 7 p.m. Monday. The event is free, but registration is available at www.crowdcast.io/e/engleprize-ewing.

Ewing is the 10th winner of the Engle Prize. Paul Engle was a Cedar Rapids native, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop director, and co-founder of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. The award honors writers who demonstrate a pioneering spirit in the world of literature and a commitment to engaging with the issues of the day. It comes with a $15,000 cash award and a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Ewing, an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, works in a variety of forms, including poetry, non-fiction, drama and comics. Her most recent poetry collection, “1919,” explores a race riot in Chicago during the summer of that year. She also is author of the non-fiction work “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side,” and is the co-author with Nate Marshall of the play “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks.” She currently writes the Champions series for Marvel Comics and previously wrote the acclaimed Ironheart series.

John Kenyon, director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, said the selection committee for the Engle Prize is composed of current and past board members. They look at submissions made from the public along with their own list of writers under consideration. From there they narrow that list down until a winner is selected.

“For several of the now 10 winners of this prize, we have identified someone fairly early in their career who is doing exemplary work beyond the page, and have used the prize to shine a light on that work and as a way to tell this person, please keep doing this, keep using your voice and your talents to make a difference in the world. We have recognized some writers with truly impressive resumes when it comes this work,” Kenyon said.

“I would say Dr. Ewing’s resume is at the staggeringly impressive end of that spectrum, and that is saying a lot considering her peers as Engle Prize winners. She obviously has used her writing to educate and advocate, and has done so in nearly every way imaginable — poetry, non-fiction, theater, comics, and more — but she has gone beyond that to be a true voice on behalf of marginalized populations. Her work as an educator, a public personality, a podcaster and more all contributed to our decision to award her this year’s prize,” he said.

He said he has no doubt that all of the authors who have won the prize in the past, will continue to win awards for their writing. But each of the Engle Prize winners go beyond their writings.

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“(E) ach of them has taken time beyond that spend putting words on a page to make the world a better place. Taking nothing away from writers for whom that is the primary focus, for these writers, writing is among the things they do, and at times it might not even be the most important thing or the effort with the greatest impact,” Kenyon said.

Kenyon said he hopes to schedule a virtual workshop with Ewing with the Iowa Youth Writing Project, which has been a tradition for prize winners, and to eventually get her to Iowa City to celebrate in person.

There was never any question of not choosing a winner this year.

“We decided to go on with the prize this year because the work being done by the writers under consideration is perhaps more necessary than ever, and we felt it was important to convey that,” Kenyon said.

I spoke with Ewing about her work last work.

Q: You work in such a variety of forms and I wonder what you see as the through-line for your work. What, for example, connects your poetry to your work in comics? Or your work for the stage and your non-fiction work?

A: For sure. I move from genre to genre as a way of using whatever tools seem best to answer the question at hand or tell the story that I’m trying to tell. But I see all of my work as connected by some uniting threads and questions: why is the world the way it is? How can we imagine it otherwise? Black feminism, afrofuturism, and the lives of young people are also crucial themes that I try to explore.

Q: How would you say this remarkable collision of a public health emergency, a rising up around issues of race and justice, and the divisiveness of the nation has affected your writing, teaching and advocacy?

A: I’m very tired. I’m very overwhelmed. I’m mentally, emotionally and cognitively exhausted and my capacities are really inhibited. I’m in mourning and frustrated by our society’s disinterest in making space for mourning. More and more I am trying to return to what Black feminist thought — thinking here of Audre Lorde as one obvious example — has to teach us about the necessity of basic care, of making sure that we are taking care of ourselves and one another.

I am asserting my right to care for myself, not only as a functional necessity — because I really can’t go on making work or teaching if I am not fed and if I don’t sleep and if my mental health is at risk — but actually as a political claim, a political intervention. I’m trying to demand a world that centers care.

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Q: I have a devoted teenage reader of the Champions comic in my house. What can she expect from your run on the title?

A: Tell her I said thanks a lot! I hope she likes it. I hope to provoke interesting questions about what it means for young people to take leadership, and also about the ways that the different positions they occupy in society — based on race, gender, citizenship, personhood — inform the ways that these teen heroes understand their roles and how they face risk.

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