Three Columbia Writers Win American Academy of Arts and Letters Awards

Ijaaz Noohu
March 30, 2016

Three members of the School of the Arts community have received 2016 American Academy of Arts and Letters. Poet Henri Cole ’82 won the Award of Merit Medal, which carries a $25,000 prize, and fiction writer Rachel Kushner ’01 won the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, which carries a $20,000 prize; both graduated from the Writing Program. Theatre Professor Lynn Nottage received an Arts and Letters Award in Literature, which carries a $10,000 prize.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters was established in 1898 to, in the words of the organization, "foster, assist, and sustain an interest in literature, music, and the fine arts." According to the awards’ press release, the Academy’s 250 members suggest candidates for the annual awards, from whose suggestions and a rotating committee of writers selects the winners. This year, John Guare, Sharon Olds, Anne Tyler, Rosanna Warren and Joy Williams judged the awards. A total of $550,000 are offered to selected writers.

Nottage received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for Master American Dramatist and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize earlier this year for her most recent play, Sweat, which opened in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was also nominated for a Kennedy Center Prize. She has also received Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship, among other honors.

Cole previously received the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome Prize, as well as the Berlin Prize, the Jackson Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He has taught at Ohio State University, Harvard University and Yale University.

Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers (Scribner), a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and many other prizes. Her first book, Telex from Cuba (Scribner), was also a National Book Award finalist, making her the only writer ever to be nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction for both a first and second novel. She was a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and recently released a book of short fiction, The Strange Case of Rachel K. (New Directions).