Celebrating 15 Years of The Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
The Rona Jaffe Foundation, established by celebrated author Rona Jaffe (1931 – 2005) to support other women writers at critical moments in their literary careers, recently marked its 15th year funding a Graduate Fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (IWW). The fellowship provides essential financial support to emerging female artists as they deepen their craft and bring their work into the world.
The Workshop’s list of recipients is truly exceptional and includes writers who have enjoyed global recognition. Vauhini Vara (MFA ’10) credits the Rona Jaffe Foundation for supporting her through her earliest days at the IWW. “I remember driving into Iowa City, passing the rolling green hills, the river, the charming town. I was so fortunate to be in this incredible program and to have it fully funded. I felt so grateful that someone was paying me to write every day.” Having previously juggled her job reporting for the Wall Street Journal with an independent writing life, the time in the IWW allowed Vara to devote herself singularly to her work and be part of a thriving literary community.
As a student, Vara worked closely with visiting faculty member Elizabeth McCracken, who saw the earliest draft of Vara’s first novel, The Immortal King Rao, and encouraged her to continue writing after she graduated. “It took more than ten years to finish, and throughout the whole time I had a letter from Elizabeth with her feedback. She told me to keep going, to write, and write, and write some more.” Upon publication by W.W. Norton, The Immortal King Rao achieved international acclaim, being named a notable book of the year by the New York Times, NPR, Esquire and Vox, being selected for the short-list of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and winning the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize and Alta Magazine’s Rosebud Award for Fiction. Vara has since completed her first short story collection, This is Salvaged, which she describes as “about really close relationships—or the way people try to be close to one another and then mess it up.” This Is Salvaged is forthcoming in September 2023.
"The Foundation made it possible for me to step into this life as a writer, to be a writer in all the ways I’d imagined, to take myself and my craft more seriously."
Similarly, Monica West (MFA ’17) felt the Rona Jaffe Fellowship to be a foundational moment in her emergence as a writer. “I went from having a full-time job teaching high school English to being fully funded,” says West. “It validated the writing that I’d been doing in secret before coming to Iowa. It let me focus completely on my project. The Foundation made it possible for me to step into this life as a writer, to be a writer in all the ways I’d imagined, to take myself and my craft more seriously.” West worked with storied teachers including Ayana Mathis, Paul Harding and Margot Livesey on her first novel. Lan Samantha Chang, herself a recipient of a 1998 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and current IWW director, spoke at graduation in 2017 and encouraged West’s class to “give themselves permission to call themselves writers.” This ongoing encouragement helped West finish Revival Season, which was described as “a standout debut” by The Boston Globe and made her a “writer to watch” according to The Seattle Times.
The Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellowships, focused directly on supporting emerging women writers, have been pivotal in building solidarity among the recipients. Delaney Nolan (MFA ’16) describes the importance of the Fellowship during her time in the IWW. “Having a community of other women writers was very meaningful to me,” she says. “I think about that as a teacher, that keener awareness that female writers belong in the room and made the room, how it’s important to push back on workshops that have sexism folded into them. Having a network of women who were mutually supportive has meant a lot.” After graduating from the program, Nolan completed a Fulbright in Greece and Bulgaria, working at a refugee reception center, and as a journalist her writing has been recognized by the Economic Hardship Reporting Program and the International Women’s Media Foundation. She is currently completing her first novel.
"It’s inspiring to know I’m being supported in the same way that these women writers whom I admire were also supported early in their careers."
Two current Foundation Fellows, Jacquelyn Bengfort (MFA ’23) and Siqi Liu (MFA ’24) are taking the first steps on their own unique literary journeys. Bengfort, mother of two children and former US Navy Officer, has appreciated the enormous gift of time provided by the Fellowship as she works on a poetry collection for her final thesis. “I’ve had, for the first time, broad swathes of hours in which ideas could incubate. I don’t have to rush. What I’m writing now is stranger and feels like it means more. It has room to develop and is supported by a more sophisticated understanding of craft.” To Liu, the recognition of the Foundation is both humbling and invigorating. “It’s inspiring to know I’m being supported in the same way that these women writers whom I admire were also supported early in their careers,” she says. “It reminds me that we are all working within a greater conversation, a greater community. Writing can be a lonely activity, but receiving support from the Foundation and knowing that you are part of a lineage beyond yourself has made it less lonely.” She is currently revising her first book, a speculative novel about technology and desire, as well as a collection of stories that depict the Chinese diasporic experience over several generations.
The Workshop could not do its exemplary work without support from individual and institutional donors like The Rona Jaffe Foundation. It allows IWW to continue to broaden its access and provide important opportunities to deserving students. Beth McCabe, the Foundation’s Executive Director, says, “It has been gratifying to see the Foundation play some role in the development and success of these wonderful emerging women writers but more importantly that their experience at the Workshop has allowed them to build the necessary literary skills and find community among other writers to grow and perfect their craft. Many over the years have said that this opportunity at Iowa was invaluable. We hope to be able to continue this important partnership with the Workshop in the future and hear more from these exceptional writers in years to come.”