Alumna Rachel Swearingen wins Rona Jaffe writers' award

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Photo of Dr. Rachel Swearingen.

Swearingen: Photo courtesty of Mary Whalen.

KALAMAZOO—Dr. Rachel Swearingen, a Western Michigan University alumna, is among six women to receive this year's Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award.

Created by the late novelist Rona Jaffe, the prestigious award recognizes the contributions women writers make to culture and society. It comes with a $30,000 grant and stands as the only national literary prize of its kind devoted exclusively to women, according the foundation.

Foundation officials say Jaffe created the program in 1995 to identify and support women writers who possess "unusual talent and promise" at early stages of their careers. The six award recipients will be feted during a private ceremony in New York City on Sept. 20.

Swearingen, still astounded by the honor for which she was anonymously nominated, says the prize will allow her to focus on completing a novel she's been developing.

"That's huge, because my biggest hurdle has been finding the time to work on a larger project and finish a book," says Swearingen, who just began an academic-year appointment as a visiting professor at Kalamazoo College. Once her appointment has ended, Swearingen plans to turn to her novel in earnest.

A Kalamazoo resident for about seven years, she moved to the area from Seattle to pursue a doctorate in creative writing at WMU. While there, Swearingen spent a few years as editor of Third Coast, a national literary magazine based at the University.

Her own works of short fiction have been published in several literary magazines, such as AGNI, The Missouri Review and the Mississippi Review. More recently, she had another short story accepted for publication by The Kenyon Review and next year, she'll have a piece featured in the anthology "New Stories from the Midwest."

It was Swearingen's body of work that inspired an anonymous admirer to nominate her for the Jaffe prize. She wasn't even aware of the nomination until a letter from the foundation arrived in the mail last spring informing her that she was a nominee and a finalist for the award. The foundation's letter also asked that she submit a writing sample and Swearingen later learned that she was one of the six writers selected.

"I didn't expect to be chosen because the letter notifying me that I had been nominated was very clear that my chances would be slim," she says.

Receiving the award has been a confidence booster. "Any writer who has been writing for a long time has experienced a lot of rejection," Swearingen says.

She credits WMU's creative writing program, in part, for developing her talent and in particular praises her faculty mentors, such as the celebrated novelist Jaimy Gordon, professor emerita of English and 2010 recipient of the National Book Award for fiction.

Too few people realize "how good Western's writing program is, and how many great writers have come out of it because of its phenomenal teachers," says Swearingen, who isn't the only WMU alumna to have won a Jaffe prize.

Author Kellie Wells, who received her doctorate in English from WMU in 1999 and today teaches at the University of Alabama, also won the award in 2002.