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Two Georgetown Professors Receive Prestigious Whiting Award for Fiction, Nonfiction

The Lannan Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing Tope Folarin and the Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Planetary Science Sarah Stewart Johnson were selected for the Whiting Award as emerging writers in fiction and nonfiction respectively. The professors were recognized at the virtual 36th Anniversary Award Ceremony last week.

Each year, the Whiting Foundation gives $50,000 each to ten diverse authors who show promise in their fields. These monetary prizes are given to the awardees so that they may “devote themselves full-time to their own writing, or to take bold new risks in their work.”

Tope Folarin

Tope Folarin

Folarin’s book A Particular Kind of Black Man was chosen for the Whiting Award in the category of fiction. The committee described the author as “an engrossing storyteller, [who] crafts marvelous sentences that act as a clear pane of glass through which one glimpses an upside-down world.”

A Nigerian-American writer based in Washington, DC, Folarin served as the writer in residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice in 2014 and is now an adjunct lecturer in the Department of English at the university. 

The author won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 and was shortlisted once again in 2016. He was also recently named a writer to watch by the New York Times.

Folarin serves as Vice President of Content and Storytelling at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Policy Studies. He was educated at Morehouse College and the University of Oxford, where he earned two Masters degrees as a Rhodes Scholar. 

The accomplished writer says that this award means the world to him. 

“I’m especially pleased I received it while serving as the Lannan Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing here at Georgetown,” Folarin explains. “I wrote parts of my novel while I was a writer in residence here back in 2014, and the Lannan Center and English department have supported my work in various ways since then. I’m also elated that Sarah won a Whiting as well—her book is amazing and she’s doing such essential work. It’s an honor to be included in this lineup with her.”

Sarah Stewart Johnson 

Sarah Stewart Johnson

Johnson’s debut work of nonfiction, The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World, was selected as a Whiting Award winner for the category of nonfiction. 

“Though the subject of Sarah Stewart Johnson’s work is Mars, the life in her brilliantly realized book resides on Earth,” the committee writes. “The book’s images and metaphors take up residence in our minds and burn there, connecting scientific inquiry with deep questions about human existence.”

The Sirens of Mars was also chosen as a New York Times Editor’s Choice and selected as one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2020. 

Principal investigator of the Johnson Biosignatures Lab at Georgetown, Johnson’s research is driven by the underlying goal of understanding the presence and preservation of biosignatures within planetary environments. The lab is also involved in the implementation of planetary exploration, through both the analysis of data from current spacecraft as well as devising new techniques for future missions. 

A former Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow, she received her Ph.D. from MIT and has worked on NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity Rovers. She is also a visiting scientist with the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. At Georgetown, she holds a dual appointment in the Department of Biology and the Science, Technology, and International Affairs Program.

The professor says that receiving the Whiting Award caught her completely off-guard. 

“I never would have dreamed of receiving an award like this,” she explains. “I’m deeply grateful to the Whiting Foundation for the vote of confidence in my work, and I’m especially pleased and honored to be recognized with Tope, whose talent for writing is astonishing, and with the other eight remarkable award recipients.”

More About the Award

The Whiting Awards were established by the Whiting Foundation in 1985 and remain one of the most esteemed and largest monetary gifts to emerging writers. They are given to recognize early-career achievement and empower recipients to fulfill the promise of exceptional literary work to come. A total of $8.5 million has been awarded to 360 fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, and playwrights to date. 

“In a year of singular difficulty, these writers accessed joy, honoring past voices in their own family histories, and in the culture,” said Courtney Hodell, Director of Literary Programs. “To a striking degree, they move fluidly across restrictive genre borderlines to create a vibrant picture of new writing in this country.” 

-by Shelby Roller (G’19)