Written by MFA in Creative Writing faculty member and nonfiction coordinator Honor Moore
In the winter of 1977, I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time. I had just had my first work – a memoir-as-play called Mourning Pictures – go public on Broadway. It was controversial in those days – written by a woman, about a daughter while her mother is dying of cancer – at that time, both subjects were taboo! The play had been a hit in a Massachusetts summer theatre and closed quickly in New York, and though it was to be published in an anthology, I was having a hard time emerging from what was an up-down whiplash experience. At MacDowell I met a woman writer about eight years older than me – at the time, she seemed much older! – who had just published a memoir of her time in a mental hospital – the book was called W-3.
We became friends – long talks in what I remember as her very dark writing studio – her typewriter in a pool of light. She was the first woman writer to encourage me, and I hadn’t heard from her in years, though I thought of her from time to time. Two years ago, I read on Lit Hub an article about the discovery of a “lost woman writer” who was Bette Howland – I learned that she had not written very much since the 1970s and that she had dementia. “I never lost her,” I said to myself!
I had been wanting to start a prize for a graduating New School MFA nonfiction students for some time – what better name than that of a “lost writer” who had encouraged me the way we try to encourage students here at The New School! I met with Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space – it was she who found a book by Howland in a used book store! I was able to contribute some and raise a bit more money to start the prize – a small cash prize and consideration for publication in A Public Space – and Rebekka Rafnsdóttir is the first winner. As with the Paul Violi Prize, we are starting small with the hope of raising more money as time goes on – our first big event, we hope, will be a celebration of Bette Howland's work with our winner or winners and judge or judges reading. This year the judge was Patricia Hampl, author of the classic memoirs A Romantic Education and Virgin Time.
On choosing Rafnsdóttir for the prize, Hampl writes, "I have chosen the Icelander huntress, Rebekka Rafnsdóttir. The hunting scene and her observational writing are acute and fine. And her attempt to write a real essay in which she tries to make something of these observations - this is what an essay is for. Her ability to work with narrative and reflection showed deep immersion and made me feel I was reading a woman thinking on the page. The whole purpose of personally voiced nonfiction: you have to feel you aren't being told a story, simply, but that the writer is trying to sort something out. Something essential."
There were eight applicants this year; we will announce the prize in the fall and publish some guidelines – I hope very much that the prize will become as distinguished an institution here as the Paul Violi Prize, and that it will in some small way introduce our nonfiction graduates to the larger literary community.
Rebekka Rafnsdóttir is an Icelandic multimedia artist, writer and a film director based in Brooklyn, New York. Her background is in philosophy and literature. In her work - which is often experimental - all aspects of the arts can be found coming together.