University of Pittsburgh
December 19, 2016

2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship

Lauren Russell, a research assistant professor of English at Pitt, is writing a book based on her family history

Anthony Moore


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PITTSBURGH—Lauren Russell, assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, has been awarded a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Through the fellowship—which carries a monetary award of $25,000—Russell plans to further develop a book-length work, tentatively titled Descent.

Russell is one of only 37 writers in the nation to receive the NEA’s Creative Writing Fellowship in 2017. The fellowships are the Lauren Russellorganization’s most direct investment in American creativity. The fellowship program is designed to encourage ascending writers to produce new works of literature and gives fellows the means, space, and time to develop individual projects.

Descent is a hybrid work of poems, lyrical essays, images, and documents. The project began when Russell acquired a copy of the diary of her great-great-grandfather, Robert Wallace Hubert, in 2013. Hubert was a captain in the Confederate Army who returned to East Texas after the Civil War and had children with three of his former slaves, who were also sisters. One of those children was Russell’s great-grandmother.

“I want to give a voice to my great-great-grandmother, Peggy, and her sisters, Black women who have been silenced by history,” said Russell, who also serves as a research assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of English within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “Descent is an investigation, a reclamation, and an insistence on making history as a creative act. The NEA Fellowship was a huge surprise, and I can’t say how much it means to have this vote of confidence in my work.”

The NEA’s support has helped pave the way for some of the most acclaimed works of contemporary literature written in the past 50 years. Commercially and critically acclaimed novels connected with the fellowship have included Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Since 1990, 83 of the 141 American recipients of the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction were previous NEA Literature Fellows.

Russell’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press, 2017) will be published in the spring of 2017. She is the author of the chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012), and her work can be found in the forthcoming anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 as well as the literary journals The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others.

Russell’s work has been recognized widely. Most recently, she received a 2016 VIDA Fellowship from The Home School, and she was the 2014-15 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Russell also is a fellow of the Cave Canem Retreat for African American Poets, which is a part of the Cave Canem Foundation, a nonprofit literary services organization cofounded by Pitt English Professor Emerita Toi Derricotte.

Russell earned an MFA degree at Pitt in 2014.