"Esmé Weijun Wang sends out revelatory dispatches from an under-mapped land, shot like arrows in all directions from a taut bow of a mind. ... Her work changes the way we think about illness -- which is to say that it changes us."
Wang, who won for nonfiction, told me that winning in that genre was a huge part of what the award meant for her. She won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2016 for her book The Collected Schizophrenias, which earned her the Whiting as well, but the book won’t be out for another year. Wang told me, "I never really intended to become an essayist or nonfiction writer or so when I won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, it almost felt like a fluke. Once this happened, I kind of had to reckon with myself."
For an emerging writer, especially the bold and experimental voices the award tends to honor, recognition itself is hugely powerful. And the Whitings are positioned to make the most impact possible. There are plenty of awards that are announced dramatically at a ceremony, Oscars-style. There are plenty of awards where the winners know they’ve won in advance and the ceremony is, well, ceremonial. But rarely do the two coincide. Whiting Award winners are notified months in advance, and then they have to keep one of the biggest secrets of their lives. The secret and the surprise build the award’s cachet, which is all part of the boost the foundation wants to give these writers: money to work and name recognition.