Former Yale students Hansol Jung DRA’14 and Esme Wang on Wednesday received the prestigious Whiting Award, an honor bestowed on a handful of the country’s most talented young writers.
Every year, the Whiting Foundation awards a $50,000 grant to the country’s 10 most promising writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. This week, Jung — a playwright and director from South Korea — was recognized for her plays “Among the Dead” and “Cardboard Piano,” which tie together the agonies of Korean history and the loneliness of the digital era.
Wang’s nonfiction essay collection “The Collected Schizophrenias” investigates life with schizoaffective disorder “with narrative drive and prose of confiding grace,” according to the members of the Whiting selection committee, who shared their reasons for selecting the winners on the foundation’s website. Wang was an undergraduate at Yale from 2001 to 2003, but transferred to Stanford University after her sophomore year.
David Reid, executive director of the Whiting Foundation, said Jung, Wang and the eight other recipients were selected for writing “some of the most exciting and noteworthy new works in the nation.”
“The award is given for the influence of the their work so far and for the evolution of their career, which demonstrates the promise of more great writing to come,” Reid told the News. “This year, we happened to get amazing work from promising writers of diverse backgrounds.”
Over the years, many winners have gone on to earn numerous prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Obie Award and the National Book Award, according to the Whiting Foundation website. Previous winners of the Whiting Award include Pulitzer-winning poet Jorie Graham and the novelists Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
A member of the Ma-Yi Theater Writer’s Lab, Jung has written numerous plays developed at theater companies such as the Royal Court and the New York Theatre Workshop and has translated more than 30 English musicals into Korean. She received the call about the award on her way to Los Angeles for her job writing for a TV show and realized that she could focus on writing plays instead, Jung said.
Jung told the News she owes her work ethic to her time at Yale.
“Yale is where I learned to be a playwright,” she said. “I had written one play before, and Yale has a very rigorous program where you are writing three to four pieces a year. You are pushed and pressured to produce material whether you are ready or not. I was also influenced by the influx of fantastic artists at the University.”
Jung’s time abroad in South Korea and South Africa also helped shape her work, she said. Her plays address a range of themes, including loneliness and the process of finding a family.
Wang is the author of “The Border of Paradise: A Novel,” named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2016, and she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2017. Her essays in “The Collected Schizophrenias” use firsthand experience to “[change] the way we think about illness,” according to the Whiting selection committee.
Wang was not available for comment on the recent award.
Courtney Hodell, the director of Literary Programs at the Whiting Foundation, stressed the importance of welcoming the voices of women and people of color.
“We need to hear from a huge range of voices in this country, particularly in this moment,” Hodell said. “Whiting Foundation has always wanted to be representative. Although the award is all about the writing itself, having a diverse pool of judges and nominators matters a lot to us.”
According to Hodell, Toni Morrison was scheduled to speak at the awards ceremony at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan Wednesday night but could not attend due to inclement weather.