Professor Alexander Chee wins Engle Prize

by Emma Demers | 9/15/17 2:00am

by Shae Wolfe / The Dartmouth

English professor Alexander Chee won the 2017 Paul Engle Prize on Aug. 1, which was awarded by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. He will receive the award at a special ceremony at the Iowa City Book Festival on Oct. 12. Chee will also receive $10,000 as well as a work of art designed by an artisan in Iowa City, who will use Chee’s work as inspiration for the piece.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization launched the City of Literature program in 2004 to recognize cities around the world that promote their local writing scene. According to the executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature John Kenyon, the award not only seeks to honor an excellent writer, but also someone who has improved their community. The prize was established in 2011 in honor of Paul Engle, a poet, writer and director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Past recipients include Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson and Roxane Gay, author of “Bad Feminist” and “An Untamed State.”

Kenyon said, while Chee has written several lauded novels and essays, they are not the sole reason for his winning of the Engle Prize.

“With Chee, obviously he has great writing that he has done both with his novels and his essays, but he’s also done a lot of work to help people in different populations,” Kenyon said.

He cited Chee’s past work with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an AIDS advocacy organization, and with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a nonprofit group dedicated to publishing creative writing pieces by Asian-American writers.

In addition, Chee was an active member of Queer Nation, an LGBTQ activist organization. After joining the group in San Francisco during the 1990s, he said he stimulated discussions on race and sexuality and participated in direct action protest, which ranged from marches to kiss-ins.

Chee also authored Whiting Award-winning novel “Edinburgh” and “Girl,” an essay that was included in the 2016 Best American Essays.

According to Kenyon, Chee was nominated for the prize by Gay, who was last year’s recipient. He added that Gay contacted Iowa City UNESCO and spoke highly of Chee’s work.

Members of the board of directors at the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature evaluated all of the nominations and ultimately selected Chee as the winner, Kenyon said.

“I didn’t set out to win this prize, and I don’t know if you can,” Chee said. “That’s the funny thing about it.”

Chee spoke of his helping different groups such as burgeoning writers, confused college students and the queer community as a byproduct of his work.

“I think of community as being such an important part of life, much less being a writer, and so it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary,” Chee said.

After joi ning the College faculty this year, Chee said he has strived to help student writers on campus.

“I help emerging writers to network and find colonies, learn how to apply for fellowships, how to set themselves up with a recommendation, who they need to turn to for this event,” he said.

English department chair Andrew McCann said Chee’s accomplishments positively reflected on the English department.

“It underscores the prominence of someone like [Chee] in the field of creative writing, and as an extension makes our creative writing program more recognizable,” he said. “He’s clearly a fantastic teacher — students seem to be flocking to his classes — so we’re really thrilled that we were able to hire him.”