USC Dornsife announces new $20,000 literary prize. Its first winner: Christos Ikonomou
USC Dornsife, Kenyon College and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation are launching a new literary prize.
Greek short-story writer Christos Ikonomou will be the first recipient of the Chowdhury Prize in Literature, a $20,000 international award for outstanding midcareer writers.
“His work exists in the space between the public and the private — or more accurately, in a landscape where the public can’t help but intrude upon the private, a zone of the interior and the exterior,” USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences said in a written statement. “His language is by turns direct and lyrical, with a tactile, physical sense of setting and character. It is remarkable, in every sense of the word.”
Mark Haskell Smith on his latest book, “Rude Talk in Athens,” about an obscure ancient Greek playwright and comedy as a form of revolution.
Ikonomou, born in Athens in 1970 and currently based there, is the author of four short-story collections: “The Woman on the Rails” (2003), “Something Will Happen, You’ll See” (2010), “Good Will Come From the Sea” (2014) and “The Volcano Daughters” (2017).
The award will be presented at a gala ceremony at USC on April 21, the day before the L.A. Times Festival of Books kicks off with its Book Prizes ceremony. Both Times events will also take place at USC.
The idea for the USC Dornsife prize came in late 2019, just as the college’s English department was conceiving the online literary journal Air/Light. “They were both expressions, on the part of the English department, to focus on both publishing initiatives and community — being part of the local, national and international community,” said David Ulin, the prize administrator and an associate professor at USC.
Together with Air/Light, the prize is part of the university’s ongoing efforts to elevate its profile as a literary center, building on an English department with a growing roster of acclaimed professors, writers and talented students. The Chowdhury Prize, its first international literary award, is a bid to make connections beyond L.A., beginning with a writer who focuses on working-class people affected by austerity and the Greek financial crisis.
‘Fiona and Jane,’ Jean Chen Ho’s collection of stories, pays homage to friendships complicated by displacement, sexuality and the passage of time.
The prize isn’t USC Dornsife’s first collaboration with the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation; in 2019, the college launched the Distinguished Speakers Series, an annual event that has brought renowned authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Zadie Smith to campus.
With the prize, “we wanted to acknowledge Southern California and Los Angeles as literary and cultural centers,” added Ulin, “and to participate as a region in the global conversation about literature.”
During a meeting that included Ulin, a former Times books editor and critic; David H. Lynn, editor emeritus of the Kenyon Review; and David St. John, USC Dornsife’s English department chair, they asked themselves, as Ulin recalled: “Wouldn’t it be great to have a major literary award be given out of Southern California?”
The panel of judges for the inaugural prize comprised some of the most acclaimed writers and academics in the country, most with ties to USC and all well acquainted with prizes: Maggie Nelson, National Book Critics Circle Award winner for “The Argonauts”; Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Sympathizer”; Claudia Rankine, whose laurels for “Citizen: An American Lyric” include an NBCC prize; Arthur Sze, a translator and poet whose collection “Sight Lines” won a National Book Award; and Ulin, whose anthology “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology” earned a California Book Award.
During a meeting in the summer of 2020, each judge presented three writers for the group to consider. The initial list of 15 writers was pared down in discussions to one: Ikonomou.
“David [Ulin] and the judges really were dedicated to the idea of selecting a writer of both immediate importance to their country but also to the global dialogue about human affairs at this moment in history,” said St. John.
Much of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, “The Sympathizer” (Grove: 371 pp., $26), takes place in the bland stucco flatlands of Los Angeles between the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the staging and aftermath of a failed counterrevolution by members of the displaced anti-communist Vietnamese diaspora several years later.
The prize money had to be substantial enough to make a difference in a writer’s life and advance their work. Just as important was the opportunity to bring a midcareer author to the attention of a wider audience.
“We hope the prize will support writers of exceptional achievement who may have not yet had the widespread fame and glory that they deserve,” said Lynn.
Last June, Ikonomou was writing at his desk when he learned he’d won the first Chowdhury Prize. “I felt very excited, of course, and I hurried to share the news with my wife, Julia,” he said in an email. A few days earlier, the Yale Review had published one of his stories. “I had two pieces of great news coming from the U.S. at the same time. It was really amazing.”
Ikonomou said he is considering using the prize money to travel to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, and do some research; it will be the setting of one of his next books.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is to a writer to have their work supported in such a generous and meaningful manner,” he added in the email.
In the coming months, the judges — who are committed to a two-year term — will convene again to discuss the 2023 prize contenders.
There is no nomination or application process for the prize.
The 26th L.A. Festival of Books, running April 17-23, features authors, moderators and guests including James Patterson, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Terry Crews.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.