Fang First Femme of Color to Win Howell Poetry Prize


Photo Courtesy of Dana Fang

College senior Dana Fang won the Creative Writing department’s Emma Howell Memorial Poetry Contest this year. They are the first femme of color and the first Asian American to win the $1,000 prize.

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

College senior Dana Fang won this year’s annual Emma Howell Memorial Poetry Contest, awarded by Oberlin’s Creative Writing department. Fang is both the first femme of color and the first Asian-American poet to win the prize, which honors Creative Writing and Comparative Literature major Emma Howell, an Oberlin student who died during her sophomore year in 2001. Howell’s father, poet Christopher Howell, judges the submissions along with Creative Writing professors, and the winner is awarded $1,000.

Fang said receiving the prize validated their decision to major in Creative Writing and the narratives they write in both prose and poetry. “Winning the prize … affirms that the stories I want to tell, the poetry that I want to write, means something to other people,” Fang said. “That my stories actually do matter, and stories like mine can matter, and that hopefully, the Creative Writing department will continue to value those stories and poems.”

Fang and their work were celebrated at a reading in Wilder Hall Saturday, along with honorable mention awardees: College seniors Orly Vermes, Maxime Berclaz, Madeleine Dorner and College sophomore Brielle Hutchinson. College senior David Savarese, who won the English department’s William Battrick Poetry Fellowship and Ross Roberts, who won the English department’s Lucy Pope Wheeler Poetry Prize, were also honored.

Fang’s poetry is attentive to sound and the music in language. They describe the poems as both quiet and fierce, filled with unusual juxtapositions. “I tend to string some pretty weird phrases together, because English idioms and sentences — even though I’m practically a native speaker — are still difficult to me. The nonsense of the English language is made apparent to me,” Fang said.

Fang also remarked that their relationship with English is complicated. Although it is the language in which they write, they feel it does not fully express their own identity. “[A] crucial part of where my poetry comes [from] is my knowledge that the English language is completely inadequate in actually expressing the depth of my experiences, especially my experiences as a migrant, as a young queer Asian-American, trying to find my home and a world where I can belong,” they said. “But at the same time, the English language is all that I have.”

Though Fang pursued visual art for a long time, they got interested in writing after reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in ninth grade. “Also, during the summer that I read that book, my family went back to China for the first time in 11 years,” Fang said. “I was experiencing so many things — strange, unfamiliar and deeply unsettling things. I had all these truths that I wanted to say, to scream, and I had no idea how to say them. I began to write because I thought it might help me say some of those things.”

Though Fang wrote short stories after their trip, they only began writing poetry during their junior year at Oberlin. They said guidance from Associate Professor of Creative Writing Sylvia Watanabe and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Shane McCrae was integral to their success. “They’ve done so much for me, and without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Fang said.

Fang will continue writing after graduation. After taking a year off from school, they plan to enroll in a creative writing graduate program.