The Prestigious Fulbright Award Is for Creative Writers, Too
Katherine Arnoldi | January 2020
Do you have a novel you want to write that takes place in Sicily? Madagascar? Belarus? Tahiti? If your character walks down the streets of San Cristobal, you have to walk those streets, right? If your character has an altercation with a shop owner in Perth, you have to describe the details, right? The specific gestures, the change in the voice, the thugs who enter from the back, the meat cleaver stuck in the rafters? You will have to see how the purples and yellows swirl on the ice floes in Patagonia to write it with authenticity. The heat of India? On a train? At rush hour? Being pushed to and fro by the crowd? You have to be there. You have to smell the elephant dung in the air, burn your tongue on the molé, distinguish the subtle changes in sounds of the dialects in Dresden, watch the seasons change at 15,000 feet in Nepal, feel the handlebars vibrate on the cobblestone streets. Beijing? Tasmania? Marrakesh? You have to live it.
to the Department of State.
In April of 2007, while in a PhD program in creative writing at Binghamton University, I attended a Fulbright information session and discovered a little-known fact: the prestigious Fulbright Award is for creative areas also. It is for undergraduates, graduates, and doctoral students. For musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, artists, and dancers. I even learned that a nonstudent can apply as an independent. Age? Not an issue.
And so began my great adventure.
The Fulbright Program is an international exchange program for students, scholars, and professionals to conduct international research, graduate study, university study, and teaching funded by an appropriation from Congress to the Department of State. Though the program began in 1946 to promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries, the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961, proposed by Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright, provided the authorization. The program is dedicated to expanding positive relations between the United States and other countries with the aim of creating a true and lasting peace.
It was Kim Connel, a student in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas when I was an undergraduate, who first inspired me with the story of his Fulbright to Africa. But I was a single mother and did not know that the Fulbright not only allows family members to accompany the recipients of the awards but also increases the award slightly to accommodate them. Since then, I have learned of many single mother Fulbright Fellows, including medical student Rebecca Trotsky-Sirr, who spent her Fulbright year with her son in Venezuela, visiting rural health clinics.
With my inspiration still alive, I approached the Fulbright Program advisors at Binghamton, Susannah Gal and Elizabeth Tucker, with my idea. I had read Under the Still Standing Sun (Kindred Press, 1989), a historical novel by Canadian Dora Dueck about the Ukrainian Mennonite refugees who arrived in the inhospitable Chaco region of Paraguay in 1930, and I wanted to write a novel about the contemporary conditions of these refugees. I formulated my proposal, sought out sponsors in Paraguay, and took the necessary language tests. In April of 2008, I learned the news: I was accepted. By the end of August, after a July orientation in Washington, DC, with other bursting-with-enthusiasm Fulbright Fellows, I was in Asunción, Paraguay, and on my way to Filadelfia, the Chaco. The Fulbright grant covered my round-trip air fare, a generous monthly stipend for the ten-month period, and cash for research materials. I soon moved in with a Mennonite family.
A room of my own and a stipend. A writer’s dream.
Even more luck came my way, and I was able to spend two months in Yalve Sanga, a Nivaclé and Enlhet village about twenty miles from Filadelfia. I was able to walk the sandy roads, attend Saturday night music concerts and Sunday church, experience the 120-degree heat, teach in the schools, ride my bicycle for miles, read books not available in the United States, interview Enlhet, Nivaclé, Mennonite, and Paraguayan leaders, and write articles which I published in Canada and the United States. By May I had finished my novel, Chaco. In June I reluctantly left my new friends and home.
I will never be the same. My heart will always be in Paraguay.
“With the Fulbright I took myself more seriously as a writer,” says Gail M. Dottin, Fulbright Fellow to Panama in 2008-9. “I have a deeper understanding of my need to write. I have much more respect for my work and my process. I see more clearly what my writing career can look like and what other things it can lead to. It changed everything.” Gail M. Dottin’s project, a historical memoir, Where There Is Pride in Belonging, about her Barbadian grandfather’s work on the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s and about her father’s life both on the Canal Zone and in the United States, involved interviewing family members, younger Panamanians, to get their perspective on growing up in Panama and researching the history of the canal builders. “At the national library, I dug through the issues of an old newspaper written by and for the West Indian Panamanian community in the middle of the last century,” she says.
Erika Martinez, Fulbright Fellow to the Dominican Republic for 2008-9, was able “to take the entire academic year to connect with the literary community in Santo Domingo [and] to conduct a call-for-submissions process for Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and I was able to dedicate more time to my own writing.” In addition, she teamed up with Meg Petersen, a Fulbright Scholar in Santo Domingo, to teach a creative writing course.
Katrina Vandenberg, a 1999–2000 Fulbright Fellow to the Netherlands now teaching at the MFA program at Hamline University in Minneapolis, worked on a book of poems tentatively called “Vermeer's Women.” She wrote poems that resulted in the book, Atlas: Poems (Milkweed Editions, 2004), in a tea shop in a cathedral in Utrecht. The book’s centerpiece is a section called “The Red Fields of Lisse (A Love Story).” “It weaves together the history of the tulip with the death of my former partner who had hemophilia and was infected with HIV through the blood supply,” she says, “It was all the walking through flower markets, and biking and taking trains past tulip fields, that did it.”
Poet and novelist Jillian Weise (The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, Soft Skull, 2007; The Colony, Soft Skull, 2010; Book of Goodbyes, BOA Editions, 2013), now a tenure-track assistant professor of English at Clemson University, was a 2008–2009 Fulbright Fellow to Argentina. “The Fulbright supports wild ideas. My wild idea was to live at the end of the world and follow Darwin’s ghost around for a novel I was writing. I didn't use the word ‘ghost’ on the application, but that was the idea. Because of the Fulbright, I met Darwin in places like the Darwin Bar, the Beagle Channel, and San Martin Street. I finished a novel in which Darwin is a central character. Once someone supports your wild idea, it starts feeling real and wildly possible,” she says. Jillian Weise also completed a novel while on fellowship, called The Colony (Soft Skull, 2010). She wrote in cafes and pubs as well as at a defunct maximum-security prison (now the Museo Maritimo) and on a boat while touring the Beagle Channel. Her advice for Fulbright applicants? “As cheesy as it may sound, the Creative Writing Fulbright will change you in ways that you cannot imagine. Apply for some place that’s always seemed a little out of reach, a little impossible. Some place of mythos and intrigue,” she says.
M. Thomas Gammarino was a 2000–2001 Fulbright Fellow to Japan, an experience that spawned the idea for a novel, Big in Japan (Chin Music Press, 2009). “The idea grew largely out of a class I took while I was studying at Doshisha University in Kyoto during my Fulbright year. The class was entitled ‘Japan in the American Imagination,’ taught by a Professor Jonathan Veitch.” He wrote mainly at home and in cafes. He carried around a notebook, aimlessly wandering, talking to people, visiting temples and museums, traveling around the country, giving out tea and blankets to the homeless, and riding a BMX bike with some local kids at Kyoto Station.
When I was a temporary lecturer at Concord University in West Virginia, I organized the art department to send art supplies and form a sister relationship with the art club I started in Yalve Sanga, Paraguay, with the hope of fulfilling a part of the purpose of the Fulbright to promote mutual understanding.
I will also be hosting a panel on the Creative Writing Fulbright at the March 2020 convention of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in San Antonio, where a group of Fulbright creative writing fellows will be present to answer your questions and encourage you in your own great expectations of travel, research, and writing abroad. There you can meet University of Houston Assistant Professor Daniel Peña (Garcia Robles Fulbright Scholar to Mexico, 2014–15), who says that he could not have written his novel Bang (Arts Publico, 2018), based on real events, without the Fulbright. “I knew if I was going to write about the drug war in Mexico, it was not enough to read the statistics and reportage alone. It was essential to go there, to give that information and those stories context and texture. It was very important for me to explore the characters in my novel with as much depth and dignity as possible—to get them right,” Peña says.
“My Fulbright year was my first experience of true creative and intellectual freedom. I was allowed—encouraged—to follow my project wherever it led, however it changed. I knew my work and my project better afterward; I knew myself better afterward, too,” says Fulbright Fellow Elisa Gonzalez (Poland, 2016–18) who will also be on the panel. Panelist Eireene Nealand, who spent her Fulbright year in Bulgaria (2014–15), says, “I’m happy to be able to say that I literally built a frame for the documentary book I created as part of my Fulbright research grant. True to the Fulbright philosophy of emphasizing human connection over production, The Nest (Nova Kultura Foundation, 2016) gathered itself up slowly, over sketchbooks, cups of tea, and the chance discovery of a festival I quickly fell in love with.” You will also be able to meet Serena Chopra, Fulbright Fellow to Bangalore, India, from 2016–17.
If you are a student, look for announcements about Fulbright information sessions on your campus. You can visit the websites associated with the State Department or the Institute of International Education for more information. If you are not a student, find information on these websites about applying “at large.”
Gail M. Dottin advises you to “have a clear idea about what you want to write about and try to communicate that well in your application. Sounds kind of obvious but it’s one of the most important things you can do, to think about what it is you want to get from the place you’re going to and how you’re going to get it. Then if you get the Fulbright, just be open. Throw the plan away because much of you what you wrote in your proposal and you envisioned will not happen. But what will happen, if you’re open and flexible, will be even richer.”
Best of luck to you!
Katherine Arnoldi’s graphic novel The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom was named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly. Her collection of short stories, All Things Are Labor, won the Juniper Prize. She has received the Henfield TransAtlantic Fiction Award, the DeJur Award, two New York Foundation of the Arts Awards (Fiction and Drawing), American Library Awards, the Newhouse and Link Awards, and a nomination for the Will Eisner Award. She was a Fulbright Fellow to Paraguay 2008–9.