To Frances Hwang, writing is seeing.
"I love what writing can do. You experience a sensation or a complex emotion, one you think no one else can experience or describe ever again," said Hwang. "Writing forces me to see, to look at the world more carefully and try to understand it. It's a very meaningful thing for me to do."
In her own writing, said the Fairfax native, she looks for the mystery of humanity, and tries to get as close to this mystery as possible.
On Thursday, Sept. 22, Hwang won a $10,000 award from New-York based Rona Jaffe Foundation for her writing. The award, presented annually to a group of recipients, provides recognition and support for women writers early in their careers. Hwang received the award from a committee of judges, based on her short stories published in literary journals such as Tin House, Glimmer Train and the Madison Review.
“[The committee] loved her work,” said Bobbie Bristol, co-director of the Rona Jaffe Foundation. “They found her work wise beyond her years, exquisite, exciting.”
Many of Hwang’s stories draw from the experiences of Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants to the U.S., said Bristol. These stories include “The Old Gentleman,” which examines a father-daughter relationship when the father remarries, and “Garden City,” in which an elderly couple tries to sublet an apartment amid their own strained relationship.
Hwang herself has led what she calls “a nomadic life” for the past decade, receiving fellowships and writer-in-residence positions at a number of colleges and institutions across the country such as the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. She now lives in Berkeley, Calif., where she is working on a collection of stories published by Little-Brown and due March 2006.
“I find that wherever I move, it’s always interesting and compelling,” said Hwang. “I feel like I could live anywhere.”
Hwang, whose parents came to the United States from Taipei, Taiwan, did not always want to write.
BEFORE HWANG graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 1990, she said that she thought about becoming a lawyer. But after joining the debate team, she decided it was not the life for her, said mother Nancy Hwang, retired from 20 years at the World Bank.
“She began to realize that she was really interested in writing,” said Nancy Hwang.
Linda Mao has been friends with Frances Hwang since 10th grade. When the two were in high school, said Mao, they both wanted to be authors.
“I think at that age you’re idealistic and think you’re going to be a writer,” said Mao, now an architect with Aedis Architects in San Jose, Calif. “She actually ended up doing it.”
“It was funny because I would call [Mao] Fitzgerald, after F. Scott Fitzgerald, and she called me Joyce because I loved James Joyce,” said Hwang. “My friendship with her was really important in terms of wanting to become a writer and realizing I didn’t have to follow a conventional path in life.”
Hwang’s writing developed during her undergraduate years at Brown University, said Nancy Hwang. But Frances Hwang said she hadn’t fully decided upon a writing career and was considering teaching English at the college level. She went to the University of Virginia for a master’s degree in English literature.
“I thought that if I was a true writer, I would write on my own and didn’t need to take courses,” said Hwang, who then received a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Montana. “But when I did get an MFA in creative writing, it really helped me focus and learn the discipline of writing.”
HWANG'S TIME in the MFA program helped her to develop a community of fellow writers, which she said has helped a great deal in her work.
“The hardest thing is to be a writer and to be in a vacuum,” she said.
“It’s great that there are institutions in place like fellowships,” said Mao. “It’s good that those exist, but there could probably be more of an infrastructure like that to support writing.”
“It’s a difficult field,” said Nancy Hwang. “There are so many good writers out there, it’s very difficult to get recognized. It’s not easy to make a living as a writer.”
The selection committee keeps a writer’s career in mind when choosing recipients of the Rona Jaffe award, said Bristol.
“We want this award, in a relatively modest way, to have real impact,” said Bristol. “We target people who are going to be a discovery for us.”
To Mao, her friend's writing can best be described as "clear and lucid," much like the title of her upcoming collection, "Transparency."
"Because she is born to an Asian family, her stories are heavily influenced by her contacts with Asian families, Asian communities," said Nancy Hwang. "It's not superficial writing. I think her stories reflect the fact that she has roots in the Asian community."
Nancy Hwang said she often took Frances Hwang and her two siblings back to visit Taipei and China so they would "not lose touch with their roots."
For Frances Hwang, the character drives the writing. "Characters are, I think, the most important way of beginning a story," she said. "They tend to be composites of people I've observed, walking down the street, or in everyday life."
Sometimes, said Hwang, writing about a character becomes a sort of discovery. "I'll know that a character does something and I won't know why," she said. "Often, I don't know what they are going to do."
Whenever she is stuck in writing, said Hwang, she reads something by another writer. She and Mao both love "those big Russian novels," she said, such as "Anna Karenina" and "The Brothers Karamazov." Hwang also likes short stories by Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, John Cheever and Joy Williams.
At the ceremony in New York City Sept. 22, Hwang was able to meet guest speaker Gish Jen, author of "Typical American" and "Mona in the Promised Land."
"Later that evening, [Jen] told me that women writers write a few books and then you don't hear about them anymore," said Hwang. "She said, 'Write 10 books, and not three.'"
There is no danger of Hwang disappearing from the literary scene, said Bristol. "[Hwang] is somebody we really feel we will continue to hear from as a writer," she said. "She's an original voice."