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UNM, IAIA alum a Whiting Award winner

Gallup native Jake Skeets is one of 10 Whiting Award winners

Colson Whitehead.

August Wilson.

Mary Karr.

Jonathan Franzen.

These are a few of the former Whiting Award winners.

On Wednesday, University of New Mexico and Institute of American Indian Arts alum Jake Skeets was added to the list.

“Honestly, I was shocked when I first heard it,” Skeets, a Gallup native who is Diné, says in a recent interview. “I’m still processing it.”

The other 2020 winners are Andrea Lawlor, Ling Ma, Genevieve Sly Crane, Jaquira Díaz, Jia Tolentino, Aria Aber, Diannely Antigua, Genya Turovskaya and Will Arbery as the 2020 winners.

The annual ceremony was canceled to avoid COVID-19 transmission, but the Whiting Foundation is hoping to schedule a celebration to honor the winners once the restrictions on public gatherings have been lifted.

Skeets and all of the other winners will received $50,000.

According to the Whiting Foundation, the prizes are designed to recognize excellence and promise in a spectrum of emerging talent, giving most winners their first chance to devote themselves full time to their own writing, or to take bold new risks in their work.

The Whiting Awards, established by the Whiting Foundation in 1985, are based on the criteria of early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come. A total of $8 million has been awarded to more than 300 fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, and playwrights.

“We wish to celebrate extraordinary writers, but we find ourselves in extraordinary times, ones where we are all reinventing how to gather, exchange ideas, and deepen our connections with each other across a necessary distance,” says Courtney Hodell, director of Literary Programs. “As long as literature has existed, it has served this purpose, and we look to writers for their uncanny ability to sift raw experience for its poetry and truth. What we are living now, Whiting writers will reflect back to us in time, with depth and clarity and heart.”

Skeets is the author of the poetry collection “Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers.”

He worked on the book for a long time, and the award is “very affirming,” he says.

The book was written while Skeets was finishing his graduate work at IAIA in Santa Fe.

Because he was in a program that allowed him to attend while living in Phoenix, he took the time to also work on the book.

“The process was very difficult,” he admits. “The first obstacle was working full time, finishing my graduate studies and trying to finish the book at the same time.”

Skeets says his second obstacle was traumatic.

“I would dig through tough family memories, and by the time the book was finished, I was relieved,” he says. “Luckily, a good response to the book came quickly, and it was published.”

Skeets got his undergraduate degree at UNM, where he focused on English and Native American studies.

At IAIA, he completed his graduate work in creative writing.

Currently, he teaches composition, literature and poetry at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.

During his time at IAIA, Skeets says, his professors were helpful because they kept a critical eye on his work.

This helped him look at his work through a different lens.

“Finding those small moments and adding the right word or the punctuation mark makes a difference,” he says. “I’m meticulous with spacing and words. I am very grateful to have a great set of mentors.”

With the prize money, Skeets will be able to spend a few months during the summer to work on his next body of work.

“I’m currently spending time writing and building my online course for my students,” he says. “Once I’m able to work in the summer, I’m excited to see what I can produce.”

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