The Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize was established in 2010 in honor of Isabelle de Courtivron, professor emerita of French studies, on the occasion of her retirement. The prize is awarded annually for student writing on topics related to immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual, and/or mixed-race experiences. This year, the prize committee is chaired by assistant professor of African studies M. Amah Edoh. Edoh answered a few questions about the origins and aims of the prize, and about its namesake. Entries are now open for the 2019 Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize.
Q: The de Courtivron prize invites submissions about “immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual and/or mixed-race experiences.” Why is this the focus?
A: Many of our students at MIT live across multiple cultural identities, whether as a result of having parents from different national, religious, or racial backgrounds, or as a product of migration — their own or their parents’, or ancestral dislocation, as in the case of members of the African and other diasporas. I believe that it’s incredibly important for young people from such backgrounds to have spaces where they can both process and share the experiences that living between multiple worlds bring about. Particularly because, unfortunately, there’s a way in which when we are young, we can experience this multiplicity as a burden — because we don’t fit into any one culture neatly, rather than as the asset that it actually is — the ability to be fluent in multiple cultural mores (and often, languages). This demographic of students was of particular interest to Professor de Courtivron during her time at MIT, owing both to her intellectual pursuits and to her own personal experience, having lived and worked in France, the U.S., and other countries, throughout her career. The writing contest gives students a space where they can reflect on their experiences, and share them with the MIT community as a whole. For us all it’s an invaluable chance to learn about the wealth of life experiences that make up the fabric of our community.
Q: What kind of writing is accepted for prize entries?
A: Both creative and expository writing are welcome. It could be a personal essay or a short story. Also, our students are often already engaged in thinking about questions relevant to the prize in their SHASS classes — namely, who they are in the world, and what it has meant to be them in different places. And so sometimes they already have papers they’ve written for classes on these topics that speak to the theme of the prize. We welcome those as well.
Q: What would be your advice to budding writers?
A: I think the most poignant writing for a prize like this comes out of authenticity. And by that, I mean writing that is true to your voice, your heart, and your experience. Sometimes we’re able to tap into that easily, other times it takes a bit more effort. Personally, when I don’t know where to start, I like to use “critical moments” reflection as a way to start generating ideas: reflecting on a moment that stands out for its strong emotional charge — whether you felt especially happy or sad or angry or surprised or confused. Under these strong emotions lies a meaningful experience, which might just provide a starting point, or perhaps a signpost as you continue to develop the bigger piece; write from that. The technique can be useful for both fiction and non-fiction. Also, what grabs us as readers when we read stories is the specificity of what’s being conveyed. As the writer, it can be tempting to want to focus on the universal dimension of what you’re writing about, almost at the expense of the specifics of the particular experience you’re relaying. But you have to let the story itself do much (maybe most!) of that work for you. That requires a great deal of trust in your voice and in your story. It’s also where the magic happens!
Q: The writing prize is named for Professor Emerita Isabelle de Courtivron. I understand you knew her when you were an undergrad at MIT.
A: Yes, 20 years ago, when I was a first-year student here, like all other first-years, I think, I participated in a weekly first-year seminar. The seminars were small groups led by a faculty member, that would meet around a theme. The one I took part in was led by Professor de Courtivron, and its focus was on so-called “Third Culture Kids,” a term that was quite in vogue at the time. TCK are children who grew up in a culture or cultures other than their parents’. They often feel like they don’t fully belong to either of these cultures, identifying instead with other people who share the same experience of living across cultures. This the “third culture” they belong to, the mash-up, if you will, of multiple cultural experiences. All of us in the seminar had lived all over and occupied vastly different spaces in the world prior to coming to MIT, and yet our experiences resonated deeply with one another. My family is from Togo. I spent my early years there and in Zimbabwe, and later my family moved to the U.S. I went to French schools in Zimbabwe and the U.S., and then came to college here. Another member of our first-year seminar was a young white man from the southern United States who grew up in Latin America because his parents were missionaries, another was from Myanmar, and grew up in Europe, if I remember correctly. We were all from different majors, lived in different dorms, were involved in different student groups. We would have likely never met otherwise, and yet we so needed the affirmation that a space like this provided — in particular because it was led by a faculty member who understood our experiences of the world firsthand, Professor de Courtivron.
Q: Tell us more about Professor Isabelle de Courtivron.
A: Oh, I remember her being so lively and engaging. And irreverent! She created a space for us, the students, to be free and open. She had a unique ability to connect to young people, and I think she relished hearing about our experiences as much as we loved having a “grownup” listen to us and guide us as we reflected on our own experiences and those of various “TCK” writers. I remember there being a lot of laughter. Isabelle made us feel heard and seen, and these small, warm sessions with her offered an incredibly valuable counterbalance to the large first-year lectures for core curriculum courses, where you were one among a crowd of hundreds. Isabelle remained a valued mentor to me throughout my years as an undergrad, and we still stay in touch. She currently lives in Paris, and I’ve had a chance to visit her there. Her legacy continues through this writing prize, and it is a special joy and honor for me to come full-circle in this way, if you will, by chairing the committee that will award the prize this year.
Submissions are due by March 6. Interested students can find out more about how to submit by going to mitgsl.mit.edu/writingprize. The winning entry will be published online, and there is a $400 first prize.