Arts & Culture

Three alums receive prestigious fellowships for literature

By
Contributing Writer

On Feb. 11, three Brown alums were awarded the prestigious MacColl Johnson Fellowship grant — which is one of the largest “no strings attached” grants for artists in the United States, according to the Rhode Island Foundation’s Web site.

House Staff Officer in Psychiatry Christine Montross MD’06, Visiting Lecturer in Race and Ethnicity Marie Myung-Ok Lee ’86, and Matthew Derby MFA’99 each received the $25,000 grant, which is awarded annually by the Rhode Island Foundation, a philanthropic community organization based in Providence. The fellowship is named after Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson, who worked with the foundation to design extensive artist fellowships in the fields of music composition, visual art and literature. Fellows are chosen from one of these fields, which rotate yearly.

This year, the three fellows were chosen from 41 applicants based on “artistic excellence, literary development, and creative contribution to the literary field,” with a focus on choosing “emerging to mid-career artists,” according to the foundation’s Web site.

Lee, an economics concentrator who wrote for The Herald while she was at Brown, went on to work on Wall Street for five years after graduation. She said she woke up at 4 a.m. many mornings and wrote for a few hours, before eventually deciding to focus on writing.

In New York, Lee helped to found an Asian-American writers’ workshop. After living there for 12 years, Lee accepted a Fulbright Scholarship in Korea, where she researched her first novel, “Somebody’s Daughter.”

Lee is currently in residence at Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, and is teaching a creative writing class in the Department of Ethnic Studies, which “looks at how ethnicity is expressed through creative writing,” she said. The chance to teach it is “very Brown,” she added.

She credits many of the classes she took at Brown with shaping her writing and the way she looks at the world.

With her fellowship, she said, she plans to continue working on her second novel, which she’s been writing for seven years. To do more research for her book, Lee hopes to return to her hometown of Hibbing, Minn. and travel to North Korea as she did last year, an experience she wrote about for the New York Times Magazine.

With the fellowship, Derby plans to take time off from his work as a Web developer and designer to go on a reading tour, according to a press release from the Rhode Island Foundation. A collection of his stories, called “Super Flat Times,” was published in 2003.

Derby is the only writer of the three award recipients who is not in the local writing group “Writers Who Drink.” 

The group “would more accurately be called ‘Writers Who Drink One or Two Beers at the Most Because We All Have Little Kids and So Have to Be in Bed By 10:00 p.m.,’ ” Montross wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Montross wrote that when she heard that she had won the award, “I was sitting in a little hospital cubicle, and I let out a real shriek!”

In addition to earning her MD at Brown, Montross earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. Her first book is a nonfiction work called “Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab.” She continues to work as a doctor while writing poetry and prose.

While she was a medical student at Brown, Montross took an independent study with Professor of Literary Arts Carole Maso. “It was wonderful to have an official connection -— a reconnection -— to creative writers within the university community. I felt that making a commitment to creative coursework in the midst of my medical studies was akin to saying,

‘I refuse to give up this other part of myself as I enter medicine,’ ” Montross wrote.
“Signing up for that independent study was a way of anchoring my writing self as a permanent fixture alongside my doctoring self,” Montross wrote. She added that she still gives a talk to medical students called “Becoming a Doctor without Losing Yourself.”

With her fellowship, Montross wrote, she plans “to write a series of poems engaging the questions about madness and sanity that I encounter as a psychiatrist. Madness fragments the mind. … Poetry offers a flexibility of form and voice that can mirror that kind of a rupture.”