SJSU Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Selena Anderson said she has always been a reader and a writer by extension.
“I wanted to write, maybe because it involved reading,” she said. “I took a short story class when I was a junior at (University of) Texas under a really amazing professor and then I went to Columbia where I had the most beautiful reading life.”
She said the best lesson she took away with her from her MFA was to read with purpose.
This September, Anderson was among six emerging female authors to be honored by the Rona Jaffe Foundation. The recipients were chosen through a rigorous selection process conducted by a small committee of established writers who serve anonymously. The recipients this year received $40,000 each at a reception Sept. 12 that was followed by a reading on Sept 13 at New York University’s Creative Writing Program Reading Series at the Lillian Vernon Writers House.
“Back in graduate school some of my favorite writers—Rivka Galchen, Rebecca Curtis and Tracy K. Smith—were winners of the Rona Jaffe Award, so it was always on my radar,” she said. “There’s nothing quite like it, and I’m so thrilled to be in the sisterhood.”
Anderson said that when the director of the foundation called to tell her she had been selected as a 2019 recipient, she tried to sound cool but was silently jumping up and down.
“Then mid-call my husband, who always has amazing timing, rolled up on his bike and we silently jumped in a circle,” she said.
Anderson joined SJSU’s faculty in 2017. She is the author of two novels, Quinella and Cenisa, Samira, Monet, and is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled Tenderoni. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Bomb, Callaloo, and Fence, among others.
From her recently finished collection of short stories, “Godmother Tea” appears in Oxford American. The story is about a girl who makes bad decisions and then discovers a godmother who pushes her to reevaluate her life choices. She is also finishing a novel about three best friends who write letters to men in prison.
As a teacher, she encourages her students to ask “the questions they have as writers and let that inquiry direct them as they read.”
“You always aim to meet the work on its own terms—do unto others, as they say—be generous and honest and always come from a place of discovery,” she said. “Remember why you love stories in the first place.”
The Rona Jaffe Foundation press release describes Anderson’s work as pushing “the boundaries of realism and fantasy as she explores and interrogates the ideas of race, identiy, and Black womanhood in the American South.” Anderson has received fellowships from the Kimbilio Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Anderson will use her Writer’s Award for childcare over the next year while she finalizes her manuscripts, and begins work on a new project about the Texas-to-Mexico underground railroad.
“It’s an honor to win the RJF award and have the support of those who’ve for 25 years worked tirelessly to help usher some really gorgeous books into the world,” Anderson said. “I know I’ll do them proud.”