Steinbeck Fellow Yalitza Ferreras Earns Rona Jaffe Award

Yalitza Ferreras wearing an orange top and smiling in front of some green hills.

Yalitza Ferreras is the fourth Steinbeck Fellow and seventh Spartan to receive the prestigious Rona Jaffe Award in recognition of her writing. Photo courtesy of Yalitza Ferreras.

On September 17, six woman writers were recognized with 2020 Rona Jaffe Awards by the New York-based Rona Jaffe Foundation. Among this year’s recipients is Yalitza Ferreras, a Dominican American fiction writer and recipient of the 2014-2015 Steinbeck Fellowship. Ferreras is the fourth Steinbeck Fellow and seventh Spartan to receive this award, joining Vanessa Hua, Gabriela Garcia and Dominica Phetteplace. Three other SJSU-affiliated writers have also received this recognition: Assistant Professor of English Selena Anderson, English Lecturer Aamina Ahmad, and former Lurie Visiting Writer ZZ Packer.

The prestigious honor awards $30,000 to emerging woman writers of exceptional promise and includes a reading at New York University. This year’s event was hosted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ferreras read an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, The Four Roses, which follows Altagracia, a Dominican artist who immigrates to Spain in the 1990s to create art while struggling to survive.

“The characters I’m writing about are usually poor people, often people of color and very often women,” said Ferreras, whose work has been published in Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Southern Review, Aster(ix) Journal, and The Colorado Review. Her story “The Letician Age” was included in the 2016 Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz. “I like to explore everyday, quotidian situations—people trying to work and survive. There’s so much conflict in people’s lives as they go about their days and feed their families. I want readers to truly see my characters, to insert them into the stories that everyone is reading. That is very worthwhile to me.”

Born in New York and raised in both New York and the Dominican Republic, Ferreras identifies with the immigrant experience and sees fiction as an opportunity to “bear witness” to the daily triumphs and challenges of negotiating new places. The first in her family to attend college, Ferreras intended to pursue a career in law before discovering a fiction workshop as an undergraduate at Mills College. At the urging of her professor and 2010 MacArthur Genius Fellow Yiyun Li, Ferreras went on to earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of Michigan, where she worked on a short story collection and began writing her novel. She has since received fellowships from Djerassi Resident Artist program, Yaddo, Voices of Our Nations and the Tin House Writing Workshop. She describes San José State’s Steinbeck Fellowship as a turning point in her writing career, which was interrupted in 2011 when she suffered a brain injury in a car accident. The fellowship allowed her to visit Spain and the Dominican Republic, research trips for her novel. It also introduced her to a network of writers, fellows and alumni.

“The Steinbeck Fellowship was really timely for me; it allowed me to really begin working on the project in earnest,” said Ferreras, who has often supported herself as a graphic designer. “I’ve finished a draft of the manuscript and the support from the Rona Jaffe Foundation is going to allow me to finish the novel. I’m really grateful to both organizations for their support because they’re helping me make this happen. It feels really amazing to be a part of these two communities.”

“When a former Steinbeck Fellow wins a major award, or finds a large audience for a new book, I am thrilled for them first of all, but I also feel validated,” said Nick Taylor, professor of English and comparative literature and director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. “It demonstrates that our program is good at finding and supporting talent. And these successes aren’t rare anymore. At this point we’ve had 64 Steinbeck Fellows who have received something like $750,000 in support from the program. They’ve gone on to publish 40 books—a number that increases every year without fail. Not every former fellow publishes a book every year, but every year some do, and each of those publications gives us an opportunity to call attention to what we’re doing here at SJSU.”

Current Steinbeck Fellows are Rita Chang-Epigg, Tammy Delatorre, Brice Particelli, Daniel Pearce, Kate Osana Simonian and Anthony Veasna So. Applications open January 2 for the 2021-2022 fellowship.


Watch Ferreras’ Sept. 17 Rona Jaffe reading.

Mumford and Sons Funds SJSU Service Fellowship

Photo: Joel Simon Images

San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies honored the British folk-rock band Mumford and Sons with the annual John Steinbeck Award on September 18, 2019 at a sold-out event in Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. Proceeds of the event funded a new Steinbeck Service Fellowship that encourages engaged collaboration between students at SJSU and Stanford.

The service program launches in the summer of 2020, and current SJSU undergraduates are eligible to apply for the fellowship until February 29, 2020.

The fellowship is funded by “Gentlemen of the Road,” the community organization the band founded in 2006, which connects with communities that share its passion for social justice and common good around the world.

Every year, San Jose State’s Center for Steinbeck Studies presents the John Steinbeck Award, celebrating writers, thinkers, artists and activists who embody Steinbeck’s commitment to social justice.

Mumford and Sons is the first musical band to receive the Steinbeck Award, and also its youngest recipients to date. The award ceremony featured a conversation with the band members, as well as an acoustic performance.

It was a fitting venue since 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck beginning his college studies at Stanford. The band’s pianist Ben Lovett also was an undergraduate at Stanford for a year, studying astrophysics before he left to become a musician.

In its inaugural year, the fellowship will bring together students from San Jose State and Stanford to engage in a summer of reflective writing and community service in California’s Salinas Valley, the land that birthed and shaped Steinbeck’s creative vision.

The unique and celebratory aspect of the fellowship is the intersection of English literature and community service—one that was championed by Steinbeck throughout his lifetime.

Professor of English and Director of SJSU’s Center for Steinbeck Studies Nick Taylor teamed up with his colleague Professor Gavin Jones from Stanford to design the fellowship and propose the idea to the band. The two professors decided to model the fellowship on the Cardinal Quarter at Stanford, a program of the Haas Center for Public Service that pays students a stipend so they can engage in a quarter or summer of service-learning projects in the community.

SJSU students will be able to apply though the Center for Steinbeck Studies and Stanford students will route their applications through the Haas Center.

Students who are chosen will work with their community partners at least 35 hours per week for nine consecutive weeks and receive a stipend of $5,500.

“We decided to do a pilot in summer 2020 with three students from San Jose State and three from Stanford. We are planning on assembling a cohort in February. It’s a great opportunity to bring students from SJSU and Stanford together. They are so close but don’t have much interaction,” said Taylor.

SJSU’s Center for Community Learning and Leadership (CCLL), celebrating two decades on campus, was also involved in the San Jose State iteration of the experience. CCLL supports classes that have a service-learning requirement embedded in the curriculum so students can apply what they are learning in the classroom by serving the community. Over the past 20 years, an  estimated 80,000 SJSU students have contributed more than 1,400,000 hours to the community through service-learning.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our San Jose State students to receive funding for their service,” said Andrea Tully, CCLL assistant director. “In a recent study of SJSU service-learning alumni, we found that one of the biggest obstacles to their experience was being able to work, often full time, complete school work and serve. The stipend will likely alleviate some of the burden of needing to work and serve.”

Although the program will sync well with students studying American literature and social work, it is open to all SJSU and Stanford students across disciplines.

Professor of Psychology and CCLL Faculty Director Elena Klaw said the program also fits with SJSU’s ideals and objectives as a center. It emphasizes that academic learning and service should not be separate.

“The focus is to take Steinbeck’s scholarly work and bring it to life in real communities in which people are currently working. And there are still plenty of inequities to highlight, transform and address while engaging with Steinbeck’s fiction, both as a historical body of work but also as a literary body of work,” Klaw said.


Apply for the Fellowship

Get more information and apply for the Steinbeck/Gentlemen of the Road Service Fellowship by February 29, 2020.


Watch Mumford and Sons accept the 2019 Steinbeck Award