This March, recent University of Arizona MFA alumnus Francisco Cantú received the prestigious Whiting Award, a $50,000 writing award based on “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.”
Just five years earlier, Cantú was a border patrol agent for the United States Border Patrol, a position he held from 2008 to 2012.
After that memorable job, Cantú, who currently lives in Tucson, enrolled in the UA’s MFA program in creative writing (nonfiction), graduating in 2016.
“I decided to enroll because I was seeking to give myself the time and resources to find out if I had what it takes to be a writer,” Cantú said. “The nonfiction program is, of course, one of the very best in the nation, and the writing faculty is second to none.”
A former Fulbright fellow, Cantú’s essays and translations appear frequently in Guernica, and his work can also be found in The Best American Essays 2016, Ploughshares, and Orion, among others.
Cantú’s first novel, The Line Becomes a River—which was his MFA thesis—will be published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, in February 2018.
“The Whiting Award is an insanely big deal, since it launches a writer straight into the national spotlight,” said Ander Monson, director of the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English. “This honor is a major vote of confidence in the importance of his voice. It's exciting to see one of our recent graduates' star rise so quickly.”
Since 1985, the Whiting Foundation has supported creative writing through the Whiting Awards, given annually to 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Whiting winners have gone on to win numerous prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“In his memoir of his years working for the Border Patrol, Francisco Cantú observes, analyzes, and dreams about the U.S./Mexico border,” wrote the Whiting selection committee. “The result is an urgent moral report that is delicately observed, careful to skirt clichés, and wary of hyperbole. Cantú’s work shows us just how much there is to learn about this contested land: what the deserts and border towns and detention centers tell us about ourselves, bringing into devastating focus their cost to those who patrol the border and to those who try to cross it. Seldom does a writer of such depth and passion come along to explore the place he calls home.”
Cantú believes his UA education helped set the stage for his most recent success.
“A big difference at the UA is the amount of genuine attention and engagement MFA students receive from their instructors,” Cantú said. “One of the biggest things I took from the MFA program was the confidence to see myself as a writer first and foremost, and not dismiss it as a hobby or a creative side-pursuit.”