Danielle Geller, a graduate student in the University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA Program, has received the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, which is given annually to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers.
Geller will receive the $30,000 award at a ceremony in New York City on September 15. As part of the ceremony, the Jaffe Foundation connects the award recipients with agents and editors at major literary presses.
The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards are given to writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. Nominations are solicited from writers, editors, critics and other literary professionals who are likely to encounter women writers of unusual talent. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Rona Jaffe Awards have helped many women build successful writing careers by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time.
“The award is an incredible honor and also a validation of my work,” Geller said. “It makes me feel more confident about the direction of my projects and of maybe getting published one day.”
“In the 45-year history of the MFA program, Danielle is only the second student that I know of to receive this honor, and couldn't be more deserving,” said Ander Monson, director of the UA Creative Writing Program in the Department of English. “The RJ award can make a huge difference in a young writer's life. The most important thing about the award is the confidence it shows in Danielle's work and voice, which is forceful and unique.”
Before coming to the UA, Geller received a B.A. from Shippensburg University. As an undergraduate, Geller was advised to postpone pursuing an MFA in creative writing until she gained more life experience. Geller moved to Boston with a friend and obtained her master’s degree in library science from Simmons College. After her mother passed away, Geller began writing again.
“Danielle is writing a compelling memoir about the diaspora of her Navajo family,” said UA English Professor Alison Hawthorne Deming, who is Geller’s thesis advisor. “Despite the weight of history her story carries, she writes with a spirit of lyricism, discovery and emotional intelligence that is truly compelling. I am thrilled for her that she has received this well-deserved honor.”
In addition to writing a memoir titled Dog Flowers, Geller is working on a collection of essays in which she’s exploring her mother’s childhood on the Navajo reservation.
In her unpublished essay, “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary,” Geller uses her skills as a researcher and archivist to investigate the history of the incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary published in 1958 by weaving through it the story of her mother and her people.
“The stories she's telling are tragic and difficult – she has quite a backstory, and many hard stories to tell – but she handles them with grace and a dazzling formal intelligence,” Monson said. “We're all very proud of her and excited about the future of Danielle and her work.”
Geller says she is grateful to the UA Creative Writing Program. “‘The professors here are amazing and give you so much of their time.”
Geller plans to use her Writer’s Award to help supplement her income in her final year of graduate school so she can focus on her writing. She will also take several research trips to the Navajo reservation to interview her mother’s family and friends.
“Not many people can afford to be full-time writers,” Geller said with a laugh. “I’ve weirdly considered being an Uber driver because of the flexibility of the schedule and to give myself time to write.”