2018 Award Recipient: DEBORAH TAFFA
The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers has chosen Deborah Taffa of St. Louis, Missouri, as the recipient of the thirteenth annual Desert Writers Award. A grant of $5,000 will support work on her manuscript-in-progress, Kiva Song.
Ms. Taffa is an Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at Webster University during fall and spring semesters, and at Washington University’s Summer Writing Institute in summer. She is an enrolled member of the Yuma Indian Nation in Arizona, and holds a certificate of descendancy from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.
According to Ms. Taffa, “Kiva Song is a collection of nine essays that reflect the cultural geography, local history, spiritual beliefs, and environmental disasters experienced by a Native American family with roots in Arizona and New Mexico.”
The recipient of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from the esteemed University of Iowa writing workshop, Ms. Taffa worked in graduate school with nonfiction writers John d’Agata and Terry Tempest Williams. Ms. Taffa currently has a manuscript of stories in circulation through her literary agent. Kiva Song will be her second book.
Said Ms. Taffa, “As a young Native American woman in college, I read all the desert writers I could get my hands on. Yet while many of them advocated for the beauty of the desert—writing about the red rock canyons and sandstone arroyos with humor, lyricism, and clear-eyed observation—none displayed as deep an understanding of the indigenous spirit and history of the desert, nor evoked such a sensual connection to it as Ellen Meloy. In her collection, The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meloy juxtaposes the sacred with the profane in producing one of the most heartfelt desert portraits that exists in literature today.”
Don Snow, chairman of the Ellen Meloy Fund Awards Committee, said, “Of the hundreds of applications I’ve seen over my years serving on the board, Deborah’s stood out for many reasons, but perhaps the most arresting was what she said about being a true Native of the Southwest. Her writing on her desert home would be unique among most contemporary desert writing because of her ability to speak from ancestral tribal heritage.”
Ms. Taffa said in her application essay, “Loving the desert is loving myself, yet it has taken me some time to hone in on nature writing as a discipline. While my life is built on desert stories, I have been reluctant to engage in this tradition. I see several reasons for this procrastination. Identity issues. Pain. Reductive stereotypes about Native Americans. I’m thinking of noble savages who are spiritual and live in harmony with nature. The idea that all modern Native Americans have a mystical connection to nature is reductive. Romantic stereotypes can be damaging, and yet I love the desert. It is simply who I am.”
Ms. Taffa has published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Salon, and Brevity, and in the anthology Best American Travel Writing.
In addition to Ms. Taffa, two other applicants qualified as finalists in the 2018 contest: Ken Lamberton of Bisbee, Arizona, for a project titled “Deserts – Vanishing Landscapes,” and Leath Tonino of Crested Butte, Colorado, for “Make It Strange.”
A group of six Meloy Fund board members comprised the 2018 Awards Committee. They included Don Snow and Jake Lodato, both from Washington State; Ann Walka of Flagstaff, Arizona; Jullianne Ballou of Austin, Texas; Ryann Savino of Moab, Utah; and former Meloy Award winner Kendra Atleework of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Ellen Meloy Fund supports writers whose work reflects the spirit and passion for the desert embodied in Meloy’s writing and in her commitment to a “deep map of place.” Before her untimely death in 2004, Meloy published four books, numerous articles, and radio commentaries. Her last book, Eating Stone, won the John Burroughs Association Medal for 2007. An earlier work, The Anthropology of Turquoise, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.