Acclaimed Los Angeles poet Victoria Chang wins USC Dornsife’s 2023 Chowdhury Prize in Literature
Poet Victoria Chang has won the second annual Chowdhury Prize in Literature, an international, mid-career prize for writers and the first literary award of its kind on the West Coast. (Photo: Pat Cray.)

Acclaimed Los Angeles poet Victoria Chang wins USC Dornsife’s 2023 Chowdhury Prize in Literature

The Department of English, with the support of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation and in collaboration with Kenyon College and the Kenyon Review, will award the $20,000 prize during a gala at USC on April 18.
Susan Bell

In brief:

  • Victoria Chang is the second writer — and the first poet — to win the Chowdhury Prize in Literature.
  • This annual, international prize for writers, the first literary award of its kind on the West Coast, goes to an accomplished mid-career writer considered to have significant potential for future achievement.
  • Chang was chosen in part because “her writing walks the line between her personal experience and the core humanity we all share.”
  • You can hear Chang read her poetry on April 22 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at USC.

Los Angeles poet Victoria Chang, hailed by critics as an exciting voice in contemporary poetry, is the winner of the 2023 Chowdhury Prize in Literature. The annual, international mid-career prize for writers includes $20,000 and is the first literary award of its kind on the West Coast.

In awarding the prize, the judges said Chang is a deft stylist who isn’t afraid to work across genres or to adapt forms as diverse as the obituary or the letter in service of her aesthetic ends, and the result is a body of work that continually surprises, allowing readers to see both Chang and themselves anew.

“The Chowdhury Prize at USC Dornsife is an exciting new way for our academic community to engage with fresh insights and diverse perspectives that reach beyond the academy walls. This prize is an outstanding example of our community’s commitment not only to outstanding scholarship, but also to developing a two-way dialogue between scholars and the public that contributes in meaningful ways to today’s greater social discourse,” said Amber D. Miller, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, during the prize’s inauguration last year.

Chang is the author of six collections of poetry, including the award-winning OBIT (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) and The Trees Witness Everything (Copper Canyon Press, 2022), two books for young readers: Is Mommy? (Beach Lane Books, 2015) and Love Love (Union Square Kids, 2020), and the nonfiction work Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief (Milkweed Editions, 2021).

Poet Victory Chang explores themes of loss and grief

“Victoria Chang’s poetry and prose engage in powerful and deeply intimate conversations with grieving, always interrogating and testing the limits of memory,” said University Professor David St. John, professor of English and comparative literature and chair of the Department of English at USC Dornsife. “She is one of our most public champions of the crucial importance of poetry in the life of contemporary culture.”

The Chowdhury Prize administrator, David Ulin, professor of the practice of English at USC Dornsife and former Los Angeles Times book editor and book critic, said that the hallmark of Chang’s writing is the willingness to confront difficult realities, including the specter of loss, familial and otherwise.

“Nuanced, insightful and unrelenting, her writing walks the line between her personal experience and the core humanity we all share,” said Ulin, who is editor of USC Dornsife’s literary journal Air/Light.

At the inauguration of the prize in 2022, Ulin noted that the award seeks to identify authors who are at an inflection point, with a body of work already behind them, but also with significant future potential.

“It’s not a retrospective award but rather one that is forward looking, intended both to encourage and actively assist writers on the creative cusp to push ahead into new territories,” he said.

Chang acknowledged this intention in her reaction to winning this year’s prize.

“It’s such an honor to receive the Chowdhury Prize in Literature because it is a prize that acknowledges the work I’ve made but also really focuses on the future, on possibility,” she said. “So much of being a writer is writing on a piece of paper alone, in isolation, without recognition or encouragement. The Chowdhury Prize in Literature provides that important gentle hand on my back to keep going, to keep putting words together in interesting ways, to keep trying to translate the human experience, my own unique personal experiences.”

Chang will be honored at a gala ceremony at Town and Gown on USC’s University Park campus on April 18.

She will read her poetry on the opening day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which will take place at the university from April 22 to 23. She will also be interviewed by Pulitzer Prize winner and Chowdhury Prize judge Viet Thanh Nguyen, University Professor, Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at USC Dornsife.

USC Dornsife and Chowdhury Foundation bring notable authors to USC

The Chowdhury Prize in Literature is awarded by USC Dornsife’s Department of English through the auspices of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation and in collaboration with Kenyon College and The Kenyon Review.

Subir and Malini Chowdhury expressed their delight that Chang had been selected this year.

“She is an outstanding poet and an adventurous writer, as well as an exemplary literary citizen,” they said in a joint statement on behalf of their foundation. “Victoria Chang’s career epitomizes the commitment and engagement the prize aspires to honor. We look forward to reading much more work from her.”

St. John expressed his gratitude to the Chowdhury Foundation and to Kenyon College and The Kenyon Review for establishing the Chowdhury Prize in Literature.

He also noted that the collaboration between the foundation and USC Dornsife opened another opportunity for notable writers to visit the university. Celebrated authors Michael Ondaatje, Zadie Smith and former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey have all come to USC through the Chowdhury Distinguished Speaker Series.

About Chowdhury Prize in Literature winner Victoria Chang

A Guggenheim Fellow, Chang lives in Los Angeles where she is a distinguished faculty member at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program. Her new book of poems, With My Back to the World will be published in 2024 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

She is the recipient of numerous literary honors. Her most recent book of poetry, The Trees Witness Everything was named one of the Best Books of 2022 by The New Yorker and The Guardian.

OBIT, a collection of poems about loss and grief, was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Must-Read Book, and it received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry and the PEN/Voelcker Award. It was also longlisted for a National Book Award and named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Griffin International Poetry Prize.

Chang’s other poetry collections are Circle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), Salvinia Molesta (University of Georgia Press, 2008), The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2014) and Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Notable writers serve as judges for Chowdhury Prize in Literature

The prize judges, St. John notes, form “one of the most distinguished judging panels one could create.” In addition to Pulitzer winner Nguyen and California Book Award winner Ulin, they include poet Nicole Terez Dutton, recipient of the 2011 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and editor of The Kenyon Review; poet and prose writer Maggie Nelson, professor of English at USC Dornsife and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner; and poet, playwright and essayist Claudia Rankine, a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry.

Ulin, Nelson, Nguyen and Rankine are Guggenheim Fellows, and Nelson, Nguyen and Rankine are MacArthur Fellows.