Acclaimed Greek writer Christos Ikonomou wins USC Dornsife’s inaugural Chowdhury Prize in Literature
Author Christos Ikonomou’s dystopian tales are set within the political and economic culture of austerity in Greece and recount its devastating effect on working people. (Photo: Julia Puga.)

Acclaimed Greek writer Christos Ikonomou wins USC Dornsife’s inaugural 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 21. [5¾ min read]
BySusan Bell

Christos Ikonomou, a Greek author hailed by critics as a “visionary social observer,” is the inaugural winner of the Chowdhury Prize in Literature, an annual international mid-career prize for writers — and the first literary award of its kind on the West Coast.

The prize is awarded by the Department of English at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, through the auspices of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation and in collaboration with Kenyon College and the Kenyon Review.

“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,” said USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller. “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.”

USC Dornsife’s David St. John, University Professor, professor of English and comparative literature and chair of English, expressed his gratitude to the Chowdhury Foundation and to Kenyon College / Kenyon Review.

“We’ve felt so fortunate to partner with the Subir & Malini Chowdhury Foundation to establish both our Chowdhury Distinguished Speaker Series, for which Michael Ondaatje and Zadie Smith have visited USC, and also, along with Kenyon College / Kenyon Review, the new $20,000 Chowdhury Prize in Literature, which is certain to be recognized as one of the most distinguished international prizes in the world,” he said.

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, noted that the new prize 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 this future work that the Chowdhury Prize means to encourage,” Ulin said. “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.”

Ikonomou will be honored at a gala ceremony to be held at Town and Gown on USC’s University Park campus on April 21, the day before the L.A. Times Festival of Books kicks off with its Book Prizes ceremony — both of which will take place at USC.

A unanimous decision

Ikonomou’s dystopian stories are set within the political and economic culture of austerity in Greece and recount its devastating effect on working people.

Born in Athens in 1970, he has published four collections of short stories, including Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Polis, 2010), which won Greece’s prestigious Best Short-Story Collection State Award and was the most reviewed Greek book of 2011. His books have been translated into more than 12 languages. Good Will Come from The Sea (Polis, 2014) was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards 2020 and the London Hellenic Prize.

His work has been translated into English by Karen Emmerich of Princeton University, a National Translation Award and PEN Poetry in Translation Award winner who specializes in contemporary Greek literature.

Ulin said the jury’s decision to award Ikonomou the prize was unanimous.

“We thought he was doing remarkable work creatively, and we also thought that his work had a remarkable social component,” Ulin said. “But the most important aspect for us as judges was the power of the writing — the power of the language, the power of the insights, the power of the characters and the conflicts, the intractable nature of what his characters are facing, which is not unrelated to the intractable nature of what all of us, in some way, are facing. All this made us really interested in supporting this writer in what comes next.”

President Sean Decatur of Kenyon College, who was instrumental in establishing the prize, said, “Kenyon’s legacy as a writer’s college is founded on the belief that words have the power to stir human emotions and to inspire a deeper understanding of the world. We are delighted to honor Mr. Ikonomou’s already extraordinary body of work, and also to support his future influence in broadening our perception of the human experience.”

Subir Chowdhury, co-founder of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation, congratulated Ikonomou. “The Chowdhury Prize in Literature wants to promote the power of the pen on a global level to inspire mid-career authors,” he said.

Raising awareness of lesser-known works

Ulin and St. John emphasized that part of the purpose of the award is to bring a significant writer to broader public awareness who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Ulin noted that Ikonomou is published in the United States by Archipelago, a small, independent press based in Brooklyn, New York, that focuses entirely on translated works.

“The percentage of translated work sold in this country is minuscule,” Ulin said. “For an American audience, he almost certainly has been entirely overlooked. So, for us to be able to bring this work, which is hugely significant, to the attention of readers who I think will benefit from it and to be able to put him in touch with this audience, is an important part of this initiative.”

A distinguished panel of judges

The prize judges, St. John notes, formed “one of the most distinguished judging panels one could create” and include: Ulin, a California Book Award winner, the author or editor of more than a dozen books and editor of USC Dornsife’s literary journal Air/Light; poet and prose writer Maggie Nelson, professor of English at USC Dornsife and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner; Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, University Professor, Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at USC Dornsife; the 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; and the poet translator and editor Arthur Sze, the recipient of the 2021 Shelley Memorial Award and the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry.

All five judges are former Guggenheim Fellows and three — Nelson, Nguyen and Rankine — are MacArthur Fellows.

“We felt that it was important to have a jury that had significant credibility, both in terms of establishing the prize but also in terms of a range of talent, a range of aesthetics, a range of thinkers, a range even of forms in which people worked,” Ulin said. “Because we didn’t want it to be a fiction prize or a non-fiction prize or a poetry prize we wanted to be able to have the expertise on that jury to respond across genre.”

Each member of the jury recommended three writers for consideration for the prize. This list was then narrowed down to nine before the judges reached their unanimous decision.