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The Literary Writer’s Guide to Getting a Fulbright Fellowship

By Anna Clark

Two myths about the U.S. Fulbright fellowship program that I want to get out of the way:

  1. Literary writers: you too can get a fellowship. I know the program is best known for work in fields like public health, anthropology, economics, and the hard sciences. But the scope of the Fulbright program is more expansive than you may think.
  2. No, it is not impossible to decipher the Fulbright program and application procedure. But I agree with you: the various online platforms for the program are utterly bewildering.

Consider this, then, the literary writer’s primer to the Fulbright.

The Big Picture

Fulbright is an international exchange program that has been sponsored by the U.S. State Department since 1946. The Institute for International Education administers it. Fulbright operates in about 155 countries, mostly sending people in the U.S. abroad, but also bringing people from other nations into the U.S. The program boasts that 43 of its alumni have won Nobel prizes and 81 have won Pulitzer Prizes. Another 28 are MacArthur Foundation fellows. The program was created by U.S. Senator William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) for the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” There are at least eleven different kinds of Fulbright grants. The one I did — a Creative Writing project in Kenya – is through the “U.S. Student Program.” This is misleadingly named: you don’t have to be a student to apply for this grant. I got my Master of Fine Arts in January 2007, but I didn’t apply for a “student” Fulbright until the fall of 2010. Offered as ten-month fellowships, Fulbrights through the student program are actually for “U.S. graduating college seniors, graduate students, young professionals and artists.” More details on the U.S. Student Program below. But first:

Fulbright and the Writer

The Fulbright program is quite clear about being primarily an inter-cultural program. They invest in the person, rather than the project. (Though obviously, the in-country folks in particular are looking for great projects that are relevant and interesting.) Creative Writing fellowships are rare: only fifteen people worldwide have creative writing Fulbrights in the current grant cycle, though they are scattered from India to South Africa to South Korea. But I suspect if word got out, and more great writers applied, this number would increase.

What does the writer do on her Fulbright? In my case, I wanted to divide my time between my own writing — short stories grounded in Nairobi — and facilitating creative writing workshops with young people across the city. I wanted to match my own writing with time in community, having a particular attentiveness to how a literary culture emerges. I wanted to understand how stories are told in a nation that is not yet fifty years old, even as I worked as a teller of my own stories.

Things didn’t go as planned. Thank goodness that the inter-cultural philosophy of the Fulbright leaves room for adaptation. When some of the workshops I wanted to do weren’t happening, I struggled with disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. But I had flexibility to find alternative opportunities to engage with literary communities in Kenya. I ended up doing workshops with iHub, with young children, and with teenage boys in Kawangware. I mentored individual writers in one-on-one meetings at Nairobi Java House. I co-directed an event series for Kenyan and foreign journalists to talk about the intersection of gender and media. I spent time listening in a Saturday morning downtown literary club. I spoke to university students, instead of doing workshops with them. I edited for Kwani, instead of doing workshops with them. (The workshop model, it seems, isn’t quite so ingrained in the practice of creative writing in East Africa as it is in the USA.) And again, instead of workshops, I did editing and proofreading for Kenya Imagine before I left for Nairobi, while I was there, and I will continue to do so whenever they ask. Just about all of this was un-planned — not part of my original project proposal, though in the spirit of it. And that doesn’t even get to the unexpected turns in my own writing: while I did write some short fiction, I also wrote a good deal of narrative nonfiction and poetry.

It was important for me to arrive in Nairobi with a plan, but it was also necessary to be agile. Personally and professionally, navigating the uncertain ground was powerful. And given the high stakes of being a foreigner in another culture — particularly as a white American writer approaching a culture that is too often exoticized — anything less than fluidity would have cut against the Fulbright’s core purpose. If I weren’t willing to change my own habits and expectations of writing in Kenya, I would have perpetuated a kind of cultural brutality. I also would have had fewer unexpected and heart-opening opportunities for joy.

But my experience is only one.

Dana Kroos, a novelist, is in Newfoundland, Canada on her Fulbright fellowship. Nicholas Gulig, a poet, went to Bangkok, Thailand. Both heard about the Fulbright opportunity through word-of-mouth. Gulig, as a University of Iowa MFA student, dated a woman who had done a creative writing fellowship in China. Kroos had seen email postings about it as an MFA student at New Mexico State University, but she “mostly dismissed these, thinking that the type of research supported by the Fulbright was more scientific and academic, rather than creative.” She assumed she’d need to apply for a travel grant for writers that was short-term and would hardly give her the chance to understand the place. Friends of friends eventually let her know otherwise.

Newfoundland was the ideal setting for Kroos’ novel because its culture has “evolved separate from Europe and North America, but tied to and threatened by both. This alienation has created a culture that values secrecy…that will reflect the interactions of my characters.” With a focus on a family that wrestles with different beliefs they draw from shared experiences, Kroos is interested in integrating Newfoundland’s regional folklore and legends. The sea-centered landscape and geographic isolation of Newfoundland is also a driving force. As in my case, Kroos found her plans shift once she got on the ground. She initially intended to live in St. Johns for one semester, and then move to a smaller town to research a specific setting for her novel. But, she notes:

“What I realized when arriving in Newfoundland, was that a three month semester was not enough time in a place to truly dig in and get to know the community and setting. I decided to stay in St. John’s for the entire year. While St. John’s is a sizeable city, it is surrounded by small villages less than a ten or twenty minute drive away. As I learned more about Newfoundland and my novel, I decided to set the story on the outskirts of St. John’s, in a created town that would be an amalgam of several of these villages.”

Gulig grew up in the Midwest as the son of a Thai woman who had moved to Wisconsin for art school, and then married his dad. Engaging more deeply with the Thai culture that had made him different than those he grew up with was part of his inspiration for pursuing his writing in Bangkok. Like me, Gulig was interested in literary culture outside of what he’d been immersed in most of his life: “I write among…writers who are similarly a product of the western canon, which limits us in a variety of ways, makes our thinking more insular than I would like it, pushes our art in the direction of certain inherited concerns.”

Gulig’s intention was to “to create a hybrid manuscript of poems, half here, half there, as a way of addressing formally and thematically” his experience as an artist that feels both connected and separated from Thailand. But he felt cautioned by the tricky legacy of Western writers going abroad to write. Says Gulig:

“There is a long (and oftentimes lazy) tradition in our culture of making myths of external actualities, romanticizing the idea of difference, exoticizing other people, places, idealizing them, often at their expense as well as ours, which is a kind of violence we are want to see instead as being “worldly” or whatever, “culturally diverse.”

“The problem, though, was that I wanted terribly to participate in the amalgamation of cultures without doing ‘violence,’ be the stranger in a strange land, and watch, through art, what happened to me as an individual and to my work, map the subtle transformations. But it wasn’t (and) isn’t easy.”

Gulig finally found that “the project [he] set out to do proved impossible to finish.”

“I realized pretty quick that dropping in out of nowhere into the middle of a place that does not belong to you, no matter who you are, no matter your relationship to that place, doesn’t translate into being able to speak of and for that place with any authenticity or accuracy,” he adds. “I could only be an outsider, looking in, which was (and) is problematic. Most of the books ‘about’ Thailand are written by people who aren’t Thai and they bear the burden of that perspective. A poet I met and worked with in Bangkok explained to me one night how sick she was of people arriving in her country, living there for a relatively short amount of time, and then defining the place and people in terms appropriate to the observer but not the people, not the place itself. After hearing that, I felt my project incredibly ill-conceived, ethically bankrupt, and aesthetically inept. I knew I needed to alter it in a fundamental way. And so I did.”

Gulig changed the focus of his manuscript “away from Thailand as an other I was trying to understand and (instead) document through art (my position in it)…Instead of attempting to do away with ‘middle-ness,’ I decided to embrace it as an actual place, neither here nor there, but still actually existing, actually real.” His manuscript shifted towards prose-poems — half one thing, half another, simultaneously both. He also found a collaborator. “I knew I needed the project to belong to someone other than myself, to a medium other than language,” Gulig said. “And so I found an artist, an illustrator in Bangkok named Kathy MacLeod who began providing illustrations to manuscript. In this way, the book is suspended between the two of us, and between our chosen mediums as well.”

About The U.S. Student Program

This Fulbright category includes the English-teaching assistantships and the travel-only grants designed to supplement another award or individual project; travel-only grants are available only for Italy, Germany, and Hungary. To apply for this grant in Creative Writing, you propose a project for where you want to go. Generally, a set number of grants total are available each year for a particular country. In my year, there were four U.S. Student Program grants available for Kenya. Depending on how politics are unfolding, Fulbright may suspend opportunities in certain countries. For example, you will not be surprised to learn that projects are not available in Syria right now. Some unique project categories are available only as a country-specific award, such as “Slow Foods” and “Deaf Studies” in Italy, or “Irish Language” in Ireland. There are other special programs available within the U.S. Student Program structure. There are special journalism project opportunities available in Germany, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

The bulk of the U.S. Student Program, though, is you proposing your individually-designed project through the general program. Whatever project category you apply in, you need to have an affiliation; that is, some local organization or school or library or fill in the blank that says they are willing to cooperate with you to help you do your work. They are not obliged to pay you anything or provide other material support. So, I proposed coming to Nairobi to work on my fiction and to facilitate writing workshops with young people through Kenyan literary organizations (Kwani Trust and the Imagine Company), and the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature. It is unusual to have three affiliations; most people have one, though it does strengthen your application (and, hopefully, your project) if you have additional support.

In the case of Kroos, the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive is her affiliation, supporting her research into the folklore of the region. The archive grants her access to its resources and “the wealth of knowledgable faculty.” She also sits in on courses at Memorial University, learning from instructors and students alike. Kroos said, “the most potentially difficult factor is forming some kind of affiliation with a foreign institution where you most likely know no one and have no existing connections.” But, she added:

This is, however, how much research begins. The Folklore Department at Memorial University was immediately excited about my project and willing to become my host institution. Even so, it took awhile for them to formally approve the affiliation through the department and send the letter that I needed as proof for the Fulbright application.

Help is Available

While I haven’t been a student there since 2003, I filed my application through the University of Michigan’s International Institute. Most colleges have a similar institute that helps students and alums with their applications. This was great for me: I got feedback on my application that made it much better and I got help with organizing all the materials. I did have to go through an extra step — an in-person interview with two faculty members — and I did have to turn in my application earlier than the general Fulbright deadline. But it was absolutely worth it for the support I received in return. Kroos reports having a similar experience at New Mexico State University.

I should add that these international institutes often have Fulbright informational sessions starting about this time of year. Whether or not a college near you is your alma mater, you might think about attending the sessions it hosts. With the next round of Fulbright applications due in the early fall, plenty of these will be hosted over the next few months.

You don’t need to apply through a university though; you can also apply “at-large.” This is what Gulig did, with the editorial help of Jane, his girlfriend who had done a creative writing Fulbright in China. “I set aside about three months to work on the application, wrote endless drafts of essays, drafts of poems, all of which she read and edited and shed light on,” Gulig said.

Here’s What Applying Looks Like

For the application, which I filled out mostly online, I needed the following things: a letter from my affiliation (the folks I was doing writing workshops with), a creative sample (10 pages, in a requirement unique to the Creative Writing program), a personal statement, a project statement, and letters of recommendation. It’s not part of the official application, but because the professors that I interviewed with at the University of Michigan also filled out a one-page evaluation of me that was added to my application. I didn’t get to see this before it was submitted. If you are going to a country where you need to know a language that is not English, you will also need to have your language skills evaluated.

Here’s What Acceptance Looks Like

There are two stages to acceptance: one by a panel in the U.S. and one by a panel in the country you are going to. After turning in my application in September, I heard from the first round of cuts in February. I got the final answer in April.

You will have to attend an orientation. My region — Sub-Saharan Africa — had a pre-departure orientation, which meant we all gathered at a Marriott in Washington, D.C., for three days in late June. The people going to South and Central Asia had their orientation overlap with us, but in some regions, you have your orientation once you arrive in-country. A friend of mine who did a Fulbright in family law in New Zealand had an orientation there after she arrived in January.

Practicalities

  • The Fulbright will pay for you to bring along your spouse and dependents. Availability of these funds varies from country to country.
  • There is not a set Fulbright grant amount: it is calculated differently for different projects in different places, based on cost of living. You will receive it in installments, with most of the funds coming up front. The first installment cannot be deposited into your account earlier than about 4-6 weeks before you leave.
  • The grant amount does not allot funds specifically for the costs of visas or vaccinations.
  • The Fulbright funds are flexible. While they give you money based on certain categories (research, travel), they basically just deposit it in your account and you can spend it as it makes sense for you. You will, however, report your budget to the program in mid-year and end-of-year evaluations.
  • The standard U.S. Student Fulbright grant is for 10 months, though there is room for negotiation. In some cases, you can go for a shorter length of time (I did) and in others you can apply for an extension once you are partway through your grant. I should note that as soon as I arrived in Kenya, I and the other Fulbrighters were told that grant extensions wouldn’t be available at all that year because of budget restrictions.
  • The only concrete requirements after you receive the Fulbright and arrive in the foreign country are those two detailed program evaluations. You also will be obliged to stay in touch with the local U.S. embassy, including by attending a security briefing shortly after you arrive in-country.
  • You can re-apply if you aren’t initially awarded a fellowship: Kroos was not accepted until the second time she submitted an application, after her novel was more deeply fleshed out.

The Final Word

From Kroos:

“I think that the great thing about the Fulbright program is that it’s flexible. It is, at its core, about understanding and forming relationships with other nations and cultures. We do this through writing in many ways. To be honest, there are few writing projects that share this common goal that would not be fitting to the Fulbright program. I could imagine not only works of fiction and poetry, but also children’s writing, travel writing, translation, adaptation, etc. etc. There seem to be endless possibilities for writers to explore their own styles and interests.”

And Gulig:

“…it’s incredibly important to understand specifically how you work. If you need deadlines or affirmation or anything like that, the Fulbright probably is going to be a waste of your time. It’s easy, I think, to overly romanticize having all this freedom/time/security in which to work, but it’s also incredibly lonely, alienating work, which can make it difficult to actually do the work. There are going to be very few people who you can talk with about what you’re doing, which has the effect of creating certain doubts, certain strange anxieties in a lot of artists. This is something one should deal with and get over before arriving in the country. You don’t want to waste three months or more trying to figure these things out. The fellowship is simply too short.”

I will add that the Fulbright is most worthwhile for writers who are ready to unsteady themselves creatively, emotionally, and intellectually. That’s an easy sentiment to toss out there, but, I assure you, it is intense and difficult. It should be. When it’s time for you to risk it, in most cases, I believe, you know it.

This article is adapted, and expanded, from a post that originally appeared on Isak: http://www.isak.typepad.com.

DISCUSS: What Other Fellowship Programs Do You Recommend for Writers?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted July 23, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for a great guide and such personal stories. I’m looking to apply for a Fullbright for next year and really appreciate the write-up!

  2. Suzanne
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this info. specific to creative writing and Fulbrights! I wonder though, if Fulbright does have a limit on acceptance of writers? Do you have any sense of the Fulbright creative writing judges and any possible preferences?

  3. Posted August 21, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Suzanne, from my understanding, I don’t believe there are any solid limits on writing fellowships, at least for the first screen in the U.S. Individual countries may have preferences for what fields they would like to see fellows working in within their borders, but I haven’t yet seen any stated limit on writing fellows from that end, either.

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