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Week of 2 April 1999

Vol. II, No. 29

Feature Article

SPH prof wins fiction prize for American survival stories

By Hope Green

Like many writers, Lucy Honig spends hours of her spare time in self-imposed solitude, living at the mercy of characters who march into her imagination and demand to be brought to life in words. But unlike most moonlighting authors, she has managed to achieve success in the literary marketplace.

In December, Honig, an SPH assistant professor of international health, won the 1998 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, one of the nation's most prestigious awards for a book of short stories, for her collection entitled The Truly Needy. The award includes $10,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press, which is expected in the fall.

"I'm still amazed and shocked and thrilled," Honig says, long after hearing the news. "The prize was the result of a fortunate convergence of the right stories at the right time."

The Truly Needy is Honig's first collection of stories to be published in book form. Many of its characters are immigrants living in New York, where Honig once taught English as a second language. And frequently, scenes take place on the city subways. In one story, a young Cambodian woman flees her parents' Brooklyn apartment to escape an arranged marriage, spending her days on the street and her nights riding back and forth on the trains between Queens and Coney Island. In another, a hairdresser commuting home from work becomes fascinated with the hordes of other passengers, watching their furtive, suspicious glances at one another and imagining what it would be like if they all suddenly burst into a chorus of "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

Novelist Charles Johnson, who selected Honig's manuscript for the prize, wrote that her stories "brim over with memorable characters, enough rich details of modern life to fill a novel, and a heart big enough to embrace the world in all its complexity and ambiguity." And he called the book "one of the most satisfying literary works of the '90s."

Self-taught storyteller
Honig earned her bachelor's degree in American studies from Syracuse University and a master's in education from Hunter College of the City University of New York. For the last four years she has taught in a writing program she designed for BU's department of international health, where every student must complete a short thesis. But she never took a writing course in her life, fiction or otherwise. She wrote "dopey little stories and poems as a kid," she says, but it was not until her late 20s that she began writing in earnest.

A Maine potato farmer whom Honig met during the 1970s inspired a novel called Picking Up, which was published by Dog Ear Press in 1986. Later, a story of hers appeared in the Best American Short Stories 1988, and she won O. Henry Awards for short fiction in 1992 and 1996. She has also been published in top-tier literary journals, including BU's Agni, and has had residencies at several artist colonies. Some of her greatest support and feedback, she says, comes from friendships with other writers and artists, usually not famous ones but "people who write well, read well, and feel deeply."

Lucy Honig, SPH assistant professor of international health, says that teaching "gives me substance in my own life and feeds into my writing."

Meanwhile, teaching continues to provide her with new subject matter. "I've always wanted work that was meaningful to me," she says. "Teaching -- and especially my contact here with mature students working in the health fields from all over the world -- gives me substance in my own life and feeds into my writing, so I don't feel there's a conflict."

Stop and go
Creativity, she admits, comes in fits and starts. "For me, when a story cooks, I hear voices: the characters talk, I write it down. It's very rough and barely readable, but there's life in it and I can go back and straighten it out. When it doesn't cook, I tend to stop. Sometimes I stop for months or years. It's not a good method, and I would not recommend it. But when I try to force myself to write every day just because I know I'm supposed to, I write garbage. That's not so terrible, though -- I like to think of words as disposable."

At the moment, Honig is working on Citizens Review, a novel about police-community relations in a racially diverse town in upstate New York. The story, while not autobiographical, does draw from her experience investigating hate crimes while she was executive director of the Ulster County, N.Y., Human Rights Commission, a position she held just before coming to SPH.

Similarly, many of Honig's favorite contemporary writers tend to focus on political and social issues. Among them are Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, the Nigerian writer Ken SaroWiwa, and Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o. "They write beautifully, and sometimes with great humor, of resistance or suffering, or social ills experienced by characters whom they love and make very real to me," she says, and then adds, with typical modesty, "They tell a damn good story. I'd like to be able to do that."