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Creative Solemnity

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Former Stanford graduate student Elif Batuman wins prestigious writing award

Elif Batuman Ph.D ‘07 and nine other young authors received the 2010 Whiting Writers’ Awards late last month at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

The awards, currently set at $50,000 each, have been given annually by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation to exceptionally gifted writers who show promise in their early writing careers.

The 250-person crowd included Whiting foundation members, publishing colleagues, award recipients’ editors, family and friends. The keynote speaker was Peter Matthiessen, an award-winning writer, who has written more than 30 books, including “The Snow Leopard” and “Shadow Country,” both of which won National Book Awards.

Batuman’s winning book, “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a collection of memoirs drawn from experiences during her years as a Stanford graduate student. Described as “an antic romp through literary academia,” Batuman’s work was praised for its literary wit and distinctive humor.

“She doesn’t take herself too seriously, but she takes her enterprise completely seriously, even while remaining funny about it,” wrote the Whiting selection committee in a press release. “She is sly, charming and erudite. Who would have believed the lives of contemporary graduate students could match the models of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in obsessiveness, wanderlust and belief in the power of literature to transform the world?”

Making connections across works of literature is nothing new for Batuman. Even in her earliest years of writing, Batuman has enjoyed exploring multiple works and seeking to find the hidden links among them.

“I learned to write when I was five,” Batuman said. “I’ve always liked to write. When I was little, I had this project to tie up all of the fairy tales together. You know how there always seems to be a witch in every story? I wondered, ‘What if the fairy tales’ witches were all the same witch? I like the idea that everything might be connected and is one big story.”

Batuman, during her undergraduate studies at Harvard, initially wrote fiction, but her writing interests shifted to nonfiction, particularly memoirs. She has published articles in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and n+1. Batuman sees literature of all genres as possessing the power to reveal things about the world.

“The world is a mysterious place,” Batuman said. “We need books to provide some sense of quest for meaning.”

“The Possessed” is based on Batuman’s miscellaneous “ridiculous experiences” along her journey in academia. Many of these consist of comparative literature conferences and funded research in pursuits such as the murder investigation of Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

“I have a tendency to create my own job,” Batuman said. “One summer, I had gone over to Moscow. They initially didn’t want me, but I went over there anyway and invented [the job].”

Another zany episode of literary academia that Batuman highlighted in “The Possessed” was her unplanned immersion in Uzbek culture in 2002.

“It was a two-month-long summer program in Samarkand, Uzbekistan,” she said. “I thought I was going to teach Uzbek but it turned out I wasn’t eligible for the Stanford teaching position there. I had gotten the grant money already and couldn’t return it. So I ended up going and when I got there, I was the only student. Four hours every day, one-on-one tutoring in Uzbek culture and history. It was really strange and touching at the same time.”

It is Batuman’s strange adventures where she draws inspiration from for her own writing, which brings forth absurd events in a curious blend of creative solemnity.

“Some people see my book as an academic absurdity,” she said.

“I find that ridiculousness human and likable,” she added. “My mood is solidarity in the face of adversity. You share this observation that something is absurd and then it’s comforting — it makes you feel less alone.”

Batuman looks forward to working on her next book. In the coming year, she will be a writer in residence at Koc University in Istanbul.

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