Introducing the Inaugural PEN America/L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship
In the process of researching Becoming Madeleine, the 2018 memoir recounting the life of their late grandmother, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy learned a lot about Madeleine L’Engle’s literary legacy. To the world, she was the best-selling, award-winning author of the classic book A Wrinkle in Time. To them, she was the quiet grandmother who let them sit by her side as she poured over pages in her writing room, affectionately known as “the ivory tower.” Voiklis and Roy recall that, as children, they were the only ones allowed in the tower—a memory they now cherish as a sign of their grandmother’s deep affection.
It is a common image: a silhouette perched over a desk, locked away in a figurative—or literal—tower of solitude. But as any writer knows, the act can also be a communal and deeply connective practice. This is particularly true when one has the support of mentors who, despite their expertise or literary success, still understand themselves as writers in the making. The most meaningful mentorships—those which often stretch into years and spill over into friendships— are grounded in a mutual understanding that both parties are, as L’Engle would put it, “a self [that] is always becoming.”
To be always becoming is at the very core of what it means to be a writer. Each new project, down to the sentence brings with it a journey of unexpected challenges and discoveries. The writer who finishes a project is often not the same one who started it. As a children’s author, L’Engle knew the importance of instilling this in her readers from a young age: “A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete.”
The incarcerated writers we work with in PEN America’s Prison Writing Program are familiar with the notion of being branded a static version of themselves. Most of these writers are used to being referred to and treated as “criminals,” “offenders,” and “inmates”—their lives forever defined by a moment in time, an act from their youth, a single decision. The trope of the solitary writer also takes on new meaning in this setting, where people find themselves forcibly separated from their loved ones and communities, and where nearly 70,000 people in the United States, on any given day, spend 23 out of 24 hours in solitary confinement.
Our mentor program aims to provide incarcerated writers with access to a wider literary community that understands them as serious artists in their own right and welcomes their contributions. Through the program’s long legacy, launched in the early 1970s on the heels of the Attica uprising, stories of many—often unlikely—connections through the walls pepper our history, but perhaps none as compelling as what follows.
L’Engle was one of PEN America’s very first mentors, where she was connected with Ron Irwin, an incarcerated Black Panther party leader and scholar with a powerful story to tell. While organizing with the local Black Panther Party in Detroit in 1968, Irwin was one of a few party leaders targeted by the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence program. At just 19 years old, Irwin was framed in an FBI sting operation, and subsequently, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
During his 21 years in prison, Irwin continued to be a dedicated student and movement leader. Eventually changing his name to Ahmad Rahman (meaning “beneficent teacher”), he earned his a BA from Wayne State University and went on to become the first incarcerated student ever to achieve a Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Upon his release, Rahman went on to become a beloved and highly celebrated assistant professor of African and African-American history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn—a mentor that students named as profoundly inspirational, life-changing, and transformative.
While incarcerated, Rahman received support from a community of mentors that included L’Engle, and others such as scholar and poet Aneb Kgositsile. These strong ties to the outside world offered the spectrum of guidance and intellectual stimulation necessary when in the pursuit of academic and literary goals. Through dozens of letters spanning over a decade, L’Engle and Rahman developed a specific and cherished literary friendship that illustrates our connective—rather than “charitable”—approach. As she shared her own craft, in turn, L’Engle was offered an education. In one of their many exchanges, L’Engle sent Rahman a copy of her book The Other Side of the Sun. In response, Rahman critiqued how she approached the issue of race in the novel.
“But you mean well. That’s what gets me. You mean so well. And all the condescending passages are unintentional. You just didn’t know how to express what you wanted, and what definitely needed, to be expressed. If there is one thing I deeply want you to gain from our friendship, it is the ability to express your ideas and feelings about this swirl of racial conflicts in a fashion that puts to use your considerable gifts for the good you strive to do.”
L’Engle’s response not only took the critique in stride, but expressed gratitude for what Rahman’s capacity to critique her work meant about the trust that existed between them.
“Well, you’re teaching me a lot. I don’t think I want to ‘mean well.’ The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I do want to write what needs to be written, and I’m grateful for your willingness to help me. . . Let us continue to struggle together for justice and love.”
The most potent mentorships are grounded in mutual trust—there is a sense not only of “you can help me become,” but “I know you care about what I become.”
This year, we are honored to launch a new and important award, the PEN America/L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship, which uplifts mentorships in our Prison Writing Program that are grounded in this mutual becoming and recognizes writing can be as much a communal venture as a solitary one. Our inaugural prize is awarded to four mentor-mentee pairs who exhibit the spirit of the L’Engle-Rahman exchange—committed and consistent communication, feedback that honors the writer’s intention and unique voice while being open and honest in rigorous critique, and a demonstrated dialogue between both writers on craft and intellectual ideas.
This year’s nominations describe mentorships that allowed mentees to finish projects that pushed their creative capacities and welcomed them as equal literary interlocutors. Some letters emphasized the importance of being in community with another writer who valued their voice even in moments of self-doubt. Derek Trumbo writes, “Agustin led me to believe that my words mattered. He made me seek out new ways to express myself. He made me take pride in the way that I presented my words.”
In response to their mentees, mentors wrote back to us expressing deep gratitude for their mentee’s spirit, talent, and dedication. “During the length of our mentorship correspondence, Benjamin taught me more about writing and about resilience than I think he will ever know,” wrote Noelia Cerna about her mentee. “He was the first to encourage me in my writing pursuits and to celebrate my victories. It was a partnership of writers from the very beginning.”
The response that Rahman wrote to L’Engle, to tell her that his short story “The Action Comes” won first prize in the PEN America Prison Writing Contest, has been lost to the annals of time. Instead, L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis imagined what her grandmother’s response might be to this proud note. In the dramatic script, Voiklis stitched together the two’s letters, performed at the 2019 Prison Writing Awards Celebration, and added a line among their original words. In this slightly fictionalized version of the story, L’Engle wrote back to Rahman that she was delighted, but not surprised: “You have worlds in you, and material to fill a library.”
It is our hope that through the partnership of writers that our program fosters each year, we will continue to see these hidden worlds come to life both on and off the page.