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Q&A with Nancy Rawles | 1991 GAP, Literary

Artist Trust

Q: What kind of art do you make?
A: I write historical fiction that generally takes a great deal of research. My work is a long time in the making, and I doubt I would have ever finished anything without the support of Artist Trust and other leading arts organizations. When I look at the impact the Artist Trust grants have had on my writing, it’s been in the area of research and scholarship.

Q: What did you use your award for?
A: I used the 1994 Fellowship to workshop a play with the Ethnic Cultural Center Theater at the University of Washington. Keeper at the Gate was directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, and the lead actor was G. Valmont Thomas. The play was about the assassination of Edwin Pratt. Pratt was Director of the Seattle Urban League from 1961-1969, when he was killed in the doorway of his Shoreline home. He had worked closely with other leaders in the community to bring construction jobs and housing to the Central District. I spent months interviewing people who knew him and living in the UW archives doing research.

Q: What was the impact of this award/Artist Trust on your art career/life?
A: The 2007 Fellowship allowed me to participate in the Brandeis University Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. Founded and directed by Bernadette J. Brooten, the project included conferences and symposia that looked at the long legacy of slavery in the lives of women and girls. It included scholars from all over the world and focused on the role of religion in slaveholding societies. I made a friend of a Sudanese writer named Mende Nazer who was enslaved as a child and later taken as a slave to London, where she eventually escaped. I was able to bring her to Seattle to speak in conjunction with the Seattle Public Library Foundation in 2009, when My Jim was the Seattle Reads selection.

Nancy Rawles (Seattle) is the author of My Jim, a novel that tells the story of the wife and children of Mark Twain’s famous slave character from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My Jim was the 2009 selection for Seattle Reads, the prestigious city-wide program sponsored by the Seattle Public Library and the Washington Center for the Book. It was also honored with the Legacy Award in Fiction from the Hurston/Wright Foundation and the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Writing in the New York Times, Helen Schulman called My Jim “as heart-wrenching a personal history as any recorded in American literature.”
Rawles worked as a journalist and a playwright before turning to fiction. Artist Trust provided the encouragement she needed – GAP grants in 1991, 1997 and 1998, Fellowship Awards in 1994 and 2007 – to publish three novels (Love Like Gumbo, Crawfish Dreams, My Jim) and one play (Keeper at the Gate). Project awards from the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions and Jack Straw Productions allowed for collaborations with actors, musicians, singers, composers, visual artists and other writers. Another important source of encouragement and support was her work as an artist in the schools for the Seattle Arts & Lectures WITS Program, Powerful Schools, and the Washington State Arts Commission. She currently teaches writing at Highline College. Miz Sparks Is On Fire and This Ain’t No Drill, her eerily realistic satire about the public schools, was published by Blue Begonia Press in 2013.