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  • Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is the 2019 chair of the Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize committee.

    Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is the 2019 chair of the Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize committee.

    Photo: Jonathan Sachs Photography

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Q&A: M. Amah Edoh on the Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize

Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is the 2019 chair of the Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize committee.

The award honors writing related to immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual, and/or mixed-race experiences.


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The Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize was established in 2010 in honor of Isabelle de Courtivron, professor emerita of French studies, on the occasion of her retirement. The prize is awarded annually for student writing on topics related to immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual, and/or mixed-race experiences. This year, the prize committee is chaired by assistant professor of African studies M. Amah Edoh. Edoh answered a few questions about the origins and aims of the prize, and about its namesake. Entries are now open for the 2019 Isabelle de Courtivron Writing Prize.

Q: The de Courtivron prize invites submissions about “immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual and/or mixed-race experiences.” Why is this the focus?

A: Many of our students at MIT live across multiple cultural identities, whether as a result of having parents from different national, religious, or racial backgrounds, or as a product of migration — their own or their parents’, or ancestral dislocation, as in the case of members of the African and other diasporas. I believe that it’s incredibly important for young people from such backgrounds to have spaces where they can both process and share the experiences that living between multiple worlds bring about. Particularly because, unfortunately, there’s a way in which when we are young, we can experience this multiplicity as a burden — because we don’t fit into any one culture neatly, rather than as the asset that it actually is — the ability to be fluent in multiple cultural mores (and often, languages). This demographic of students was of particular interest to Professor de Courtivron during her time at MIT, owing both to her intellectual pursuits and to her own personal experience, having lived and worked in France, the U.S., and other countries, throughout her career. The writing contest gives students a space where they can reflect on their experiences, and share them with the MIT community as a whole. For us all it’s an invaluable chance to learn about the wealth of life experiences that make up the fabric of our community.

Q: What kind of writing is accepted for prize entries?

A: Both creative and expository writing are welcome. It could be a personal essay or a short story. Also, our students are often already engaged in thinking about questions relevant to the prize in their SHASS classes — namely, who they are in the world, and what it has meant to be them in different places. And so sometimes they already have papers they’ve written for classes on these topics that speak to the theme of the prize. We welcome those as well.

Q: What would be your advice to budding writers?

A: I think the most poignant writing for a prize like this comes out of authenticity. And by that, I mean writing that is true to your voice, your heart, and your experience. Sometimes we’re able to tap into that easily, other times it takes a bit more effort. Personally, when I don’t know where to start, I like to use “critical moments” reflection as a way to start generating ideas: reflecting on a moment that stands out for its strong emotional charge — whether you felt especially happy or sad or angry or surprised or confused. Under these strong emotions lies a meaningful experience, which might just provide a starting point, or perhaps a signpost as you continue to develop the bigger piece; write from that. The technique can be useful for both fiction and non-fiction. Also, what grabs us as readers when we read stories is the specificity of what’s being conveyed. As the writer, it can be tempting to want to focus on the universal dimension of what you’re writing about, almost at the expense of the specifics of the particular experience you’re relaying. But you have to let the story itself do much (maybe most!) of that work for you. That requires a great deal of trust in your voice and in your story. It’s also where the magic happens!

Q: The writing prize is named for Professor Emerita Isabelle de Courtivron. I understand you knew her when you were an undergrad at MIT.

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Q: Tell us more about Professor Isabelle de Courtivron.

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Submissions are due by March 6. Interested students can find out more about how to submit by going to mitgsl.mit.edu/writingprize. The winning entry will be published online, and there is a $400 first prize.


Topics: Global Studies and Languages, Writing, Contests and academic competitions, Diversity and inclusion, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Students

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