MFA instructor winner of 2021 Whiting Award in fiction

Steven Dunn’s career as a writer started at an art show.

Originally a visual artist, he was showing his work in downtown Denver when his wife asked if he’d noticed how many words were in his paintings. “And I didn’t. I was like, ‘Oh. I should be a writer,’” he said.  “So, that’s when I started writing.”

The career decision propelled him to earn degrees in creative writing and to write two novels, one of which was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Most recently, Dunn, who teaches in the Regis Mile-High MFA program, won a 2021 Whiting Award in fiction.

The $50,000 award, given to each of 10 writers this year, is designed to recognize “excellence and promise in a spectrum of emerging talent, giving most winners their first chance to devote themselves full-time to their own writing, or to take bold new risks in their work,” according to the Whiting Foundation.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought someone was pranking me at first. It feels really good — I’m really happy. I’m glad people saw me and what I was doing. I feel valued. I felt valued without it, but this is nice — it’s some icing.”

Dunn, a U.S. Navy veteran born and raised in West Virginia, is the author of Potted Meat, which follows a young boy in rural West Virginia as he struggles with abusive parents, poverty alcohol addiction and racial tensions, and water & power, which explores military culture, as well as the perception of heroism. Potted Meatwas adapted into a short film, The Usual Route, released in December by Foothills Productions.

The Whiting Award selection committee wrote that Dunn’s fiction “has no varnish, only the reporting of life in its dizzying plenitude. His narratives about life in the military draw on his experience as a veteran to explore powerlessness, the discomforts of the body, the need to hide one’s sexuality, the desire to assert control — but it finds its strength in softness.”

Both of his novels draw on two major parts of Dunn’s life: growing up in West Virginia and serving in the Navy.

“My first book, Potted Meat,is about West Virginia,” Dunn said. “I’ve encountered this thing out of West Virginia where people don’t think we exist. People don’t think Black people exist in West Virginia. And often in West Virginia, we’re left out of the bigger narratives of West Virginia … I grew up in a really Black town. My county is the second Blackest community in West Virginia.”

Dunn wanted to be part of shaping the narratives about the state, especially as they related to poverty and Black communities.

“I wanted to write about poverty from the inside of it, instead of being this person who has transcended poverty and is now writing about it condescendingly,” he said. “I wanted to write about full Black lives in West Virginia the best I could.”

In water & power, he drew from his experiences in the military.

“Most narratives you see from the military are from straight white men,” he said. “Their narratives are more valued than anybody’s. And it’s also a singular heroic narrative. So, I wanted to bring more voices in that aren’t usually represented in literature.”


Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan