Allegheny College English Professor Mari Christmas Receives Prestigious Writing Award

Allegheny College Assistant Professor of English Mari Christmas is a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award winner for her skill in fiction writing. The foundation writes that “her fierce, darkly humorous, emotionally riveting work explores and embodies today’s world reflecting our deepest anxieties and the complexities of current-day feminism, motherhood, and modern love.”

This award annually recognizes six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program was established by novelist Rona Jaffe in 1995 and has helped many women build successful writing lives by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time.

Assistant Professor of English Mari Christmas

Christmas joined the ranks of Allegheny’s English Department faculty in January 2020 to fill the department’s need for a permanent fiction writer. “I have been blown away by the sincerity and talent of our students and by their commitment to community,” Christmas says. “I already had a sense of Allegheny from my campus visit, but crises (like the one the pandemic presented) often reveal our true natures, and I have been impressed with how hard I see my colleagues working to serve our students and the College. It’s encouraging to be with people who care so thoroughly about what they do.”

Before coming to Allegheny, Christmas received her B.A. from Haverford College and her M.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and she just completed her Ph.D. from SUNY Albany. She didn’t begin to pursue writing as a career until her mid-20s, which led her to completing her M.F.A. and then Ph.D.

English Department Chair and Associate Professor Matt Ferrence was excited to add Christmas to the faculty cohort. “Mari embodies what we seek to be at Allegheny,” he says. “She is an accomplished fiction writer — reflected, for sure, in the prestige of this award! — and also a committed and generous teacher. Her arrival signaled the return of a full complement of expertise in the creative writing program, as we had no permanent fiction writer for about five years, and that’s a specialty that draws many, many students.”

Often in her writing, Christmas features characters that tend to find being a woman dizzying — in her words, “the ones that don’t move so willingly or willfully from one ‘life stage’ to the next.” She draws inspiration from various other women writers who also explore those themes: specifically Grace Paley, Audre Lord, Ottessa Moshfegh, Diane DiPrima, Fleur Jaeggy, Merritt Tierce and Amina Cain, in addition to others.

Christmas’s fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, New Ohio Review, Juked, Fence, and Black Warrior Review. She has received fellowships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Surel’s Place. She also has begun a novel titled Fugue States that traces the path of the narrator as she navigates her own difficult relationship to new motherhood.

Ferrence is especially complimentary of Christmas’s writing aptitude. “Mari’s fiction inhabits a powerful space of hauntedness,” he notes. “Not a ‘ghosts and gothic’ sort of explicit haunting, but a deeply literary sense of characters reckoning with the unspoken traumas of the past that affect their present. She also writes with a wonderful mastery of the telling detail: broken glass, an old mattress, specific objects that fit perfectly in the world of each story but that take on the power of meaning and metaphor. Her fiction demonstrates technical prowess and, even more importantly, a keen eye toward the meaningful interiority of characters wrestling their way through the real complications of life.”

The Rona Jaffe award’s significance resonates with Christmas as promoting equity, rather than elevation, of women writers. “I completed my first semester as an assistant professor of English at Allegheny College while raising my 18-month-old toddler without childcare during a pandemic. Although I have long understood that higher education isn’t made for women (and women of color in particular), I realize now that it especially isn’t made for women who are mothers of very young children (what is generally referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty’).

“Being a mother in academia is a challenge under normal circumstances, and the pandemic not only added to this challenge but also raised our awareness of it. So, in a sense, the foundation affords women the financial opportunity to continue their art despite their specifically difficult and gendered circumstances. This award is not just a financial gift. It is an affirmation of the ways in which women continue to reach out to one another, and how we are able to nourish and support each other as artists and thinkers in times of crisis.”

Outside of the classroom, Christmas enjoys driving long distances, sometimes through the night. She also spends time alone with her two dogs, which gives her a way to step back from the everyday, because “watching them always reminds me that there are other ways of being in this world.”