Faculty member wins prestigious award for novel

By The Columbia Chronicle

Nami Mun, full-time faculty member the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia, has been awarded a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award for her first novel, Miles from Nowhere. The prestigious award provides financial support and publicity for emerging talent.

The Whiting Writers’ Awards were founded in 1985 by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation and have been annually giving aid to promising writers early in their careers. Each year, the foundation recognizes 10 writers with a stipend of $50,000 to offer them an opportunity to fully devote themselves to writing.

“When I got the call that I had won, I thought it was a joke,” Mun said. “It’s such a big thing that you don’t think will happen to you. It is validation that someone believes in my promise.”

The 2009 recipients were announced at an Oct. 28 ceremony in New York by Foundation President Robert L. Belknap. The guest speaker was critically acclaimed author Margaret Atwood, known for such works as The Year of the Flood and Cat’s Eye.

Winners are selected by an anonymous selection committee of writers, literary scholars and editors from all over the country.

“Everyone keeps asking me if I’m going to take a vacation [with the money],” Mun said. “It means that I don’t have to work and I can spend time focusing on future projects.”

Miles from Nowhere highlights Joon, a 13-year-old runaway Korean immigrant, who lives in the Bronx in New York City during the 1980s. According to Mun’s Web site, she delivers the story of a young woman who is at once tough and vulnerable, world-weary and naive, faced with insurmountable odds and yet fiercely determined to survive.

Though Mun is herself a Korean immigrant and a runaway who lived and worked odd jobs in the Bronx, she said only about 1 percent of the story is based on her life.

Mun, 40, was born in Seoul, South Korea and later moved to the Bronx.  She graduated from the University of California Berkeley and earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan. Her many jobs ranged from selling Avon products, to working as a criminal defense investigator, but she has always had a passion for writing.

“I never even considered nonfiction writing before,” Mun said. “Fiction writing provides a veil of protection; I can bury myself within my characters.”

Miles from Nowhere, published by Riverhead in January 2009, is her first full-length novel. Her short stories have been published in Granta, The Iowa Review, Tin House, the 2007 Pushcart Prize Anthology and other journals. This is her second year as a full-time faculty member in the Fiction Writing Department.

“I have always had this strange attraction to Chicago,” Mun said. “When I used to fly internationally, I would always make a connection at O’Hare [International Airport]. I would make sure there was at least a four-hour layover so I could hop a taxi to see my favorite paintings at the Art Institute.”

One of the qualities Columbia prides itself on having is faculty that are very involved in their fields.

“She has helped me develop skills as both a reader and a writer,” said Eliza Fogel, a graduate fiction writing student of Mun’s. “She shows you have to look from a different vantage point and open up analytical skills.”

Gary Johnson, associate chair of  the Fiction Writing Department, said Columbia is excited about Mun’s achievement.

“We are extremely proud that Nami Mun is a member of our faculty,” Johnson said. “Nami’s Whiting Writers’ Award is an exceptional accomplishment and terrific tribute to her talent. Both students and teachers are thrilled for Nami and her award, which brings notoriety at the national level to the Fiction Writing Department, the School of Fine and Performing Arts and the college.”

Mun said her newest project is a story about crime.  She revisits her experiences as a criminal defense investigator for inspiration. She said she will be interviewing homicide detectives, public defenders, district attorneys and even viewing a real autopsy for the story.

“I haven’t had her as a teacher yet, but I’m looking forward to taking future classes with her,” said Javon Harris, second year fiction writing major. “She is hardcore in a good way.”

Previous recipients of the Whiting Writers’ Award include authors Mona Simpson, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as playwrights August Wilson and Tony Kushner.

By Alicia DeVoll