Since her first novel, Bombay Time, landed on bookshelves in 2001, Thrity Umrigar has received critical acclaim for her vivid portrayal of the diverse relationships, cultures and lifestyles related to India. Four books and one memoir later, Umrigar will be a recipient of a 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize on Thursday, June 25.
According to its Web site, the Cleveland Arts Prize "identifies, selects and publicly honors those creative artists whose original work has made Northeast Ohio a more exciting place to live, and whose accomplishments have set a standard of excellence to which other artists can aspire."
Umrigar, associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, will receive the Mid Career Award. Prior to joining the ranks of academia in 2002—where she has taught courses in fiction and non-fiction, journalism, creative writing, and African-American and 20th century literature—she spent 17 years as a reporter with newspapers such as The Akron Beacon Journal. Umrigar said she made the transition to teaching and writing novels because she was interested in new challenges.
The classroom fuels her creativity. "As a writer, people are always asking me whether I see myself primarily as a teacher or novelist."I'm lucky enough to not have to choose. Some days, I feel more like a writer than a teacher. The next day, that equation changes. But I do think of writing and teaching as basically part of the same continuum and I feel like my writing informs my teaching and the other way around."
Umrigar said she doesn't have a lot of writing rituals. "I write pretty much anywhere--at home, at work, in coffee shops, libraries, on the back of napkins, etc. I like to get up early in the morning to write, as that seems to be the best time for me." Her own list of top writers changes often, but she cites F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf and Salman Rushdie among her favorites.
Umrigar's latest offering, The Weight of Heaven, is about an American couple who move to India as a way of dealing with the loss of their young child. "The novel deals with issues of how different people respond differently to grief and what happens when cultures with great economic disparity come into contact with each other," she explained.
Umrigar has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book citation, being selected as a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and a citation for The Washington Post's Best Fiction of 2006.
"In many ways, I feel like I'm just beginning my career," Umrigar said about receiving the Cleveland Arts Prize Mid Career Award. However, she does have advice for her students and novice writers. "Every writer has to discover his and her own voice. And voice is more than just the 'tone' of a story--it's also why you decide to tell this particular story, what intrigues you, what you want to communicate with your audience, and the rationale for the work. You have to know what you're passionate about before you can write."
As far as the next phase of her career, Umrigar hopes to continue writing and teaching. "I'm someone who doesn't plan my life a lot. I'm a great believer in 'life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
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