Fourth-year wins writing fellowship for fiction exploring emigration

Elinam Agbo selected as first winner of Les River Fellowship for Young Novelists

Fourth-year Elinam Agbo began at the University of Chicago as a pre-med student majoring in Biological Sciences. But her plans began to change with each creative writing workshop she took.

“I’m in my sixth and seventh workshops now,” Agbo said. “I like the workshop environment. It makes me write and produce, and I learn quite a lot from my peers.”

Her commitment has paid off with Agbo being named the first recipient of the Les River Fellowship for Young Novelists. Her novel in progress, titled Canopy of Dreams, was the unanimous selection for the award, selected by UChicago faculty members who teach fiction.

Agbo will read from her work May 25 at the Creative Writing student reception. The event starts at 4:30 p.m. in the Logan Center for the Arts, Room 801.

"Canopy of Dreams is about a 12-year-old named June emigrating to the United States to join her mom who she hasn't seen since she was five,” Agbo said. “I was interested in trying to figure out what it's like to emigrate, especially at that critical age, without a solid knowledge of your origins.”

While the novel isn’t completely autobiographical, Agbo shares an immigrant story with her main character. Agbo moved to the United States from Ghana when she was ten, growing up in Kansas. Her parents now live in South Carolina, moving there just after she graduated from high school.

Agbo said home and belonging are important themes of the novel. “If you can’t trace where you’ve come from, or at least have firm footing in the past, how can you move forward?” she asked.

Agbo hasn’t been back to Ghana, but she has returned to it in her writing after being inspired during a workshop in her second year at UChicago. She had started working on a fantasy piece, but after an assigned reading evoked memories of Ghana, Agbo began working on more realistic stories, some of which evolved into what is now Canopy of Dreams.

Fiction lecturer Rachel DeWoskin, who nominated Agbo for the award, has gotten the chance to witness Agbo’s evolution as a writer as the two have worked together in four workshops over the last few years.

“Elinam is a uniquely brilliant person, and her work is ambitious and full of talent,” DeWoskin said. “The novel she’s working on is at once thematically deep, character-driven and propulsive.”

DeWoskin said one of the things that most impressed her about Agbo’s novel is her ability to give all her characters nuance and complexity.

“Modesty and humility are part of Elinam’s person, and they inform the humanity of her writing,” DeWoskin said. “She’s a person who is outward-thinking, and takes a lot of time considering other people, including her characters. Even the characters who behave badly in her novel are treated as fully-rendered human beings.”

For Agbo, DeWoskin’s encouragement has been a driving force in her work, especially in guiding her to think about the story she wants to tell.

“Rachel was encouraging in the beginning, just by the readings she had on the syllabus,” Agbo said. “I liked reading about immigrants, and I hadn’t done that intentionally before that first workshop. Since then, her sustained enthusiasm and support have definitely kept me writing. It’s a gift to have a mentor as versatile and accomplished as Rachel care so deeply about my work.” 

The Les River Fellowship was established by Dorothy River in honor of her late husband, W. Leslie River, PhB’25. The $5,000 award is intended for “uninterrupted work or travel for research purposes.” Agbo will use fellowship to support her stay at two writing institutes this summer before starting the University of Michigan’s Master of Fine Arts program.