Since graduating from Sweet Briar five years ago with a degree in English and creative writing, Shavonne Wei-Ming Clarke ’07 has made quite a name for herself. Last fall, her short story “Third Wife” was published in the Bellevue Literary Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Set in Singapore, the narrative pays homage to Clarke’s grandmother, who was born there and fled to the U.S. during World War II. “Third Wife” is the result of a novel Clarke began to write for her senior thesis project at Sweet Briar.
“The story was an attempt to enter the mind of one of the wives — eight are spoken of in the novel — so that I could characterize her more effectively if she were ever mentioned in one of the chapters,” Clarke explained. “Of course, Reumah’s story really took on its own life once I began to write it.”
While the novel remains in progress, Clarke is also working on a new project — another novel and a short story that is part of it. This summer, she is traveling to England to finish the first draft of the novel, which is set about two hours south of London.
“I’m interested in writing about the riots that took place there last summer, exploring the social and political climate,” she said.
The short story will be published in the next issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review.
With her writing career taking off, Clarke hasn’t forgotten where it all started.
“I think I had some idea of how to express myself in writing before I went to Sweet Briar, but I was bottled up verbally. It was the best place for me to learn how to speak — and speak up — in a classroom.”
Sweet Briar’s small class sizes and the close collaboration between faculty and students proved a real advantage for Clarke.
“I wouldn’t have received the encouragement I did for my thesis at a larger school,” she said. “It was a unique, important experience, since a writer’s gotta have nerve, and my professors were nothing but supportive.”
One of them was John Gregory Brown, director of creative writing.
“I became interested in writing the novel during my senior year at Sweet Briar, when I approached John to be my thesis advisor,” Clarke said. “John and [writer-in-residence] Carrie [Brown] were both extremely supportive of the project from the outset.”
For the next two semesters, Clarke met with John regularly to discuss her progress and to workshop several chapters in his classes. John also offered mental support.
“He frequently encouraged me by saying, ‘Just keep going — just keep writing.’ As a relentless self-editor, his advisement to keep going was actually a great boon — I probably would have kept circling the same chapter otherwise, rewriting again and again.”
After graduating from Sweet Briar, Clarke went to Texas A&M University for a master’s degree in English. Since fall 2010, she’s been pursuing her M.F.A. in fiction at Purdue University, where she also teaches rhetoric, composition and creative writing and co-edits the Sycamore Review.
Contact: Janika Carey