Prestigious first book award additional validation for Virginia Tech alumna
Anuradha Bhowmik’s award-winning poetry addresses her life experiences as a Bangladeshi-born American woman in today’s world
Like most people living in a pandemic world, Anuradha Bhowmik works from her home in Philadelphia, using technology to communicate and complete her daily tasks.
One afternoon in early January, during a midweek work-related call, she received an email from the director of the University of Pittsburgh Press with “Starrett Prize” in the subject line. A full-time student advisor by day and a writer by night, Bhowmik had submitted a collection of her poetry to the publisher in hopes of winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.
In the past, many emails regarding her writing submissions had served as rejection letters for her.
Not this time.
Bhowmik, who earned a master of fine arts from Virginia Tech's College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in 2018, was selected as the winner of the 2021 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize — an award that goes to a poet writing in English who hasn’t had a full-length book of poetry published. Her collection, entitled “Brown Girl Chromatography,” was selected by Aaron Smith, an award-winning poet and former winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize who served as the judge for this year’s competition.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” she said, “but it made my year.”
The award was not the first for Bhowmik, who earned her undergraduate degree in women’s and gender studies from the University of North Carolina (UNC) in 2015. Her poetry has won her awards and fellowships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Community of Writers, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Frost Place, and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, among others. Also, her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous nationwide publications.
But this award probably ranks as the most prestigious. She won a $5,000 grand prize, and the University of Pittsburgh Press plans to publish her collection as part of its Pitt Poetry Series later this fall.
“I’m not surprised Anuradha won because she was unbelievably talented and successful even as an MFA student,” said Erika Meitner, a poet and a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of English who was Bhowmik’s thesis director. “The average in our field is about seven years past graduation to get a first book published. She is ahead of the game, and she had a ton of publications as a graduate student when she was here. She published more work in her time as an MFA student than any other student we’ve had come through the program. She’s always been super successful, really driven, and very talented.”
Bhowmik mostly writes autobiographically, focusing on life experiences that shaped her as a Bangladeshi-born American girl growing up in South Jersey. “Brown Girl Chromatography” examines issues such as race, class, gender, and sexuality in a post-9/11 world.
“Hers is an interesting manuscript in that it didn’t shy away from addressing intense issues around family history and dynamics, immigration, acculturation, race, class, and gender,” Meitner said. “She just writes really intensely and beautifully in a compelling way about all of these things.”
Bhowmik started writing around the age of 9. She described herself as being “really nerdy,” wearing glasses and braces, and that, along with being from Bangladesh and living in a mostly white community, left her feeling isolated. The Sept. 11 attacks created a common enemy for Americans, but those attacks negatively impacted Bhowmik’s world. People mistakenly viewed her and her family unfavorably because of their immigrant roots, even though they had received political asylum to come to the United States from Bangladesh in the late 1990s.
An introverted person by nature, Bhowmik started writing as an escape.
“I was in a gifted and talented class for language arts in the fourth grade, and my teacher had a closet with all this cool stationery,” she said. “I would take the stationery home and write poems that I still have, but they’re super embarrassing. Writing poetry was just something I looked forward to. I loved going through the closet of pretty stationery and then writing something to turn in for class every week.
“We had to turn in maybe 10 poems, but I ended up writing probably closer to 100. But my childhood was mostly a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Writing poetry was primarily a distraction for most of my life at home and at school, where I always felt isolated. It was nice that my teacher validated my writing because that validated me as a person. That was around the first time an adult told me I was talented as a writer.”
She decided to continue writing, starting as an undergraduate at UNC. During that time, another experience shaped her and her writing style. She returned to Bangladesh for a month and found the various levels of poverty difficult to witness.
“I felt unsafe in Bangladesh, being a woman. Those who live there can tell that I’m American,” Bhowmik said. “There, American women are hypersexualized, and I definitely didn’t feel comfortable going out by myself.
“I felt that a lot of my freedom was confined. It’s also difficult as a Westerner to see the class division and how it plays a role in the culture there. No matter what I did, people could tell that I wasn’t from there. People would actually say, ‘You’re not a woman of this country.’ That’s a little difficult to hear when you were born in that country.”
A few months after graduating from UNC, she enrolled at Virginia Tech, where she spent three years on the poetry track in the master of fine arts program in creative writing.
She valued her time in Blacksburg, as the program provided structure for her writing and time to write. Also, the faculty and staff affirmed her work by telling her that her life experiences offered value to today’s world.
Bhowmik focuses mostly on poetry today, while mixing in some creative nonfiction essays.
In the future, she plans to continue writing, regardless of time constraints or wherever life takes her. She hopes to grow and has set goals for herself as a writer.
“After releasing my first poetry collection this year, I hope that, in however many years, I’ll also have my first book of creative nonfiction,” she said. “I do think that, regardless of how much time it takes or how many other work and life responsibilities I’ll have, I’ll be publishing multiple books of poetry and creative nonfiction as I get older.”
And if her recent work is any indication, she just may be winning more awards in the future as well.