Lydia Okutoro '98 Wins Mary E. Woolley Award

Posted: May 23, 2006
By Katie Wagner '02

I didn't win.

Neither did my girlfriend. We wondered who won, if we knew the alum.

A few days later, Lydia Okutoro '98, my M.F.A. colleague in creative writing at the University of Arizona, found me in the English lounge where I was revising a short story for workshop. She was ecstatic, a huge grin on her face. "I got the Mary E. Woolley award!"

This was Okutoro's third time applying for the annual award, the largest ($7,500) given by the Alumnae Association, with no restrictions as to year of graduation, proposed project, or place of study. Now she could put the money toward tuition rather than have to teach.

"The award will give me time and focus to write," she said.

In 1983 Okutoro moved to New York from Lagos, Nigeria, to live with an American family until 1989 when she left for St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. Senior year at St. Paul's School, Okutoro created a literary journal of creative works by her peers of color. Arriving at Mount Holyoke in 1994, under the guidance of English professor John Lemly, Okutoro expanded this journal into a book of poetry by writers of African descent between the ages of 13-22. Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets was published by Jump at Sun/Hyperion a year after Okutoro graduated.

"Mount Holyoke helped me shape my voice. Before Mount Holyoke I was shy and quiet," said Okutoro, who was an African American and African studies major at MHC. "My experiences and professors empowered me to write and be vocal." She counts John Lemly and Eugenia Herbert among her writing mentors.

After graduation, Okutoro worked as a seventh and eighth grade teacher at the Park School in Baltimore. It was here that she began to think of writing a memoir about her immigrant experience. Although she loved teaching, she found that it left little time for writing.

So Okutoro applied to the University of Arizona's master of fine arts (M.F.A.) program, which she chose for its prestige (among the top nine programs in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report) and funding through teaching. But as Okutoro knew from her previous job, teaching took away from writing. She applied once again for the Woolley fellowship, not expecting to get it.

"In fact," she laughed, "winning the award restored my faith in Mount Holyoke."

The book, tentatively titled My name Is Omolola: An African Girl in America, spans Okutoro's life from the age of 9 until she left for boarding school. "This book is not only a coming-of-age story, but also about my family and my immigrant experience. After my mother left me in New York at age 9 and visited once a year until I turned 13, I didn't see her for another 12 years. I now had two families--my American family that raised me and my Nigerian family back at home."

"Someday, if I become famous, Mount Holyoke will be among my top supporters." She smiled. "I will always be grateful for my experience."

Katie Wagner '02 received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Arizona, where she continues to teach. A 2005 recipient of the Bread Loaf Fellowship, she is at work on a collection of short stories and a memoir-in-essays.

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