NEA Literature Fellowships

Joseph Rathgeber

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(2016 - Prose)

from "Nor I"

Christmas carolers from the Pentecostal church across the street rang our doorbell one night late December. They proceeded to sing hosannas and hark the herald angels and lamb of Gods. Yaaba laughed. Yumma stood there, smirking in politeness and awkward in posture, her arms folded across her chest, tweaking her hijab, trying to draw attention to it. I yawned intentionally about a dozen times. Noor, like a numbskull, was captivated. When the carolers walked off our stoop, he had a string of questions that my parents passed off to me. Christmas questions, reindeer questions, chimney and chestnut questions. Questions about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. “Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet,” I explained to him. “But he ain’t God’s son.” Later that week, we drove by City Hall and Noor marveled at the big Christmas tree they had out front. Lights, garland, tinsel—the works. He petitioned my parents for one. We could call it a Muhammad tree, he pleaded.

Joseph Rathgeber is an author, poet, high school English teacher, and adjunct professor from New Jersey. His short stories and poems have appeared in The Literary ReviewJ Journal: New Writing on Justice, Mizna, Salamander, and elsewhere. His story collection is The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories (ELJ Publications, 2014). His work of hybrid poetry is MJ (Another New Calligraphy, 2015). He is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of a 2014 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship (Poetry). He’s currently at work on a novel.

Photo by Joseph Rathgeber

Author's Statement

I don’t have an MFA. I don’t have a Ph.D. I don’t have much in the way of connections or clout. I don’t even live in Brooklyn. I write stories and send them out and receive rejection letters. Sometimes—sometimes—I receive acceptances. I lack the “top-tier” credentials of my NEA peers. I scroll through the list of previous fellows and struggle to accept this is a group of which I am now included. I feel extraordinarily lucky that a panel of subjective readers enjoyed my work and recognized it as “artistic excellence.”

Still, I reflect on the privileges I possess that made this recognition possible. I have an MA. I’ve had a supportive professor. I have a full-time job. I own a computer and have easy access to the internet. I’m aware of the NEA’s existence and the grants it offers. I found the time required to navigate the application process. I tallied enough publications to make me eligible for the fellowship. In short, the good fortune I’ve experienced in my life thus far has allowed for this recognition. This fellowship will afford me the opportunity to continue to write stories that invoke characters lacking such advantages.

I’m proud to be an NEA fellow at the start of my career—it carries with it such validation. It also has material benefits. In an industry that routinely charges $10, $25, $35 to submit a manuscript to a contest for the possibility of publication, in an industry that almost never pays, in an industry that—like most everything in this world—is inevitably beholden to profit, an NEA grant is a godsend.