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“Learn from your mistakes, never internalize rejection or failure, and when you experience success be encouraging to others.” 2019 Fellow, Sterling Cunio

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected thirteen writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2020 OLF applications will be posted at the end of April, and the deadline to apply will be Friday, July 12, 2019.

2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Sterling Cunio


Sterling Cunio has been awarded PEN America Prison Writing Awards in the essay and drama. He lives in Salem.

Q&A with Literary Arts 
What are your sources of inspiration?
Stories of people transcending adversity inspire me. As well as, examples of profound personal transformations such as Nelson Mandela’s transformation from violent warfare to non-violent resistance to noble peace prizewinner and peace advocate. My inspiration comes from the personal triumphant of those who exist in difficult context. As a prisoner inside a Nazi concentration camp, Author and psychologist Viktor Frankle, experienced tragedy every hour of his day. Facing violence, starvation, and countless abuses resulting from systemic genocide, he observed those with the greatest resolve to maintain meaning in their lives were those who never lost a sense of purpose for their existence.Those who live with purpose even as their body may decay from incurable cancers inside hospice inspire me to tell their stories and share wisdom of their lives journey. Like any writer I am inspired by artist, authors and advocates. Bob Marley, Rumi, Lauren Kessler. Yet, little inspires me more than life forms that grow through concrete and defy dividing walls. Like the fern growing out the side of the prison gun tower. Beauty beneath sniper rifles.Prisoners who regain their liberty and use their freedom to help others inspire me. Arnaldo Ruiz, Trevor Walraven, Isaiah Holt, Shaka Senghor, Dwaine Betts, Mustafa Moore and others who have progressed from cells to college, and then to homes with their own families. Filled with gratitude each step of the way. Examples of people who become a light inspire me. Those who live their faith, pursue their bliss and refuse to live a narrative not their own.

How would you describe your creative process?

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
Receiving the Fellowship is personally and spiritually affirming. The recognition is more than an honorable accolade from an incredible organization of talented writers. For me, it is a recognition that I exist as more than my worst failures. As a kid I committed harms that have and will continue to define the course of my entire life. Although I discovered a long time ago that the transgressions of one’s past doesn’t prevent the ability to do good in the present, to be associated with any good beyond stigma is a personal affirmation that inspires a greater belief in my own humanity and the idea that a life lived in amends is not in vain. My poetry and stories come from wanting to share the stories of “others,” those who are invisible, regretful, evolved and transformed. The tragically flawed and poetic. This fellowship bares witness to the fact that there are people in the world who believe that people are more than the sum of their worst act. Hence, inclusion is possible even for the outcast. Being named a recipient nourishes hope that my writing may touch lives in a way that inspires others to believe that even from the darkest depths it is still possible to achieve something special. It affirms a belief in redemptive possibilities. Thank-you.

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing of tragedies and triumphs behind bars, of personal transformations born of struggle and hope. Stories that bear witness to those who live in atonement or are crippled by guilt, and chronicle the obstacles faced and overcome or succumbed to. It includes stories of those vowing innocence while dying in a prison hospice, as well as, those admitting guilt and striving to live a life of amends. I’m writing stories about reconnecting pieces of shattered lives, choosing hope, and blooming where planted. This year I plan to finish a manuscript of narrative non-fiction essays.

What advice would you give future applicants?
Believe that great things are possible no matter what the odds are. Nor the barriers faced. Persevere and never give up on a goal that is personally meaningful. Learn from your mistakes, never internalize rejection or failure, and when you experience success be encouraging to others. Most importantly WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.

Excerpt from the essay, Fighting Empathy
I considered intervening on the new guy’s behalf the way Top-Rock had for me. But I had vowed years ago to live my life in amends and avoid causing any further harm. Two days passed without incident, the lock down ended, and things returned to the routine absurdness considered “normal.” But I didn’t go back to normal. Questions regarding my sanity plagued me. Anxiety was starting to swell as I kept finding myself emotionally rocked by things I would normally ignore, like people ridiculing handicaps, or the crying departures of kids leaving the visiting room. But the day I got choked up over a Canadian goose entangled in the razor wire I knew I needed help.
While the prison itself is inherently unsafe, there are spaces offering support through various programs, services, and activities. There are writers groups, twelve step programs, support circles, group therapies, classes and religious events. These spaces provide fellowship and support from peers also seeking personal growth and a sense of community. I joined a trauma transformation group that explored the dynamics of trauma while celebrating human resilience and intrinsic health. For eighteen months, we, six men, created a space that disrupted the prison’s habitual numbness and routine. And I discovered that the heightened sensitivity I was experiencing was actually a sign of recovery, a re-sensitization that indicated I had healed enough from previous traumas that I no longer disconnected from my feelings. My earliest responses to trauma had been to walling off my feelings. But I had spent the last decade repairing and establishing close relationships in my personal life that restored my emotional health and sense of connection.
Coming to realize that feelings are what make me human, I began celebrating those emotions. I began writing poetry, essays, and plays. I volunteered to help sick prisoners and tutor students. Understanding I have agency and can use my voice in advocacy, I began speaking non-violence among violent friends, questioning the norms of destruction, asking why prisoners fight over crumbs instead of preparing to benefit our families and communities.
I don’t know what ever became of the men who were fighting, but I now know it’s possible for events that initially seem overwhelming to become the catalyst for personal growth, recovery and evolution. I now mourn every cell fight—grateful I’m not too numb to feel sorrow, to cry.

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