A destructive typhoon. His mother’s delicious breakfast. Spanish, Japanese and American settlers. The second coming. Disney movies.
Hannah Agustin reflects on all of these topics and more in her essay, “Thirteen Ways to Look at the Abduction,” which is now a nationally award-winning work of nonfiction.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student is the winner of the Norton Writer’s Prize, an outstanding college student writing contest that comes with a $1,000 cash prize.
In her essay, Hannah – who grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States in 2019 – writes vivid descriptions of her homes in both countries and her family, while discussing faith, the realities of life in places 8,000 miles apart and the oppressive colonial history of his homeland.
As the competition judges described it: “This essay shows the writer’s indomitable spirit as she navigates the loss of her family, her country and her possessions, concluding at one point, in a very moving sentence: “My house is built on things left behind”, a kind of metaphor for the feeling of dispossession she felt throughout her life.
Hannah, who now lives in Whitewater, started writing as a child to feel less alone.
“It was difficult to come to the United States without knowing anyone other than my immediate family. Although I grew up learning English, it was formal – not conversational – English, so it was difficult to socialize and bond at first,” she said. “Every time I write, I can make sense of the loneliness I feel; not in a way that makes it romantic, but in a way that grounds me in my world and my society.
Her innate talent blossomed when she enrolled at UW-Whitewater as a double major in English and Film Studies, where she encountered a supportive network of professors and classmates.
Barrett Swanson, assistant professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures, says Hannah is part of a particularly exceptional group of students and that he feels lucky as a professor to be able to teach them.
“Since arriving here in 2017, I have been amazed and amazed by the talent of our students,” said Swanson, who teaches both fiction and nonfiction writing. “Hannah’s accolade means her essay is one of the best in the country and she is one of the strongest writers we have ever had at UW-Whitewater.”
An accomplished writer himself, Swanson is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian and other prestigious publications.
“I learned so much from Barrett Swanson,” Hannah said. “He sees the full potential of what his students can do. Much of what I write is very personal essays and poetry – I write a lot about my life. My professors at UW-Whitewater care about me not just as a writer, but as a person. They are reactive. They listen to me when I communicate things and help me overcome difficulties.
Hannah has taken advantage of everything a college experience has to offer. She is the non-fiction editor of The Muse, the student-produced literary magazine.
Supported by UW-Whitewater’s strong undergraduate research program, Hannah traveled to South Florida for the Key West Literary Seminar, where she met acclaimed author Judy Blume and visited the home of the late writer and artist Shel Silverstein.
When she’s not writing, Hannah pursues her love of singing as a music minor and her faith as the leader of the college chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. She is a member of the Southeast Asian Student Organization and works on the University Center’s Roberta’s Art Gallery campus.
“Being a Warhawk means being part of a community that fully supports you, and I’ve seen it not only in the classrooms, but also in the friends I’ve made and the organizations I’m part of. It’s knowing you’re supported wherever you go on campus.
“My plan after graduation in May is to pursue a master’s degree,” she said. “Ultimately, I want to publish an essay book and teach creative writing at the college level.”
Written by Jeff Angileri | Photos by Craig Schreiner
Original story with more photos: www.uww.edu/news/archive/2022-02-writing-honor