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Last modified: Monday, March 12, 2012

IU Wells Graduate Fellowship recipient pursues activism through creative writing

March 12, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- She edited publications for a sustainable forestry foundation near Siberia. She translated the writings of one of the only female poets in the Bolivian literary circle, and she served as the Mongolian Writers Union's first-ever international relations advisor during her year as a Henry Luce Scholar. Most recently, she founded the Survival Girls, a theater collective of Congolese refugees in a Nairobi slum.

Ming Holden

Lauren "Ming" Holden

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Those are just a few of the ways Indiana University Master of Fine Arts creative writing student Lauren "Ming" Holden -- the recipient of the 2012-13 Wells Graduate Fellowship, the most prestigious award granted annually by the IU Graduate School -- has used her skills to expose and address social justice issues.

Provided for by the estate of longtime IU president and University Chancellor Herman B Wells, the $34,650 fellowship goes to a doctoral or MFA student who demonstrates the qualities of Chancellor Wells: leadership abilities, academic excellence, character, social consciousness and generosity of spirit.

"It's a humbling and amazing thing to be recognized by the university," Holden said. "The Wells Fellowship, by its very nature, supports the idea that the important question isn't 'What are you going to do?' but 'Who are you? What are your values? How can you contribute?' They're saying, 'We have confidence in your ability and character. Here you go.' It couldn't be a bigger gift, and I'm so grateful."

Holden believes the key to intercultural understanding is language, which, she wrote, "can serve as a bridge between disenfranchised populations and the policy-makers whose decisions can change the lives of those people by granting them a voice."

"Ming is a first-rate writer with superb academic credentials," said Catherine Bowman, IU English professor and creative writing MFA program director. "And if that wasn't enough, she is also a deeply committed community organizer and activist who believes that creative writing can be a community intervention that can empower, heal and transform.

"Ming is committed to a poetics of witness, testimony and community engagement. She wants to help people. And her desire to help is unswerving and deep, never just a surface act."

Holden began her work with the Survival Girls after receiving an International Enhancement Grant from IU. Her essay about the group was one of five selected in a worldwide competition to appear in a collection published by the U.S. Agency for International Development, alongside writings by Microsoft magnate Bill Gates, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis.

Holden was the youngest participant at the Writers and Literary Translators International Congress in Turkey in 2010, where she was invited to present on her work assisting exiled Chinese writers. She has blogged for The Huffington Post since 2009, and while an undergraduate at Brown University, she received nine grants and awards, including a Michael Harper Poetry Service Assistantship that enabled her to record Native American legends based on interviews with a Chumash tribal elder.

Along with her studies, Holden continues to work with the Survival Girls, who are orphans and survivors of severe gender-based violence.

"That the Survival Girls continued to meet in Nairobi after my departure makes a strong case for 'safe space' as an essential component of the sustainability inherent to successful development efforts in post-conflict zones," she wrote. "The creative artist might now access places to do her work in new territories -- a place out in the field with people in need, and a place at the table with those key players whose decisions either silence or empower them."