Writers with ties to Kansas are well-represented in this year’s list of Pulitzer winners and finalists. Continuing in the tradition of William Allen White, these writers promote Kansas as fertile ground for writing and the creative arts.
Kansan Anne Boyer won the 2020 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction for her 2019 memoir “The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care.” Boyer was born and raised in Kansas and a product of Kansas public schools. She earned a bachelor's degree from Kansas State University and a master of fine arts from Wichita State University. Since 2007, Boyer has taught writing at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Boyer already was an acclaimed poet and essayist in 2014 when, at the age of 41, she was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple negative breast cancer. She wrote a series of essays and blogs about her life during and after treatment, but her memoir further explores her personal experiences with cancer alongside a wider look at American culture, our health care approach and our economic system.
Boyer’s memoir is written in flowing prose dotted with poetry, history, dark humor and science. Hers is a personal story placed firmly into a wider narrative about how we view breast cancer. She is unflinchingly aware of her book’s place in a culture awash with inspirational stories in which cancer survival is presented as personal triumph. Her rejection of this narrative challenges us to think more broadly and critically about the experiences of people living with cancer and how they are presented.
“Only one class of people who have had breast cancer are regularly admitted to the pinkwashed landscape of awareness: those who have survived it,” Boyer writes. “To tell the story of one’s own breast cancer is supposed to be a story of ‘surviving’ via neoliberal self-management — the narrative is of the atomized individual done right, self-examined and mammogrammed, of disease cured with compliance, 5K runs, organic green smoothies, and positive thought.”
Health care professionals currently are struggling to convince the American public of the need to prevent further COVID-19 spread. Boyer’s memoir exploring how stories of illness and treatment are told in America is a timely reading choice.
Two additional Kansas-connected authors were named as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Lerner was a finalist in fiction for his novel “The Topeka School,” inspired by Lerner’s experiences as a student at Topeka High School in the 1990s. Kansas City Star columnist and editorial writer Melinda Henneberger was named as a finalist for editorial writing.